- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

Today is Palm Sunday, one of two days in the year when the humble donkey takes center stage.

One famous beast of burden carried Mary and the unborn Jesus to Bethlehem, and 33 years later, another carried Him into Jerusalem one week before His death.

In Israel and Palestine today, however, this humble creature lives the life of a dog.

Lucy Fensom, an Anglican from the United Kingdom who lives 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, saw the pitiable straits many of the region’s 500,000 donkeys are in. Nine years ago, she established Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, a refuge on four acres. Today, 117 rescued donkeys, which can be seen at www.safehaven4donkeys.org, live there.

“The Palestinians see donkeys as the lowest form of being and vent their anger on them. They are terribly, terribly treated,” she told me. “Two days ago, we were called by an Israeli musician who was in south Tel Aviv — one of the poorer areas — about a poor, young donkey being abused by teenage boys. He had no food or water as he was tied with a rope to a tree. The man negotiated a small sum with the ringleader of the boys for the donkey. He’s called Toffee and he’s now here, but he’s so withdrawn because he’s been hurt so bad.”

Fortunately, “when they arrive here, they can immediately sense the contentment and satisfaction of the animals around them. They have a wonderful life here, good-quality straw all day long, water and people feeding them.”

Donkeys have been put to work in the Middle East for more than 5,000 years as beasts of burden for the poor who cannot afford mechanized transport. They are especially useful in Gaza, where few people own cars.

Abuse of donkeys goes way back. The Bible records an instance in Numbers 22:21-35 where the prophet Balaam beats his donkey and God, obviously angered, gives the donkey the gift of speech to rebuke her rider.

Israel and Palestine are not the only places at fault. Call up donkeyrescue.org to read about why donkeys are the “most mistreated domestic farm animals in America,” and how to adopt one.

“Unlike horses, donkeys have an incredibly high pain threshold,” Lucy said. “They suffer in silence, which is why they are abused. People will pile tons of bricks on their backs, then beat the donkeys to try to make them walk. Their knees are buckling as they try to walk. It’s heartbreaking. They get horrible leg injuries.

“We try to drum into people that donkeys need some minimal care, like sufficient rest and water and plentiful food and shelter in the summer. They’re very good at working hard, but there are limits. Usually they just drop dead out of exhaustion.”

Because few people can afford a vet, a sick donkey will be taken to a remote place, tied to a tree and left to starve.

Although cruelty is meted out by Jewish Israelis as well as Arabs, it’s usually in the villages where the treatment is worse. Lucy sees this via the mobile medical clinic her organization operates in far-flung farming areas.

“It’s like beating your head against a brick wall working here,” she says. “It’s rewarding when you go to an Arab village and see people try to make a difference. Still, maybe two people are on board and 10 to 15 aren’t. But you keep soldiering on and plugging away.”

Julia Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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