Ever since I was a little girl, I have always held a special place in my heart for donkeys. This summer I visited El Refugio Del Burrito, and, as always, was humbled by the warmth and affection of the donkeys I saw, especially considering the abject suffering they have been through to find a home with the charity. El Refugio Del Burrito, alongside its UK counter-part, The Donkey Sanctuary, works tirelessly to try to end the cruelty inflicted on donkeys across Spain, particularly in traditional festivals and tourist attractions.
Spanish law on animal cruelty
Whilst Spain is a highly decentralised unitary state with a great deal of devolved power, it is its central government that legislates the bulk of laws affecting animals, including donkeys. Spain’s current Criminal Code, Article 337, which covers all animals except wild ones, and therefore covering donkeys, imposes a penalty of just 3-12 months for causing death or physical injury to an animal. Further Law 32/2007 was enacted to comply with EU Regulations. Its mandate is that government will take measures to ensure farm animals are not caused unnecessary suffering, yet devolved communities do not actively extend their own legislation beyond this baseline, which is poorly enforced and often found to be non compliant with EU standards, according to the European Commission. World Animal Protection notes that the enforcement of laws relating to animals are weak and that there is no conclusive evidence of legal consequences deriving from inaction.
El Refugio Del Burrito has noted that often, the only way to protect donkeys from suffering is via Real Decreto 804/2011 which applies directly to equine health and welfare, yet still fails to protect all donkeys adequately.
“Cruelty is not Culture”
Whilst of course traditions and tourist attractions are important, it should be stated that traditions and tourism should not be cruel, nor should they be facilitated and enabled by outdated and weak legislation. Whilst visiting El Refugio Del Burrito, I met Cleo, a 28-year-old mule rescued this year by the charity after being forced to pull a heavy cart 80km to the pilgrimage at El Rocío, Andalusia. Cleo evidently had wounds on her nose that were healing physically, but she will carry the mental scars for the rest of her life from this ordeal. In 2018, El Refugio Del Burrito found that El Rocío ended with nine equine deaths, 48 animal welfare interventions and the rescue of three mules, including Cleo and Violeta, who had a 10cm gash from carrying someone far too heavy for her small, geriatric frame.
The festival of Peropalo in Villaneuva de la Vera sees a drunk man ride on a donkey through the streets, whilst gunshots are fired and drums are banged around the donkey. It was reported that this year, El Refugio Del Burrito took tests on Bernebé, the donkey used in the festival, and found that his Cortisol levels had dramatically increased, providing scientific proof that he had suffered severe stress from the ordeal. Despite this, the festival is likely to go ahead next year unless the local Town Hall changes the law to prevent a donkey being used.
Mijas, Andalusia, is also famed for its donkey taxi rides. PAMCA political group reported that donkeys were tied with ropes no longer than 20cm which inhibited their freedom of movement. El Refugio Del Burrito reported one donkey taxi owner dragging and pulling his collapsed donkey along the road before kicking it in the face in front of tourists. Although in 2014 El Refugio Del Burrito was able to establish a new Code of Welfare Conditions, an extension of 2011 bylaws on the issue, the charity simply does not have the power to end donkey taxi rides in the area, or to police every case of suffering. Consequently, many donkeys still suffer under the literal and metaphorical weight caused by this popular tourist attraction.
What needs to be done to help donkeys?
Public support against cruelty to donkeys is what is so desperately needed. An e-petition to end the use of live donkeys at the Peropalo festival gained 24,229 signatures and the hope is that public opinion and desire will be the catalyst for change. It is clear that public perception is creating a positive ripple at the El Rocío festival, as animal welfare cases have recently been at their lowest for 5 years. However, without public support and greater understanding of the suffering donkeys are subject to due to these traditions and tourist attractions, there will never be enough pressure to encourage legislative change.
*With thanks to Veronica Sanchez, Director of El Refugio Del Burrito for assistance with legislative provisions protecting donkeys and equine species. Photo courtesy of Riley Forson.