A group of eight donkeys found living in appalling conditions at a Surrey farm are now in our care following one of the UK's most extensive animal rescue operations.

The donkeys lived alongside around 50 horses and ponies, all crammed in small and dirty pens inside a barn.

Waste and faeces, which had gathered over many months, covered the ground beneath the donkeys' feet.

Surrey Police executed a warrant at the farm in Surrey on 9 January 2019 as part of an investigation led by the RSPCA's Special Operations Unit into concerns for the welfare of animals at the location. 

The Donkey Sanctuary, Guildford Borough Council, Bucks and Surrey Trading Standards, Bransby Horses, Redwings, The Horse Trust, World Horse Welfare, Dogs Trust and several vets assisted on the day. 

Georgia McCormick, our Senior Donkey Welfare Adviser, says: "I was aware of the nature of the job, as I had been briefed before entering the site. However, I could never prepare myself fully for what I felt when setting foot into the barn.

"The sight of these poor animals cramped into tiny, dirty areas and with no obvious signs of any love and attention will stay with me for a very long time. 

"Upon entering one of the barns, I was immediately overwhelmed with the number of horses contained in cramped pens. 

"At the front of the barn, I discovered two donkeys standing in a dirty, dark metal pen, with six more donkeys crammed into a pen further back. 

"The bedding was sodden and filthy and clearly had not been cleaned out for some time, there was nowhere dry for them to lie down, and there was not enough space per animal for them all to rest comfortably at once. 

"They all appeared nervous when we entered the pen to approach them. They did not come forward to interact with us, but after giving them some fuss and treats, we could put head collars on them and hold them while they were each examined by a vet. 

"I noticed that some of the donkeys appeared underweight, and some had been rubbing their coats and had hair loss."

After veterinary examination, the two donkeys from the same pen were loaded onto a transporter and taken to Liphook Equine Hospital. They received further veterinary checks, had their hooves trimmed and underwent x-rays.

One of the Surrey rescue donkey's overgrown hooves
One of the Surrey rescue donkeys having a foot x-ray
X-ray reveals the extend of the damage to one of the Surrey rescue donkey's hoof
One of the rescued donkeys receiving an x-ray.
Surrey rescue donkeys receiving veterinary care

When vets at the hospital were happy that the donkeys were fit to travel, they were collected and settled into our New Arrivals Unit at our sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. 

The team took the six remaining donkeys to The Horse Trust in Princes Risborough, where their vets routinely monitored the animals' health.

When they were strong enough to move and had been given the all-clear from the vets, we transported them to our Sidmouth site, where they remain today.

Georgia adds: "I am so delighted that these donkeys have been given a fresh start at our sanctuary. 

"The situation they came from is so different from the life they lead now. Although it has taken time for the case to progress through the court process, I am content knowing that the donkeys have been given a safe and warm place to call home, where they can grow in confidence and learn that life has more to offer than a dark and depressing pen. 

"I am so grateful to all the other agencies that assisted with the other animals at the farm to relieve them from their suffering and unacceptable living conditions."

Following the investigation, a man from Surrey was sentenced to 19 weeks in prison and disqualified from keeping all animals for life, having previously pleaded guilty to two offences under the Animal Welfare Act and six offences of failing to dispose of animal by-products. 

PC Hollie Iribar from Surrey Police said: "As a Rural and Wildlife Crime Officer for Surrey Police, I have witnessed some devastating acts of animal cruelty over the years. 

"This was one of the most difficult cases I've seen, and I'm grateful to the RSPCA and our other partner agencies for the hard work put in to bring this case to trial. 

"I'm very glad that this heartbreaking case has seen a resolution in the courts and that the animals involved were rescued and given a second chance at a happy and healthy life."

Sentencing the man, the court recorder said: "They will show you responsibility and care [in prison] many times greater than you showed the animals in your care." 

Two years on from their ordeal, the group of donkeys have settled in well at Slade House Farm in Sidmouth. 

Jaime Down, Farm Supervisor, says: "They are all very friendly, and they are very much a bonded group. Wherever one is, the whole group is! 

"Two particular donkeys in the group were very nervous when they arrived. But by working through a specific shaping plan to improve on their behaviour and grow their confidence, they have come on so well and have really blossomed." 

Once the donkeys arrived at Sidmouth, one of the mares gave birth to a foal. 

Jaime Down with a group of rescued donkeys
Surrey rescue donkeys looking over their fence
Two Surrey rescue donkeys mutual grooming
The donkeys have transformed from nervous, shy donkeys into inquisitive, friendly characters.

Sara Blair-Salter, New Arrivals Manager, says: "We noticed the mare was gaining weight. Despite initially checking the donkey's blood results to see if she was in foal, the results came back negative as a positive result doesn't show initially. 

"We decided to have her checked out by our vet, who confirmed she was in foal. 

"We closely monitored her day and night throughout the next few months, and Dave was born on 27 December 2020. 

"Both mum and foal were amazing. We separated the mare into her own stable in preparation for foaling, so she could still see and touch her friends over the field fence and stable door. 

"Once her foal was old enough, we gradually introduced them back with the other donkeys so they could both play with the others in this herd." 

Jaime adds: "It has been very rewarding working with these donkeys knowing the trauma and daily challenges they faced before coming to The Donkey Sanctuary. 

"They have been transformed from nervous, shy donkeys to inquisitive, friendly characters who are living life to the fullest. 

"Their days are filled with safety and love and they are really enjoying the daily attention they receive from the grooms and meeting adoring members of the public."

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