Where Have All the Donkeys Gone?
A bride-to-be on the island of Skiathos wanted to ride to the church on a donkey, just like in the Abba-inspired 2008 movie Mamma Mia, but none were available. A Greek mother in rural Trikala wishing to treat her young son to a donkey ride over Easter break couldn’t find one, either.
It seems that an image foreigners associate with Greece - the man (or woman) on a donkey - may soon be confined to nostalgia, or, worse, to the history books.
Once common throughout the country as transport for villagers and to carry supplies, the nearest we may get to one now is the zoo. Mechanisation and roads, plus the social and economic shift from agriculture to tourism, are making this gentle but undervalued creature redundant and scarce.
According to the German-based Save Foundation, an umbrella group to conserve endangered flora and fauna, while the population of donkeys is growing worldwide, Greece’s population plunged 96 percent to 21,000 animals in 2005 (from 508,000 in 1955). In 2007, the official number fell to 15,483 and in 2008 to 14,570. At this rate, there won’t be many left in a few years’ time.
The loss of biodiversity in Greece is real. In the 50 years up to 2002, three local breeds of cattle and five breeds of sheep have become extinct, with many more at risk. “The donkeys are disappearing like other animals, like the (Greek) buffalo and sheep,” says Panayiotis Papapostolou, who keeps donkeys in Karditsa, in central Greece, as a hobby.
Papapostolou, a bus driver, has kept donkeys since he was very young: “I’ve always had two or three donkeys, and little by little I gathered more. I didn’t want to sell them.” He adds: “I’ve been working for 45 years. I’m retiring soon; I want to go to unwind with the donkeys.”
“Developed countries keep donkeys and let them eat the grass to protect the forest from fire,” he notes. “And here in Greece we’re left without donkeys.”
This loss of population is not confined to Greece. “The other day I was at an animal fair in Bulgaria, where donkeys from all over the country were sold, and there were only 15,” adds Papapostolou. “Out of those 15, only one was good and I bought it. The others were old, 30 years old (the average lifespan is around 25 years), and skinny. Bulgaria has no more donkeys.”
In Greece you might still see the odd elderly rider defiantly plodding through the streets of Oia in Santorini; a shepherd, nowadays frequently an from Eastern Europe, treading a centuries-old path; or the unmistakeable sound of a donkey’s bray - thought to be a means of staying in contact with others at a distance.
Lone donkeys are still kept by individuals scattered around the country. “One person - not a farmer - may have one donkey, and this is one of the reasons the population is dropping,” according to Papapostolou. “Those donkeys do not have a male or female to mate with.”
Greece has two breeds: the Arcadian and the common donkey. There is another variety in Cyprus that’s also garnered wide attention, since some descendents of those owned by fleeing Greek Cypriots during the 1974 war now run wild in the north of the island, particularly on the Karpas peninsula.
The Arcadian (or arkadiko) donkey of the Peloponnese is considered the most distinct as a breed. It is around a metre high and weighs 90 to 120 kilos. The common Greek ass or donkey (ellinikon or ellinikos onos) is about the same height and is light-coloured, but its pedigree is less clear.
Papapostolou, who now owns 45 donkeys, recognises two indigenous types - the Arcadian and the Thessalian (or thessaliko). “There are Bulgarian ones, Cypriot ones, some are taller, some are smaller - they all do the same job,” he says, also highlighting an obstacle for conservationists, in distinguishing between the breeds.
Cross-breeding is widespread in the Balkans and in Greece, with imported Albanian and Bulgarian donkeys, but also because in developing countries the animals are still used as cheap beasts of burden rather than pedigreed pets, guard animals, substitute sheepdogs, companions for horses or aides to people with special needs due to their calming effect.
During modern times donkeys were used as pack animals by armies until at least the Second World War World War, one notably employed in the First by a British male nurse in Gallipoli to rescue Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
The animals are associated with Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and having many used to be considered a blessing. Literature bears numerous references to them, with the best-known being AA Milne’s Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh, and the one in the cartoon series Shrek.
Most references to donkeys however are derogatory. Someone stupid is a jack ass (a male donkey; a female is a “jenny” or “jennet”), while one can “work like a donkey”, and people who are rude or ignorant are “asinine”.
It’s all in the milk
Hippocrates prescribed it for many things, from poisoning to liver and gynaecological disorders. Its close approximation to the easily digestible human milk made it a popular substitute for orphans, sick babies and the elderly until the early 20th century, when urbanisation took place at an accelerated rate.
But the milk’s beneficial properties have also been recently rediscovered. Arsenos points out that an Italian study, published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology in 2006, found that children with milk allergies both tolerated and liked donkey’s milk, while a study out of Beijing and cited in Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2009) observed that its consumption reduces the number and size of lung cancer cells.
As for cosmetic benefits, Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, Roman Emperor Nero’s wife and Napoleon’s sister all reportedly bathed in donkey milk, which contains copious amounts of anti-oxidants and vitamins.
But keeping donkeys for milk production is not financially easy, Papapostolou, who has 45, notes: “Greek donkeys are among the best breeds to produce milk ... But they’re hard to find. The state was supposed to give us subsidies because they’re threatened with extinction. I’ve been hearing this for many years, but never got anything ... It costs me 15,000-20,000 euros per year now to keep them.”
He sells milk, but finding it in Greece is generally hard: “Every now and then, one person comes to buy a little milk, but it’s 200 or 300 grams. There’s no (structured) market to sell it,” he says. Donkey milk products are available in health food stores in Athens but are produced in Chile, France, Switzerland, Belgium and Serbia, where a 1,000-euro a kilo cheese, Pule, has recently been in the news.
The milk could be incorporated in locally made products; donkey farms could provide milk-to-order, either direct or via organic shops; they might be included on school field trips; and owners could offer rides (hippotherapy) to special needs and schoolchildren, tourists and holidaymakers.
“Until very recently, donkeys were neglected and were given for free or abandoned by their owners,” says Arsenos. “I support any use that ensures their health and welfare and at the same time minimises the danger of extinction in the long term, considering the declining numbers of their population.”
Tourists could also benefit, he adds, but with certain conditions: “I definitely encourage their use for tourists, as I encourage the use of horses and ponies for riding - provided they’re properly cared for.”
Papapostolou has kept donkeys since he was very young: “I’ve always had two or three donkeys, and little by little I gathered more. I didn’t want to sell them.” He adds, “I’ve been working for 45 years. I’m retiring soon; I want to go to unwind with the donkeys.”
The 120-odd donkeys on Santorini have garnered the most media attention, with newspaper articles in the UK featuring them and easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou promising money and new tack for the beasts that are perceived as being mistreated. Britain’s Donkey Sanctuary charity claims it was instrumental in setting up the cable car to transport people from the port to the cliff-top and thus spare the donkeys from additional gruelling climbs.
Unlike Aegina’s horses, which have a shelter at the port, both Hydra and Santorini donkey owners have apparently ignored repeated calls to ensure better treatment of their charges such as providing water and shelter from the sun. The former would require extra effort to clean up, and the restaurant owners in the vicinity are already unhappy with the smells produced by the animals.
Donkeys are not fussy eaters and need relatively little, but can earn their owners upwards of 60 euros a day as taxis. “A general rule is that a donkey can be maintained - in terms of feed cost - with about 1.50 euros a day,” says Georgios Arsenos, assistant professor at Aristotle University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Thessaloniki, whose team has been studying Greece’s donkeys for a decade.
Known for their docility, donkeys can and do work to exhaustion. They’ve been seen carrying overweight tourists or even loaded with two people, while strap sores and other ailments go ignored as is the idea to remove their wooden saddles.
Shaming the owners, however, has backfired, leaving the animals at continued risk. “The lack of proper education and knowledge of the animal’s needs by donkey owners is the major obstacle to any attempt for change to the ‘traditional’ mentality,” Arsenos commented in the online edition of the Daily Express during the UK tabloid’s campaign to raise awareness in 2007. It seems little has changed since then.
Arsenos has organised a yearly international conference on the island of Hydra on the donkey’s role in the Mediterranean and devised a best-practices charter for their care, obviously hoping the “taxi” owners take notice.