Society & Culture
The Defence of Donkeys in Rural Andalusia
By Richard Robinson
Oct 18, 2004, 03:05

"Sancho ran immediately to his ass, and embraced him: 'How hast thou done?' cried he, 'since I saw thee, my darling and treasure, my dear Dapple, the delight of my eyes, and my dearest companion!' And then he stroked and slabbered him with kisses. The ass, for his part was as silent as could be." Cervantes: Don Quixote, 1605.

The Sierra near Rute, Andalusia
Rute lies in the very heart of Andalucía, a small and pleasant town of no apparent distinction. There is the predictable olive oil cooperative, whose silos and conveyors, white-walled buildings and all-pervading aroma dominate the outskirts. There is a big central square shaded by towering palms and blossoming almond. Rute's undulating main street closes down, like every other, for three hours in the middle of the afternoon but remains festooned with Christmas lights that have either been put up inordinately early or have been left in place until the next time around, or perhaps to enliven some forthcoming fiesta.

Its monuments are few and its history unexceptional. Its greatest asset is perhaps its dramatic location at the foot of the Sierra Subbetica range. Within the parochial confines of its district, Rute is famous for its anis liquor (for which there is a museum and a factory) and to a lesser extent for its museum of Andalucían jamón. But Rute has a particular claim to fame, one that has spread beyond frontiers and can justly be described as international. Rute is the headquarters of ADEBO, a unique and very personal initiative for the protection of Spanish donkeys. Its three spectacular sanctuary sites to the east and northeast of the town are havens for abandoned and mal-treated donkeys and a final refuge for the Córdoban (or Andalucían) variety - a species that is close to extinction.

Pascual Rovira García (and donkey)
Pascual Rovira Garcia has an affinity with donkeys - a passion that began forty years before when, as a small boy, his parents gave him a foal that he reared from the bottle. He founded ADEBO (Associación para la Defensa del Borrico) to help address the plight of donkeys in Spain, and to preserve the rare pure-bred varieties. In the last half of the 20th century, the donkey population in Spain collapsed by more than a million, to the estimated 73,000 that exists today. Most of the remaining donkeys labour alone, scattered through the remoter parts of rural Spain with little chance of reproducing at a sustainable level. To make matters worse, some 75% of the female population is reckoned to be old or sterile.

Donkeys originated in North Africa and these days most of them are crosses, derived from two or more of the 16 distinct species. "There are six species that are native to Spain", Pascual explained, "and all of them are in danger of extinction". The Córdoban is the largest and there are less than 100 pure bred ones remaining, most of them enjoying life in Pascual's sanctuaries. An energetic man of compact build and rapid, off-pitch speech, Pascual is a Spanish dead-ringer for the American actor Joe Pesci. His character, though, is the reverse of the dangerous whacko that Pesci famously portrays. Pascual entered the family lingerie business where he developed an expertise to the point where "he could size-up a woman at a glance", as his friend, Juan-Carlos joked. But selling brassieres and knickers took second place to a growing commitment to his donkeys, whose numbers were steadily increasing with rescued animals arriving from around the region, and from as far as the north of Spain, nearly a thousand miles distant.

His work goes unrewarded in money terms, and all costs are met from his own pocket, with some support from outside donors. "Here in Spain there is no money for animals", he sighs. "There is plenty of money for everything else - for the church, for fiestas, but nothing for animals". A compassionate man, Pascual is nothing like our stereotypical view of the Spaniard who is indifferent to the suffering of animals. This might appear to set him at odds with the locals, but no. "At first there were some
problems, but now the local people are fine", he tells me. The obvious regard in which he is held may be attributable, in part, to the prestigious international attention he has brought to Rute. In a clever strategy to gain support and publicity, Pascual offers donkeys as gifts to world leaders. Bill Clinton declined his, but Fidel Castro accepted most graciously. Queen Sofia is a friend and supporter of the refuge and was delighted to accept Pascual's donkeys to celebrate the marriage of each of her daughters. "Once", Pascual told me mischievously, "some of the donkeys escaped and I could not find them by myself. I called the Guardia Civil and told them that the Queen's donkeys were running loose. They turned out the entire barracks to round them up!"

The near disappearance of a creature that is still emblematic of Spain has been caused mainly by the mechanisation of agriculture and the abandonment of rural areas. The decline is all the more dramatic when measured against the large numbers of donkeys that once existed here. From the departure of the Romans to the arrival of the modern age, few roads were built in Spain, and even the main arteries were in bad condition, as a Nineteenth-century foreign traveller recorded: ".the communication between Madrid and Toledo has remained a mere track, ankle-deep in mud during the winter and dust-clouded during summer." So donkey and mule pack trains were for a long time the principle means of transportation. The same traveller observed: "Wherever two or three Spaniards are collected together in the market there is quite sure to be an ass among them." Spanish man, he observed, considered it beneath his dignity to be seen pushing a barrow or handcart. ".the substitute, an ass, is in constant employ; sometimes it is laden with sacks of corn, with wine skins, with water jars, with dung, or with dead robbers, slung like sacks over the back, their arms and legs tied under the animal's belly."

The domestic ass, eqquus asinus, commonly known as donkey, was the mainstay of transportation, aided by mules, the offspring of donkey and mare. Donkeys toiled in the fields, hauled the produce, took their masters to market and home again. Entire populations fled from invaders on the backs of donkeys, and new lands were settled with the help of these same reliable servants. Donkeys transported baggage and field guns for the army, turned the irrigation wheels, laboured on building sites and carried all the gold of the Indies on their backs to the Royal court in Madrid. For all this, the donkey has received little thanks, and has to rely on a few dedicated individuals like Pascual to see out their days in comfort. We climbed into his pickup and drove out of town to his first sanctuary of Los Pinos, on the fringe of the pinewoods. Here, a herd of thirty or more were enjoying the sunshine in a big, straw-bedded corral. Many came up to us, curious and affectionate, and Pascual ("I am their friend, not their boss!") demonstrated how they like to have their ears scratched. There were several foals and the entire gathering was a picture of domestic contentment. Most of these had been with Pascual for a while, and were in good condition. Some would be found good homes and would leave, "But they only go to owners in whom I have confidence", he explained. "Last year we found good homes for six".

We continued to the open reserve of Calvillo, a wild tract of country bordering a deep gorge, and Pascual told me how his work attracts many eccentrics. "A 70-year-old Swiss walked here from Geneva with a little caravan drawn by two donkeys. It took him 16 months. Quite a few people walk to Rute with a donkey. It's a highly romantic idea of travel". I learned a few more interesting facts besides - that donkeys are more intelligent than horses, and that their hearing is some 50 times more efficient than that of humans.

Our final journey led us along the contour of the great limestone sierra rising to our right. After a few miles we pulled off the country lane and rose upwards along a rough track, past a beautiful whitewashed cortijo (farmhouse), its portals marked by a pair of venerable palm trees. We continued upwards past a mountain spring with a burbling spout and a still, reflective pond. We had reached a vast hollow of a pasture, where the massif rose behind to create a magnificent natural amphitheatre. Called Jardin del Moro, this was the place where rescued donkeys could at last roam free. It was stunning landscape where only birdsong and the bleat of goats could be heard. Down at the cortijo there were a couple of donkeys still recovering from trauma, convalescing between a flower-filled meadow and a straw-filled barn. One of them, with a shaggy off-white coat had been confined by his pervious owner in a tiny brick cell for five years with barely room to move. His coat had been mangy, his skin infected by sores and his hooves had grown inwards during his five years of incarceration. I asked what name he had been given. "Mandela", Pascual replied. Looking contented and munching on sweet fodder in a sunny meadow, Mandela was well on the way to recovery.

ADEBO (Associación para la Defensa del Borrico): Sr. Pascual Rovira Garcia, Calle Fresno 9, 14960 Rute, Córdoba, Spain. Tel +957 532032. Enquiries and donations welcome.

Richard Robinson is a UK-based travel writer specialising in Spain. Visit his favourite corner of Andalucía on

© Copyright 2004 by & Richard Robinson