‘Donkey Diary’ from the Palestinian West Bank

About three years ago I spent some time volunteering with a donkey charity out in the Palestinian West Bank. Here’s the report I wrote when I returned home but never got around to posting, until now:

‘When I qualified as a vet over eleven years ago now, I never really knew what twists and turns my career had in store for me. Sure I’d be helping animals, domestic and wild, large and small, but I never imagined for one minute that politics and human rights would ever play a major part in all this.

Last week I returned home from one of the most volatile areas in the world, Israel. With its guaranteed most-of-the-year-round warm climate, excellent scuba-diving and so many historical and religious sites to visit, that one would struggle to manage them all in a lifetime. So it’s no surprise that the land of ‘milk and honey’ is high up on the world’s top holiday destinations.

But I wasn’t on any holiday.

The purpose of my visit was to work with the remarkable British charity Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land (SHADH). Since it’s founding in 2000, Lucy Fensom and her incredible team have achieved something so special and unique, it’s quite difficult to even put into words.

I only had six days with SHADH, but I left feeling so privileged to have even spent one day in their company, that I’ll definitely be back, and do my ‘bit’ over here regarding PR and publicity for such a deserving charity – on so many levels.

I stayed on Moshav Gan Yoshiyya, SHADH’s Israeli HQ, and site of the donkey sanctuary – the current home of over one hundred rescued donkeys. These animals have been subjected to cruelty, disease and abandonment, yet there’s an air of serenity and peace evident that’s not only quite moving to experience first hand, but withholds a deeper silent message that’s just one of the charity’s aims.

Being Jewish myself, I was a little anxious about my itinerary for my stay, but this was easily outweighed by my desire to learn more, not just about these poor working donkeys, but also about the humans that owned them and how the ancient man-beast relationship could be improved on in any way?

We were to spend every working day in the Palestinian West Bank, an area renowned for violence, tension and uncertainty.

Our first day together was with SHADH’s mobile clinic parked-up at the entrance to a town called Qalqilya, a town just inside the Occupied Territories, and under Israeli military control.

Within seconds of arrival and setting-up, a mixture of working donkeys and horses arrived, to have their primitive-looking harnesses removed and inspected by SHADH’s resident French Jewish vet Pierre Sharvit and four other Muslim members of our team.

Common injuries including wounds and sores, mainly due to ill-fitting equipment, were cleaned and treated and the owners encouraged to continue treatment for the next few days.

Lucy Fensom (left, and founder of SHADH) and me (far right)
Lucy Fensom (left, and founder of SHADH) and me (far right)

Being honest, I did witness the occasional kick or punch, but on the whole, the attitude of the Palestinians was positive; a sure sign of a changing more-caring nature, that Lucy, herself a Christian, admits was not obvious when she started her quest.

The fact that people are returning to these regular clinics with a seemingly greater understanding of their animals feelings is a credit to the team, and indeed themselves. And that’s just the tip of this unique iceberg.

This charity’s mission is so much more than just working in sometimes impossible conditions, often the victims of verbal and physical abuse, entertaining different ‘rival’ cultures, and treating sick and injured donkeys.

That would be far too easy.

The concurrent education programme that SHADH provides for both children and adults complete with booklets, leaflets and gentle one-to-one advice, ensures that the next generation of equine-owners understand that a donkey is in fact for life, and not just for Christmas. And boy is it working.

Education: Kids reading literature provided by SHADH in the Palestinian
Education: Kids reading literature provided by SHADH in the Palestinian

The following day exceeded all my expectations yet again. And how! We were to set-up a brand-new clinic in Kafr Thulth. As our SHADH convoy entered Kafr Thulth, complete with Israeli number plates on all vehicles, we passed the most extreme anti-Israeli and Jewish (including pro-suicide bomber) graffiti I’d ever witnessed.

I felt a little worried as we were all entering the unknown, along way from any military checkpoint. We were also late.

Waiting to greet us were over three hundred excited men and boys, accompanied by over one hundred donkeys. It was chaos. After roping off a space just big enough to examine two donkeys, Pierre and myself began the seemingly endless task of general check-overs, treating wounds and examining feet and hooves.

But this was a pleasure to do. Donkeys in Kafr Thulth are very well looked after, and any problems we found were rarely caused by any forms of physical abuse.

Here donkeys are a vital part of the community, being used as tremendously resilient and hardy agricultural machines; able to transfer heavy loads of fresh produce such as olives.

Common injuries included wounds to the bridge of the nose due to rubbing of chain nosebands. These were easily treated and harsh metal replaced with padded foam and soft bandages.

A true highlight of my trip was the hand-written letter read out at the end of our first-ever day spent working in this unfriendly-looking venue. Penned and stamped by the towns own mayor, we were all moved by this public ‘thank you’ to SHADH and what’s more, an invitation to return. If this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.

We returned to the Moshav late that afternoon with a real sense of achievement. What could’ve potentially been a dangerous situation ended in yet another positive life-changing moment for many, and a true sign that ‘political evolution’ is in fact possible. Even here.

The next day, we visited two locations. Our first clinic was the Bedouin settlement of Al-Razaz. Situated on a remote hilltop in the West Bank, these two families live side by side with no electricity or running water.

In amongst all the random pieces of sheet metal, burnt-out abandoned cars and thick dark muddy ground, were plenty of animals; including cattle, goats, donkeys, horses, chickens and a baby camel.

Bedouin man and his donkey at Al-Razaz settlement on the West Bank
Bedouin man and his donkey at Al-Razaz settlement on the West Bank

To experience these horrendous living conditions, not only from a Westerner’s point of view, but knowing that only a few kilometres away were affluent thriving Israeli towns and villages, was not easy; and it really hit home just how ‘lucky’ we are weighted down at home by the meaningless luxuries of mobile phones, i-pods, laptops and Sky+.

As the last brand-new head-collar is fitted, and eye ointment applied to a thin, poorly horse with conjunctivitis, the team prepares for the next clinic. A few kilometres away, in the Palestinian town of Ras Tira – a multitude of bright yellow flags of Fatah, the largest party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), flap in the breeze cooling the site of our next stop.

Once again, less anger and more care from the owners are obvious to the team. From the depressed and bleak Ras Tira we see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv rising up from the distant haze, a further reminder of the obvious rich-poor divide out here.

Our final clinic of the week is in a town called Nabil Yas. What made this clinic unique was that the minaret of the town’s most sacred mosque, strictly only used for calling Muslims to prayer, was today also being used to advertise that SHADH were in town! We’re all overwhelmed.

Boy with donkey at a clinic in the Palestinian town of Nabil-Yas
Boy with donkey at a clinic in the Palestinian town of Nabil-Yas

My final day was spent in the Arab town of Taybe, with Mohamed Masarwa, the Muslim organizer of the SHADH clinics.

Over the past week he’d adopted me as his son, teaching me Arabic as we drove around the West Bank; and today he was taking me, the Jew from ‘The West’ into his hometown. Brilliant.

After a humus-filled breakfast together, I relaxed at his house, met his family and friends and was given locally-grown gifts, including spicy olives, to bring back to the UK.

It’s hard to sum up my experiences from this brief visit to the Holy Land. What stands out more than anything, however, is the fact that one team made up of Muslims, Jews and Christians can really work together, constructively, and without prejudice, for the good of animals, and in turn of course, the people; a small glimmer of hope and peace in our sad media-portrayed world of evil.

‘Life is just a game, we’re all just the same…’ Prince, Controversy (1981)


Thanks to Lucy, Adi, Robert, Pierre, Mohamed, Hamer, Hammad, Abed, and everyone else at SHADH for looking after me all week, you’re all amazing!

To contact Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, call 01444 831177 or visit www.safehaven4donkeys.org’

Here’s a short video I made too:

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