1980s: Branching out

The 1980s signal a rise in The Donkey Sanctuary's acclaim; the decade starts on a Royal high and ends with a highly publicised rescue case in Spain.

Dr Svendsen with family at New Year's Honours ceremony
Dr Svendsen shows MBE to donkeys
MBE cropped
Dr Svendsen celebrates her MBE with her family and, of course, her donkeys.


Dr Svendsen is named on the New Year's honours list for her services to donkeys and mules. She is awarded her MBE on 21 March 1981.


Dr Svendsen publishes the first of many books to come - 'Down Among the Donkeys' - which is received well by both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother.


A donkey hospital is built at Slade House Farm. We've provided specialist veterinary care for donkeys and mules ever since.

The Donkey Sanctuary holds the first ever Donkey Week for 110 attendees.

First Slade hospital operation on Austin 1983

Austin upon the custom-built operating table in 1983


The first operation at the new hospital is performed with success upon a donkey named Austin.

The building that now stands on the site of this hospital is named after the occasion - Austin's Building.


Our work in Mexico begins.

First Irish rescue Islander

Our first Irish rescue case, Islander

Our work in Ireland begins.

In October 1983, The Donkey Sanctuary received a very concerned letter from Ireland. A woman reported a donkey who had been abandoned on a very small island inhabited only by sheep.

We successfully persuaded his owner to hand the donkey over to our care, and the newly-named Islander embarked on the long journey from Ireland to our sanctuary in Sidmouth. Islander was lame and in poor condition, but vets felt strongly that the donkey, with his fighting spirit, deserved the chance to start his life afresh. Sure enough, Islander arrived showing little sign of travel stress, and was thrilled to discover other animals that looked just like him.

Islander paved the way for thousands of Irish donkeys and mules that have been reached by The Donkey Sanctuary - although nowadays, they don't need to cross the sea as they have their own centres in Belfast and Liscarroll. For Islander, though, the journey was worth it. He got to live out the rest of his life free from pain, and surrounded by his friends on the rolling hills of Sidmouth.


Dr Svendsen with Paddy Barrett

Dr Svendsen with Paddy Barrett.

The Donkey Sanctuary Ireland is established.

The Barrett family, who had worked for many years to take donkeys in need into their own sanctuary in Ireland, become an official part of The Donkey Sanctuary family. Paddy Barrett becomes the chief inspector for the Republic of Ireland.

At this time donkeys are often discarded upon completing their work, and no laws exist to protect them. On one occasion a group of 23 abandoned mares, many in foal, are rounded up by the local Gardaí – as those not sold at auction are destined to be shot. The Donkey Sanctuary arranges to take the donkeys on and, in the absence of enough space at the Irish sanctuary, many are brought to the UK.

The Barrett family remained involved in the sanctuary for many years, and much of today’s dedicated staff have been there for over 20 years to take care of the donkeys and guide the more than 50,000 people who visit every year.

“Donkeys are a traditional part of Irish life,” says Breeda Clancy, fundraising manager at The Donkey Sanctuary Ireland. “Many Irish families had a donkey to help with the work around the farmyard, to carry turf from the bog, and milk to the local creameries. It surprises people to discover that donkeys aren’t native to Ireland, and didn’t naturally evolve to thrive on wet green fields.”

First overseas sanctuary is established in Lamu, Kenya.

Following two years of work with improving donkey welfare on the island of Lamu, our first international sanctuary opens its doors there.

Dr Svendsen and June Evers judge the Lamu donkey competition
Lamu sanctuary old photo
Dr Svendsen relaxes with a Lamu donkey
Dr Svendsen and June Evers visited Lamu multiple times, judging the Lamu donkey competition and making a start on our work in Africa that would continue for decades to come.

Dr Svendsen rescues Blackie Star from Peropalo.

A year before Blackie Star's rescue, news had reached Dr Svendsen of a donkey who had fallen and been crushed to death by spectators at the Peropalo fiesta in Spain. The main feature of the annual festival involves a man - usually far too large for the animal - riding a donkey through the over-crowded and over-excited town. The donkey is subjected to beatings, and is dragged by a knotted rope around its neck should it fall behind or drop to the floor.

Dr Svensden herself attended the event in 1987 and was horrified by what she witnessed. Following public outcry, and with the help of The Star newspaper, Blackie Star the suffering donkey was rescued from his torment and was able to come home to The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon.

There he stayed, surrounded by people who loved and cared for him until he passed away in 1993. Blackie Star is buried at the sanctuary among the flowers in the Rose Garden at Sidmouth.


The Donkey Sanctuary's work with children with additional needs becomes an official charity, the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust (EST).