Donkeys that used to pull ploughs or carts are often abandoned by their owners in favour of motorised vehicles and left to fend for themselves, forming free-roaming herds that can come into conflict with humans.
Some are semi-feral, released when work isn’t available - during the rainy season in Asia’s brick kilns, for example. Others are displaced during times of conflict. No longer valued as an asset to people’s livelihoods, these donkeys can be considered a danger or a nuisance. At The Donkey Sanctuary, we are working to change that.
Feral donkeys can be unpopular for a variety of reasons. They wander onto the road at night and cause traffic accidents, compete with livestock for food sources or eat crops.
Different communities react in different ways. In Australia, authorities cull feral herds to keep numbers down, shooting the animals from helicopters or on the ground. Others use breeding control methods, like castration or removal of the stallion, which can change the behaviour of herds. The Bureau of Land Management in the United States uses a fertility control vaccine for mares. There are also, of course, options of sanctuary and rehabilitation.
Despite the attention of welfare organisations and conservationists, there is a lack of reliable data on the numbers and environmental impact of feral donkeys. This is partly due to the difficulty in accessing the remote areas feral donkeys tend to thrive.
They lack visibility in other ways, too: when they are not a production animal, donkeys are often considered more lowly than animals such as cows and sheep.
Our approach is to offer practical help to mitigate this conflict and raise awareness of the value of donkeys across the world.
Mannar, Sri Lanka
Formerly feral donkeys are helping heal the wounds of war through a donkey-assisted therapy project supported by The Donkey Sanctuary. In the past donkeys were used by the Dhobi people to carry loads. During the long civil war many donkeys were abandoned and became a “pest”, roaming the streets and eating people’s crops. Restoring people’s respect for donkeys is critical to the success of the project.
Donkeys have lived on many of the islands for generations, brought there to work alongside human slaves in sugar plantations and salt pans. We work with several island communities to improve their relationship with feral donkeys, which can cause traffic accidents but are also appreciated by tourists. Through our friends at Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire, we have funded donkey crossing signs warning motorists of feral donkeys and are currently helping the founders of the sanctuary find a replacement when they retire.
Often by engaging with the community, the idea that there is a feral donkey “problem” can be challenged. Before we went to one island, we were told there were a 1,000 donkeys there, but we counted just 125.
It was a similar story on the islands of Turks and Caicos. When residents realised there were so few donkeys, this challenged the idea that the population was out of control and instead raised their profile as cultural heritage that should be preserved. On Turks and Caicos, we set up a Donkey Committee and funded the position of a donkey officer to collection information about the donkeys and work with stakeholders and schools to raise the status of the donkey. In Grand Turk we’ve funded the refurbishment of two wells, which have drawn the donkeys away from the town.
Estimates put the number of feral donkeys at around one million. For the last 25 years it has been illegal in Brazil for animals to wander onto federal roads and feral animals are picked up and taken to government farms. With lack of staff and facilities, the conditions on these farms are horrific. We now work closely with the National Donkey Task Force, which is made up of key stakeholders and five local universities to improve the infrastructure of the farms, improve care, provide shade, veterinary equipment and euthanasia protocols.
A global issue
From Ireland to Australia, feral donkeys are an emerging issue, but wherever you go, the principles of the 'problem' remain the same.
Kevin Brown, assistant director of programmes at The Donkey Sanctuary says: “The overriding issue is the perception that feral donkeys are out of control as a result of large numbers creating a nuisance and potential damage to the environment.
“But with careful research, not only on the environment but on culture and history, the value of these animals can be appreciated, and a better relationship forged between human and donkey.”