The dramatic story of how a pioneering animal lover saved 200 donkeys from imminent death, and in doing so inadvertently launched one of the world’s largest animal welfare charities, has been immortalised as a free audiobook this Christmas.
Down Among the Donkeys charts the life of Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, the founder of The Donkey Sanctuary, and follows the then-fledgling organisation’s progress from a small farm in Sidmouth, Devon, to becoming a multinational organisation working across the world.
The audiobook, read by Cath Bradley, is free to download from iTunes and other podcast providers, as well as here.
» Below: Listen to a clip from the book — “Donkey who likes beer”.
Based on Dr Svendsen’s first autobiography, the audiobook charts this journey complete with revealing anecdotes, such as a donkey with a liking for trips to the pub and how hundreds of volunteers blocked country roads to move a herd of donkeys to the sanctuary’s headquarters in Sidmouth.
The autobiography recalls the transformative moment in 1970 when Dr Svendsen first saw seven terrified, lice-infested donkeys with twisted overgrown hooves, crammed into a pen at an Exeter livestock market and was so horrified that she vowed to dedicate her life to saving donkeys in distress.
Then in 1973, there came a major turning point as Dr Svendsen received a phone call that led her to launch The Donkey Sanctuary.
As Dr Svendsen explains in the book, the call went as follows: “Mrs Svendsen, you’ve been left a legacy,” said the voice at the end of the line. Visions of thousands of pounds floated across my mind – I’d never had a legacy before. “How wonderful, how much?” “It’s 204 donkeys!” said the caller, “… you are to take as many as you can and those you are unable to take will be shot.”
Dr Svendsen already had 38 donkeys in her care and costs were starting to spiral, so another 204 seemed impossible, but she knew she couldn’t leave them to their fate. Dr Svendsen rose to the challenge and made room for the animals, leading her to dedicate the rest of her life to protecting donkeys, and donkey welfare became her full-time passion.
» Below: Listen to a clip from the book — “A legacy of 204 donkeys”.
Born in 1930 in Elland, West Yorkshire, the audiobook reveals how Elisabeth first became enamoured by donkeys as a young girl. On regular trips to visit family, she would insist her father deviated from his normal route and stop at a field containing a pair of donkeys. Here she would run over to stand on the fence rail calling out ‘donkeys!’ and they always ran over to greet her.
Dr Svendsen was a trained teacher and a ‘eureka’ moment gave her the idea of how donkeys and children could be brought together. She understood the benefits that donkeys could bring to children with additional needs and the potential to improve their health and happiness.
Over the years, this has developed into a programme that has helped thousands of adults and children with a wide range of emotional, psychological and cognitive needs, focusing on developing key life skills such as self-esteem, managing emotions and empathy.
The book describes some of her many donkey rescue stories, including that of a pair of animals called Hansel and Gretel. Described by Dr Svendsen as ‘walking skeletons’, the donkeys were covered in filth and lice and unable to stand unaided. Many months of patience and care followed as the creatures were nursed back to health, slowly learning to trust people again.
Down Among the Donkeys also includes some of the lighter moments, such as when Dr Svendsen received a call from a pub landlord who wanted his donkey to be rehomed at the sanctuary.
He insisted that the animal should be given a pint every day, due to it having developed a tremendous liking for beer after wandering into the pub regularly for its usual. The donkey did in fact enjoy a tipple and it took sanctuary staff several months to wean him off the brew.
Dawn Vincent, Dr Svendsen’s granddaughter and volunteer at The Donkey Sanctuary, said: “I have always been in awe of my granny and the way she campaigned for donkeys. I pick up her books regularly and find brilliant stories that bring a huge smile to my face.
“I am delighted that her first autobiography has been turned into an audiobook, so that as many people as possible can hear her words and perhaps be inspired, as I have, to help animals in need. Her impact to improve donkey welfare is known globally, and this book establishes not just what and how she tackled it, but why she was so determined to help the humble donkey.”
Mike Baker, Chief Executive of The Donkey Sanctuary, said: “We are extremely pleased to be launching Dr Svendsen’s autobiography as a free audiobook in our 50th anniversary year.
“2019 has been a very special chapter in the history of The Donkey Sanctuary and we hope the new audiobook will give even more people the chance to hear the amazing story behind this most inspirational woman.”
Since its foundation in 1969, The Donkey Sanctuary has grown from a charity rescuing UK donkeys from neglect and abuse to an international welfare organisation transforming the lives of millions of donkeys and mules and the people who depend on them for a living.
Dr Svendsen died in 2011 aged 81, but her legacy continues through the work of staff and volunteers at what is now the largest equine charity in the world.