An extraordinary story of rescued donkeys' affinity with suffering humans and, equally magically, how these Andalusian beasts of burden have ignited interest from fire prevention networks around the world.
What happens to unwanted, unloved, broken donkeys when their owners tire of them, or they become too old, too infirm or too pregnant to drag a laden cart up a dusty track? Happily, for the donkeys of the Doñana region of Huelva, in southern Spain, an enterprising association named ‘El Burrito Feliz (‘The Happy Donkey’) has plenty of ideas.
The brainchild of soldier Luis Manuel Bejarano and his teacher partner, Wendy Clements, ‘El Burrito Feliz’ sprung to life more than a decade ago, when aged, worn out and desperately thin donkeys mysteriously started to appear on the finca the couple owned on the outskirts of the beautiful Andalucian city of Seville. Word soon spread that the ‘loco’ Spaniard and his soft-hearted Scottish girlfriend would medically tend, feed and home the donkeys at their own expense – and so, inevitably, the donkeys kept coming.
Realising that these gentle, intelligent, misunderstood beasts of burden still had plenty to offer, the couple created a small charity – ‘El Burrito Feliz Association’ – and began taking their rehabilitated donkeys into schools and old people’s homes, where the difference a visit could make to young and old alike was palpable from the beginning – especially for children with special needs and elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Perhaps because of their own suffering, the gentle donkeys’ affinity with suffering humans, and those who felt ‘different’, was incredible.
These schemes still thrive, but are almost eclipsed by the Association’s unit of ‘Burritos-Bomberos’ – ‘Donkey Firefighters’ – who annually protect the scorching Doñana region’s natural parks from wildfire, sparked by dry, brittle grass and the intense Spanish sun. The threat of fire and widespread destruction to land and wildlife hangs permanently over this arid region, which is the natural habitat of one of the world’s rarest and most secretive animals, the Iberian lynx.
Every day in summer, the 21 donkeys of ‘El Burrito Feliz Association’ chow down hard to combat the threat of fire in an organised and military way by systematically eating all the dry grass that grows between and under trees and bushes in areas of high ecological value – thus preventing the terrible fires that have historically ravaged this environmental paradise.
The success of the project and the publicity it has received in Spain has meant that fire prevention networks around the world – as far afield as Australia – have become interested in the simple but highly-effective system. As a result, this intrepid band of donkeys is beginning to enjoy a degree of fame.
Not one to rest on its laurels, the Association also provides, via its ‘Doctor Burrito’ – ‘Doctor Donkey’ – programme, donkey ‘therapists’, who comfort and bring cheer to health personnel, exhausted by their fight against COVID-19. There is even a ‘Burritos-Limpiacostas’ unit –‘Donkey Coastal Cleaners’ that helps with the collection of plastics and other debris that the sea washes onto the virgin beaches of southern Spain. The Association does not charge for these services, but donations are always welcome.
Founder-member, Wendy Clements, tragically passed away in 2017 at the age of 51. However, Luis Manuel Bejarano, the Association’s President, continues the work in her memory, and fervently hopes that this system of allowing selfless, abandoned donkeys to prove that they can continue to contribute and assist humans – in exchange for food and a little kindness – will become a worldwide phenomenon. And so it should!
Article by Kenny Clements
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