The Donkey Sanctuary was founded as a charity in 1969, by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE. She dedicated her life to champion donkeys, and it is only through her amazing devotion that the Sanctuary grew to the international charity it is today. Sadly Dr Svendsen passed away in 2011 but her memory lives on in our work.
Elisabeth Doreen Knowles was born on 23 January 1930 in Yorkshire. She became enamoured of donkeys when she was eight years old. She wrote:
“One day on the route to St Annes, in my father’s little Hillman, which I remember so well, he deviated from his normal route and we went past a field in the Calder Valley. I saw there two donkeys, which thrilled me, and from that day every single weekend we went to Lancashire my father had to go an extra eight miles so that ‘little Betty’ could see her donkeys.
I would run across the verge and climb up on the post and rail fencing and shout, ‘Donkeys!’. They would always come right across to me. I think it was then that I really fell in love with them. They had such soft, warm muzzles, such beautiful trusting eyes, and they seemed to look at me as if perhaps they knew what was going to happen in the future.”
The Salston Hotel
In the late 60s, having achieved many business accolades with her husband, Dr Svendsen found the Salston Hotel at Ottery St Mary in Devon to turn her attention to. This was an extremely large old country house with eight acres of ground, almost completely run down and seemingly ideal for her purposes – keeping donkeys!
Naughty Face was the first to arrive in 1969, helping Dr Svendsen realise her dream of caring for these beautiful creatures. One of the original stables from the Saltson Hotel is now located at the main Sanctuary in Sidmouth, providing the perfect quarters to a pair or trio of donkeys who enjoy a quiet life. It is aptly named Salston Boxes.
Dr Svendsen founded The Donkey Sanctuary out of her deep love and compassion for abused, neglected and abandoned donkeys everywhere, after finding seven donkeys in a terribly poor state at Exeter market. She wrote: “It was a small pen, into which seven small terrified donkeys were crammed so tightly they could hardly move. Their condition was indescribable, and I was just rooted to the ground in horror.”
She tried to buy the donkey in the worst condition, without success, and from that moment on, decided that she would dedicate her life to saving donkeys in distress.
The legacy of 204 donkeys
In June 1974, Dr Svendsen’s life took another incredible twist. Having come back from an enjoyable celebration late in the evening, her son was waiting up with a very important message for her, insisting that whatever time she got in, she had to ring Barclays Bank as it was very urgent.
“He gave me a Reading telephone number and still in a slightly merry state I wandered down to my little office. I rang the number and a voice answered, ‘Mrs Svendsen, Mrs Elisabeth Doreen Svendsen?’ I sat down, feeling suddenly very sober. ‘Mrs Svendsen, you have been left a legacy.’ Visions of thousands of pounds floated across my mind – I’d never had a legacy before. ‘How wonderful’ I said. ‘How much?’ ‘Mrs Svendsen’ said the voice. ‘It’s two hundred and four donkeys... and you are to take as many as you can and those you’re unable to take are to be shot.’
Two hundred and four donkeys seemed absolutely impossible number but we knew we had to find a way to take them in.”
“To me they are the most beautiful, the most underrated animals in the world – and, as long as they need my help, they shall have it.”
40 years on
Since that day over 40 years ago, through her tireless devotion and endeavour, The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 15,500 donkeys and mules in need lifelong care in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe.
Dr Svendsen’s passionate leadership also led to the development of the charity’s work overseas, helping donkeys working in desperate conditions in some of the most impoverished communities on the planet.
In addition to her donkey welfare work, Dr Svendsen was a passionate advocate for riding therapy for children with additional needs. She established our Donkey Assisted Therapy work (formerly The Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys), giving children with additional needs the opportunity to have contact with and ride donkeys at six purpose-built centres throughout the UK.
Dr Svendsen’s impact on the lives of thousands of children assisted by riding therapy, as well as millions of donkeys and the communities that rely on them for their own survival, cannot be measured.
Dr Svendsen’s passion for donkeys was unprecedented and she worked tirelessly to help them. Over the years, she received much recognition for the work she undertook to help donkeys.
Dr Svendsen was awarded the MBE in 1980 at Buckingham Palace. She wrote about her experience of meeting Her Majesty the Queen: “I do remember the surprised expression she had on her face when she asked ‘and what is your work my dear?’ And I replied ‘Donkeys Your Majesty’. A look of amazement crossed her face and then I explained I also worked with donkeys and handicapped children, at which she smiled and said well done.”
In 1992 she received an Honorary Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow.
In 2001 she was awarded the Lord Erskine Award by the RSPCA, in recognition of her important contribution to the field of animal welfare, particularly in donkey rescue.
In 2009, she was awarded the Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by Edinburgh University in acknowledgment of her pioneering work in the care and welfare of donkeys and also to recognise her founding one of the most successful charities in the world.
A sad loss
Dr Svendsen died peacefully on Wednesday 11th May 2011 after a stroke, with family and her lifelong friend June Evers by her bedside. She was 81 years old.
Despite retiring in 2007, she had remained actively involved in the work of the charity right up until her death. Her loss has been felt deeply by her staff who loved her dearly, as well as Donkey Sanctuary supporters all over the world.
Redwings Horse Sanctuary was among the many animal welfare organisations who got in touch, writing “Dr Svendsen was a huge inspiration to us all and really was a shining light in the world of equine welfare. Her incredible passion for donkeys and her deep sense of respect and love for these wonderful animals was an incredible example for us all.”
A warming amount of press and media coverage followed too, with her life’s achievements highly praised in local newspapers the Sidmouth Herald and Western Morning News, in her home-town including the Yorkshire Evening Post to The Lady Magazine, numerous national newspapers, BBC’s The One Show and even the Washington Post in the United States of America.
Of course we are determined that our Founder’s legacy will live on by continuing her work in her memory, holding fast to her vision of a world in which every donkey and mule receives the care and respect it so desperately needs.
Books, films and more
Dr Svendsen was a creative and talented writing and over the years wrote more than forty books (many of which are still available to buy through our online gift shop) including:
Engaging children’s stories including:
Three autobiographical volumes that are undeniably inspirational:
Down Among the Donkeys (1981)
For the Love of Donkeys (1993)
A Donkey Doctor’s Diary (2003)
James Herriot, a veterinary surgeon and writer of famous books such as All Creatures Great And Small reviewed her first autobiography and said “I found this book constantly and deeply touching. It moved me that one of the humblest and gentlest of animals should inspire such devotion’.
The Complete Book of the Donkey (2009) was based on Dr Svendsen’s years of experience, covering all aspects of donkey care and management.
D is for Donkey (2011) was written to introduce readers to an A to Z of donkey facts and stories. It was a book that she sadly never got to see go to press.
Dr Svendsen also compiled four editions of The Professional Handbook of the Donkey, with the most recent published in 2008 as the definitive text for veterinary surgeons and others with a serious interest in donkey medicine and surgery.
Our DVD, The Donkey Sanctuary 40 Years On... provides a wonderful insight into the work of The Donkey Sanctuary. It is presented and narrated by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, including a four-minute introduction that leaves very few dry eyes in the house. The DVD is available to buy through our online gift shop and we’ve also put together a small selection of film clips, available on the internet that feature our wonderful and much missed Founder:
Dr Elisabeth Svendsen Award
We now have the Dr Elisabeth Svendsen Award for Lifetime Contribution to Donkey Welfare to recognise individuals for their outstanding contribution to donkey welfare. The first two awards were presented in 2013 to Dr Aline Schunemann de Aluja and Professor Feseha Gebreab.