The Donkey Sanctuary was founded by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, and her legacy is the international animal welfare charity of today. From 204 donkeys to a global charity, find out how Dr Svendsen built a lasting legacy of donkey welfare.

How it all began

Born in Yorkshire in 1930, Elisabeth fell in love with donkeys as a girl. 

In 1969, Dr Svendsen decided to keep donkeys when she and her husband opened the Salston Hotel in an old house set in eight acres in Devon. Naughty Face was the first to arrive.

At Exeter Market, Dr Svendsen discovered abused and neglected donkeys. It was then that she decided to dedicate her life to saving donkeys in distress.

The early years

In 1974, Dr Svendsen received a life-changing legacy: 204 donkeys. It seemed an impossible challenge, but it was a case of either taking them in or allowing them to be shot. Since then, The Donkey Sanctuary has given lifelong care to tens of thousands of donkeys and mules in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe.

Dr Svendsen’s passionate leadership has also led to the development of the charity’s work around the world – helping donkeys working in desperate conditions, and the communities who depend on them.

In addition to this global outreach, Dr Svendsen pioneered donkey-assisted therapy for children with additional needs. They benefit from hands-on interactions with donkeys at six centres throughout the UK and Ireland.

Achievements recognised

In 1980, Dr Svendsen was awarded the MBE, and in 1992 she received an Honorary Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow.

She retired in 2007 but remained involved in the work of the charity until her death, aged 81, in 2011. 

The Redwings Horse Sanctuary was among the many organisations that paid tribute: ‘She was a shining light in the world of equine welfare. Her incredible passion for donkeys and her deep sense of respect and love for these wonderful animals was an example for us all.’

Dr Elisabeth Svendsen Award

We now have the Dr Elisabeth Svendsen Award for Lifetime Contribution to Donkey Welfare to recognise individuals for their outstanding contribution to donkey welfare. The first two awards were presented in 2013 to Dr Aline Schunemann de Aluja and Professor Feseha Gebreab.

Books, films and more


Dr Svendsen was a creative and talented writer and wrote more than forty books (many of which are still available to buy through our online gift shop).

Engaging children’s stories:

  • The Story of Eeyore
  • Bandy and Peanuts save Little Owl

Three autobiographical volumes:

  • Down Among the Donkeys (1981)
  • For the Love of Donkeys (1993)
  • A Donkey Doctor’s Diary (2003)

James Herriot, a veterinary surgeon and writer of famous books such as All Creatures Great and Small reviewed her first autobiography and said: 'I found this book constantly and deeply touching. It moved me that one of the humblest and gentlest of animals should inspire such devotion’.

The Complete Book of the Donkey (2009) was based on Dr Svendsen’s years of experience, covering all aspects of donkey care and management.

D is for Donkey (2011) was written to introduce readers to an A to Z of donkey facts and stories. It was a book that she never saw published.

Dr Svendsen also compiled four editions of The Professional Handbook of the Donkey, with the most recent published in 2008 as the definitive text for veterinary surgeons and others with a serious interest in donkey medicine and surgery.

Film clips

Our DVD, The Donkey Sanctuary 40 Years On... provides a wonderful insight into the work of The Donkey Sanctuary. It is presented and narrated by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, including a four-minute introduction that leaves very few dry eyes in the house. The DVD is available to buy through our online gift shop.