The Donkey Sanctuary

Anyone traveling in South West England who loves animals shouldn’t miss a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. As the name suggests, it is a haven for donkeys. This unique project was started exactly 50 years ago by a courageous woman named Dr. Elizabeth Svendsen launched.

I first became acquainted with the Donkey Sanctuary in 1990 on a long tour of England with friends. I was enthusiastic about this place, where small and large donkeys with a wide variety of stories are lovingly and professionally cared for back to health and are allowed to romp across the extensive meadows with their donkey friends for the rest of their lives. Whenever I was in the area, it was definitely a visit and I could see how the sanctuary developed into an increasingly beautiful donkey paradise. The loving care and generosity of the founder can be felt in every detail. Visitors have free entry and free parking, can spend the whole day there and, as far as is responsible, come into close contact with the animals. If you are tired from hiking the spacious grounds, you can relax in the café with “scones and cream tea” or other delicacies.

It is very worthwhile to take a closer look at the significance and special nature of this enormous life’s work. So I’ve put together some information for you.

Why donkey?

© The Donkey Sanctuary

While for some people “donkey” is more of a swear word and attributes such as “stupid” and “stubborn” are attributed to the animal, these are characterful, often very clever creatures that still do hard and very hard work in many countries today have to. Their tolerance and ability to suffer is amazing, which is why an incredible amount is expected of them, even though they are often indispensable for their owners, especially in developing countries. They are beaten, abused, neglected, abandoned, malnourished, not dewormed, their hooves left untrimmed, and so on. In many cases, the owners don’t even know how to properly handle them.

Donkeys are mostly used as pack and draft animals. In this country they are used, for example, as riding animals for children, as beach attractions or as side animals for horse paddocks. Sadly, they also have to serve as meat and leather suppliers.

dr Svendsen describes many of the situations that donkeys can get into in her numerous books and tells touching and shocking, endearing and also funny stories about her donkeys. We read about how clever they can be, for example, in the tales of animals that open (even complicated) locks, of those that tease their own kind, or the little guy who dragged all his bedding from the stable into the yard to find it to lie in the sun!

dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE and her life’s work

The uniqueness and scale of the work that Dr. Elizabeth Svendsen fills me with admiration.

She was born in England in 1930 and passed away in 2011. Even as a child, she felt a special attraction to donkeys, as she explains in her book “‘D’ is for DONKEY”. She first did teacher training, during which she developed a special interest in working with disabled children. However, when the irreplaceable secretary in her father’s company died, she was persuaded to take on the job. So her career took a completely different turn. Many years later, long after she was married and already had three children, she decided to buy a hotel with a piece of land in Ottery St. Mary together with her husband.

Here she had the chance to express her love for donkeys and after a while, in 1969, the first donkey named Naughty Face grazed in her paddock. Mrs Svendsen soon learned that donkeys need companions, for Naughty Face was so vocal and persistent in expressing her loneliness that there was only one solution. And so a second donkey named Angelina was bought.

The plan was initially to set up a donkey farm. However, when she found out about the sad fate of many donkeys in Great Britain during a visit to the market in Exeter, she stopped the project she had already started. Instead, she began buying up the most troubled donkeys. She started a donation and referral program for her rescued animals. In 1973 the Donkey Sanctuary was recognized as a non-profit association. The stock of donkeys already comprised 38 animals. The following year she was inherited an extraordinary legacy: a lady named Violet Philpin, the founder of an animal charity, had died and left her 204 donkeys. Mrs. Svendsen decided to give up the Salston Hotel and devote all her energies to working for the donkeys. Slade House Farm in Sidmouth, Devon was acquired and became the new headquarters of the Donkey Sanctuary.

The following year, following an idea that woke her up in the middle of the night, she founded the Slade Center on the grounds of the Donkey Sanctuary, a therapy facility for children with disabilities with the aim of empowering children through donkey contact and horseback riding therapy in to support their development. This program became a great success.

But the commitment of this admirable woman did not end here. She set up a veterinary clinic for her animals, established other centers in the UK including Northern Ireland, Spain and Italy, there are affiliate programs in other European countries such as Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, France and Romania. She expanded her work worldwide, visiting developing countries and supporting projects and campaigns to improve the fate of donkeys in these countries. This still includes educational campaigns and lessons for the keepers of the animals. The extent of the commitment is enormous and can only be hinted at here.

She has also found time to write numerous books that are as entertaining as they are informative.

For her work, she was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth and received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

She died in May 2011, shortly after completing her last book, ‘D’ is for DONKEY.

The work of the Donkey Sanctuary

As already mentioned, the work of the Donkey Sanctuary is diverse and very broad. Here is a brief overview:

A home for donkeys

In Great Britain, donkeys are mainly kept as beach donkeys and tourist attractions and as companion animals for paddocks, but are also used for farm work.

When they are no longer needed, they are often neglected, sold, or shot.

The Donkey Sanctuary takes in the animals, nurses them back to health if necessary and offers them a home. Not all centers in the UK are open to the public, eg Derbyshire is not.

In addition to Sidmouth and Derbyshire, there are centers in Birmingham, Manchester, Ivybridge, Belfast and Liscarroll.

In the UK and Europe over 6000 donkeys and mules currently enjoy lifelong care in one of the 10 sanctuaries.

If one becomes aware of abused and neglected donkeys, one can inform the Donkey Sanctuary and rest assured that someone is responsible to take care of it.

donkeys and people

Bringing donkeys and people together not only serves the donkeys, but also the people. And when people learn from and about donkeys, it ultimately serves the donkeys again.

These considerations are an important part of the overall concept and find expression in the programs and projects described below:

riding therapy

The Trust for Children and Donkeys (EST) was formed to help children with disadvantages and disabilities. The range of problems faced by the children participating in the program is wide and includes physical, emotional and intellectual limitations. There are many documented cases in which the children’s coordination, general development, language skills, self-confidence, self-esteem and mobility have improved significantly as a result of riding therapy with the donkeys. The therapy is free for the children and their parents.

“Education and Activities”

The Donkey Sanctuary offers a variety of opportunities to promote donkey knowledge and interaction.

  • School groups can take educational trips to the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. Learning materials can be downloaded free of charge from the Donkey Sanctuary website and used in the classroom.
  • Selected donkeys visit retirement and nursing homes to bring some joy to the residents.
  • During Donkey Week, which takes place regularly, adults come into close contact with the donkeys and learn a lot about them.
  • The Donkey Sanctuary is happy to share the knowledge about donkeys that has been accumulated over 50 years. This benefits both veterinarians and keepers or people who work with donkeys in any way or are interested in them. Training courses are offered and research results are made available. There’s even a diagnostic service overseen by Donkey Sanctuary’s vets and specialists.
  • Events take place regularly, such as candlelight evenings or the annual Memorial Day.

Worldwide commitment

Apart from the frequent abuse of the animals in countries where donkeys are used as indispensable working animals, human ignorance and poor care and health care often contribute to the misery of donkeys.

Whether in India, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Peru or other countries in Asia, Africa and America – the work of the Donkey Sanctuary includes health care for the animals, including deworming and proper nutrition as well as regular trimming of the hooves and adaptation suitable harnesses, as well as the training of the owners, including rules for the non-violent handling of the animals.

Around 1.8 million donkeys are helped in this way in 35 countries, making this project one of the most important of its kind in the world.


It is easy to imagine that looking after the animals, maintaining the facilities, employing the staff and so on consumes staggering amounts of money. But here, too, the wealth of ideas and the great overview of the founder Dr. Svendsen, because the extent of the commitment is matched by a well thought-out financing concept. It’s not that the project didn’t go through tough financial times, but it’s still paying off, mostly through donations and legacies.

Money is also generated through schemes such as the Adoption Scheme, where you can ‘adopt’ a donkey for £3 a month or £36 a year. It is nice that you not only transfer the money, but in return receive pictures and postcards, a certificate, a membership card and information about the selected animal. This creates a commitment and one has the feeling of actually contributing to the success of the project.

There is an online shop and a small pretty gift shop on the premises. The sale in the café also brings in something.

In addition, you can also participate with your own fundraising or get involved in other ways. Information on this and all of the work and history can be found on the Donkey Sanctuary website

The annual report can also be viewed here.


© The Donkey Sanctuary

My previous visits to Sidmouth have been absolute highlights for me. Last time Mowgli was there too. While he barked at the big animals at the fence, confused and patient, they looked down at him.

A special feature is the group of large and rare Poitou donkeys, which look great with their long fur.

Watching and stroking donkeys and mules, studying information boards and information, hanging out in the café, shopping, relaxing in the beautifully landscaped garden, hiking across the vast grounds – you can easily spend the whole day with all of this. If you still haven’t had enough, you can also visit the beach in Sidmouth.

The Donkey Sanctuary Sidmouth can be found here:

Have a look!


Images: All images are provided courtesy of Donkey Sanctuary and are copyrighted.

Information other than personal experience is taken from the Donkey Sanctuary website and the book ‘D’ is for Donkey’ by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE, ISBN 978-1-905693-39-9.

© The Donkey Sanctuary

Leave a Reply