As in many parts of the Caribbean, the small island of Bonaire, part of the Dutch Antilles close to the Venezuelan coast, is struggling with how to manage its donkeys.
As an occasional donor to the Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire (DSB), and keen to learn more about the increasingly common challenge of feral donkeys and their management, The Donkey Sanctuary earlier this month sent two members of its International Department to Bonaire to assess the donkeys there.
There are now approximately 500 donkeys living at DSB and up to 500 still roaming free on the island. Donkeys were thought to have been imported into Bonaire in the 1500s to work in the island’s salt trade, but as technology improved, their use diminished and the donkeys were abandoned and have now become ‘feral’. Feral donkeys enjoy freedom but also have to contend with seasonal scarcities of food and water, and the ever-increasing risk of injury as they stray on to roads, into people’s farms and gardens, into town, and otherwise come into conflict with the interests of people.
As the only donkey welfare organisation on the island, DSB attends all emergencies (there were three in the week our staff were visiting, one involving a stallion left by the road with three legs broken) and cares for the sick, injured and orphaned donkeys. Started 21 years ago by Dutch national Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, and relying almost entirely on income they have fundraised themselves, their team has worked tirelessly over the years to alleviate the suffering of those that fall victim to injury and disease. For the past 15 years, DSB has been involved in an education programme for all school children on the island. Additionally, in recent years DSB had to move premises and rebuild itself as a result of its close proximity to the airport.
The issue of feral donkeys does not centre purely on the welfare of the animals. While some local people enjoy the donkeys and see them as part of their cultural heritage, others complain that they damage property and are a serious road hazard. With around 30,000 goats alongside the donkeys, some also believe that the feral animals on the island are damaging the local environment. As a consequence, two years ago the Bonaire Government proposed to solve the problem through the relocation of donkeys off the island to be used as working animals.
With hundreds of donkeys facing deportation, Marina Melis fought hard (with support from The Donkey Sanctuary) to convince the authorities in Bonaire and the Netherlands that relocating the donkeys off the island was not a simple solution. On top of the stress of transportation, re-domesticating feral donkeys and training them for work is not an easy task. After much discussion, the Government agreed to an alternative plan: a ‘capture and sterilisation’ programme to manage the population and reduce the number of donkeys over time. Captured males would be castrated and released back into the remaining wilder parts of the island; while mares and foals would be brought to the sanctuary to live. While this was a victory for the donkeys, what started as a small sanctuary has recently had to expand to provide safe haven to some 500 donkeys.
The visiting Donkey Sanctuary International Department staff carried out a detailed structured welfare assessment of donkeys currently living at DSB, and of the donkeys living outside. We found the welfare of the donkeys, in the sanctuary and in the wild, is at present generally excellent. Touring the sanctuary during their visit, our staff were very impressed with its achievements. However Marina and her team are aware of the pressures caused by the recent influx of new donkeys. The Government has agreed to help DSB with the extra feed costs for a five-year period, but this is just the start.
Finding a long-term solution for the feral donkeys on Bonaire, and on other islands with similar challenges, is complex and a sanctuary is only one part in a way forward. While on the island, our staff met with local residents, a local vet and representatives of the Bonaire community and Government. The Donkey Sanctuary encourages local solutions based on open consultation. It is hoped that with open discussions and further research, more sustainable options can now be explored to ensure the long-term welfare of Bonaire’s donkeys.