Following the spirit and words of Dr Elisabeth Svendsen and The Donkey Sanctuary UK, the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary of McGregor in South Africa operates so that donkeys come first, second and third. I’ve been lucky enough this week to spend a few days getting to know the Eseltjiesrus team, their important work and how our longstanding collaboration has helped them to make a real difference to the lives of donkeys in and around the southern tip of Africa.
In old Dutch, an ‘esel’ is a donkey and so ‘eseltjies’ (pronounced ‘eselkeys’) is a charming, Afrikaans way of referring to sweet, little donkeys, similar to how ‘dog becomes ‘doggy’ in English. A ‘rus’ is a resting place, so the Afrikaans name is a lovely, positive one with a sense of peacefulness. This is reflected in the setting of the sanctuary, around two hours from Cape Town, South Africa. With a Mediterranean climate and deep, blue skies, this part of the Western Cape is simply stunning and in the hot, early summer months of November and December, the landscape around Eseltjiesrus is a patchwork of dry, golden hillsides peppered with succulents, groves of tall blue eucalyptus, rich green vineyards and towering peaks of the nearby mountains. It is the perfect ‘rus’ for donkeys (and many people!) to spend their golden years.
The 20 donkeys in residence at Eseltjiesrus each have a story to tell. From abandoned cart donkeys to those that were overfed to become lion food, these donkeys have seen neglect and abuse. Today, I met Alphonse, an ex-cart donkey in his thirties. When his teeth and hooves deteriorated, his owners discarded him into the wilderness to replace him with a younger donkey. He was found sheltering under a freeway bridge looking very thin, scared and with bad cart-related wounds. When he came to the sanctuary three years ago, he was very wary of people and needed lots of dental and hoof treatments. If Eseltjiesrus had not been able to take him in, his medical needs meant that he would have been euthanized. Over time, he learnt to trust people and, fascinatingly, it became clear that he had a strong sense for identifying people who needed special attention. Even now, when visitors come to the sanctuary and enter the fields, Alphonse routinely makes a beeline for children and adults who have come from abusive or violent backgrounds, or people who have recently lost a loved animal, friend or family member and chooses to spend his time with them. The Eseltjiesrus team feel that this sanctuary is a place where people also heal and where distress is left behind them.
Annemarie, Johan, Tony and the rest of the team at Eseltjiesrus have each spent time showing me how the resident donkeys are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the important work they do. Since they started in 2007, Eseltjiesrus has been working to improve the lives of donkeys across South Africa and through the wider region by providing advice, direct assistance and education to a wide variety of owners, schools, vets, para-professionals and members of the public. A longstanding collaboration with The Donkey Sanctuary in the UK has meant a sharing of knowledge, training opportunities and support, one output of which has been an impressive educational resource that matches the local primary curriculum. The essence of the educational and outreach work is to build a compassionate appreciation and understanding of donkeys, to value their love, loyalty and contribution to people and to show how people can respond to and return these.
Over the past few days, I’ve had a tear in my eyes several times as I’ve listened to the team describe and show me their work since 2007 and several examples will stay with me. One of the most moving stories was that of a lady who had been in an terrible accident that left her paralysed from the neck down except for some movement in her fingertips. She had sponsored a donkey at Eseltjiesrus called Kitkat and one day, decided to come to visit. At first, the herd of donkeys seemed a little nervous of the wheelchair when she entered their paddock but within a few minutes, one donkey left the herd and walked slowly towards her; it was Kitkat. After studying her for a few minutes, Kitkat seemed to understand and came right up to her, delicately putting his muzzle right into her cupped hands in her lap, allowing her to feel him through her fingertips. Annemarie, the donkey-care manager at Eseltjiesrus told me that it was a really ‘spine-tingling’ moment.
The work of the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary team never stops and through the support they have built up with local businesses and members of the public, they raise money through adoptions, through their onsite shop and café and, rather wonderfully, through a local winery who have made a three special types of Eseltjiesrus wine from local grapes. What better way to toast our hopes, future plans and friendship than with a glass of ‘Donkey Sanctuary’ wine!