Just another day in paradise
I wake up to the sound of my alarm telling me that now is the time to start yet another shiny day. Still feeling sleepy, I stumble out to find a random pair of boots and greet the now so familiar faces of the other volunteers with a smile and a yawnish “good morning.” The air is sharp and our breath turns into white fog as we start the morning routine here at the Donkey Paradise. Everybody knows what to do, so the first feeding of the day is usually a smooth operation. I tick off stable 4 and go to give my furry friends Rocco, Mini-Maggie, Franka, Lola and Xana a round of hay and their everyday morning-scratch. As always, they are waiting impatiently at their gate, giving the impression that they have not had food for at least a week. Each has their own peculiar sound, ranging from Xana’s profound screams to Rocco’s almost asthmatic wheezing. Once fed, the donkeys calm down and the routine proceeds. When all of the donkeys, horses, mules, cats, dogs and pig have had their breakfast, us humans get started with our feast. Rumor has it that Marleen cooks the best porridge in Asturias, and I have found no reason to disagree.
After cleaning the stables out (hopefully without having to throw out too many donkeys trying to steal the fresh straw), we all work on different projects. The projects range from improving stable buildings to taking Stevie the Pig out for a food frenzy under the chestnut tree. Today, I go to the garden in order to battle some of the wheat that tries to take back the stone lane, listening to music meanwhile and letting my mind wander off. I think about how working here does not feel like working at all. It is like living in a bubble surrounded by snow-covered mountains, a place where anything can happen. Waking up to fields covered in mysterious fog and sitting out at nighttime watching shooting stars on the starry sky sets your imagination free. Some days I wouldn’t even be surprised to meet dancing elves in the surrounding forest or see a unicorn stand majestically in the horizon. Here anything seems possible… and, as one of the other volunteers put it, this is not only a shelter for donkeys, it is also a shelter for people. There is room for everyone, as long as they have a kind heart and a gentle approach to animals. In other words, it is a place where you can feel free to be you.
And then, after finishing the day’s work and relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine or a dance instructed by our Polish swing-king, we go out for the last evening round. I stand quiet for a moment, listen to the gentle sounds of the donkeys nibbling their fresh straw and I wonder. I wonder how a place so far from home so quickly can turn into feeling just as safe and beloved. Like coming from one home to another. My usually so ever-restless heart falls quiet for a moment as I draw in a breath of the fresh Asturian air. Then I give my donkey buddies a last goodnight kiss, turn off the lights and start walking towards the warm house. Just another day in donkey paradise has come to its end.
Photos of Camille with Mia, by Dominic Fleischmann
The week before I left Donkey Paradise in July I thought about writing a blog. While I walked Jack during siesta time I thought about how great it had been to be able to stay for almost a year at this lovely place.
I remember my first week at El Paraiso well: learning the names of all the volunteers was one thing…learning the names of the donkeys seemed impossible, or maybe not; learning their names was hard, but to tell them apart, especially when they were out and about in the field, seemed an impossible task. They all looked so alike: greyish or brownish with four legs and long ears. Now it sounds strange to me that I ever thought they looked the same, for they do not look like the same at all….except for, thank heavens, those four legs and long ears. More than 50 shades of grey, endless tones of brown, furry, bold spots, curly, smooth, freckles, skinny, fat and fattest, sad theatrical eyes like Sophia Loren, stern looking eyes, rigid ears or flexible ears that move like an owls head….the differences are countless and make each one of them unique. And yet I haven’t yet written about their character or the sound they make.
I was walking Jack that day and he was listening so well: off the lead, walking behind me and when I stopped, he would stop and when I told him go run and whistled for him not much later, he would go run and return straightaway on my call. What a wonderful difference from the black, unruly dog of months ago. Would the volunteers that were here that first week believe their own eyes?
While thinking that I should write to Marian for example, how well this dog was walking, I should write Avital as well, about dear stubborn Alfredo, who never wanted to leave the yard in the morning. Avital tried everything…from singing lovely Disney songs, walking him in circles through the yard or to pushing his bum gently, nothing would work. Nowadays he’s one of the easier donkeys to start walking…no singing needed. He will finish his bowl of extra food (mostly without the ears flat in the back and mostly without kicking) and then when you’re bringing either Flora or Charlotte to the field he will walk with you – just like that. I could write that to her. A miracle?
Also, maybe I should write to Claude about Stevie….about the fact that she’s far to big now to swoop up from the floor and carry in your arms (as we did once to weigh her; 20 kilos of screaming pig – not so easy). Or write him that we don’t have to put her, (while screaming her head off) on a ‘harness’ anymore in order to take her to her outside house in the morning. If we unlock the gate of her stable now, she will push her nose against the gate, open it and make her way up the hill while we follow her. Some days, I have to be honest, she will take a D-tour to the apple trees or to the far end of the field, but with a bit of guidance and some bribing (chopped up carrots will do the trick) she will go in. And in the evening we just open the gate from the outside area and there she goes…straight home to where her food is waiting for her. She’s such a lovely and smart creature and, besides that, she made some non-vegetarian, meat-loving volunteers here become vegetarian, which I think is great.
In the same stable as Stevie there is small horse Finn, a black Asturian beauty. Those who met Finn last year might remember him as a scared and scary horse…he would turn his bum to you if you entered the stable, eyeballing you and more than once he cornered me. With the love, patience and care of Marleen and so many volunteers, he’s now a cuddly boy. Although he might still sometimes show you his fierce self (which I really love about him), he is mostly the new softy…waiting at the stable door to be scratched on the neck and pushing his nose against your arm if you stop. He walks quite well on a halter now and it’s even possible to do his hooves (here too I have to be honest….he’s still not easy, but such a change) and I am so happy to have been there long enough to witness his change and that of so many others….both of animals and volunteers.
At El Paraiso the animals get love, care and attention; here they learn to trust humans again and, some volunteers who hadn’t been in touch with animals for a long time and kind of “lost touch with nature” as they called it themselves, have clearly found that touch again or discovered a whole new positive side of themselves, by working with the donkeys at the Donkey Paradise, or with the people.
And while I was walking Jack in July, up and down the hills behind the house for the last time, (he too was moving on too, being adopted by a young German volunteer) I thought about these things: about the animals, the many inspirational volunteers and the changes that I witnessed in the animals, the other volunteers, me, and the nature around me; magical, wonderful and, at the same time, plain and simple and so natural. I loved every minute of my time there and will be back one day, for a few days…or maybe longer.
Today we put some tree trunks in Stevie’s outdoor residence, hid chips of apple underneath them and sprinkled a layer of straw on top of the completely uprooted soil.
We did that after our visit to Joanna and Russell, a couple living in Valle de San Roman. They take care of 6 pigs and we wanted to learn more about the ways of our mini-pig Stevie. We were, for instance, worried about Stevie living alone because……..aren´t pigs very sociable group animals?
Yes, they are, but they´re also very territorial, we learned. Russell and Joanna´s pigs had lived happily together for years, when the boar quite unexpectedly attacked and almost killed one of the others. They now live separately. This goes to show that we can´t just surprise our Stevie with a porcine companion, thinking we are making her happy, to then find out that they don´t get along and cause each other a lot of stress.
Stevie looks happy enough as she is now and there are other means of stimulation such as logs in her outside pen, straw to root around in, and hidden chips of apple. Thanks a lot, Joanna and Russell!
Saying goodbye to Rosie was hard for me; writing about her isn’t easy either. She meant a lot to all of us.
Four years ago we collected her from a place where she had nothing: no food, water, cover or care. Due to long-term neglect she was forced to step on the front of her hooves, which meant that she couldn´t move at all. Also she was infested with fleas.
Our farrier made her special irons with high heels and her feet were encouraged back into normal position slowly, bit by bit. Slowly also, she regained her confidence in people.
Years passed in which Rosie enjoyed her life in the Donkey Paradise. Gradually, walking became more difficult for her, yet she liked to walk up the hill to graze every day. Last summer she became the emblem of Ian and Louis´s action ´Caring for Rosie´, which raised 1600€ for all the donkeys. A fantastic result!
When donkey baby Rocco arrived, Rosie was appointed to adopt him, because he lost his mum too early on. She did that with increasing patience and commitment but her feet and legs started to give her more and more pain. In the end she stopped walking altogether and just spent her days in the yard. When she also stopped eating with pleasure, we knew it was time for her to go to the real Donkey Paradise… She didn´t go alone, though, for much love from all the volunteers accompanied her. Rosie will never be forgotten.
Your time was up, fig-belly Kees
So slowly you went on your way.
From Paradise to heaven is only one step
But you took your time to go
Losing your appetite
Your sense of adventure
And your urge to escape and discover.
Your time was up, my dear friend Kees
So softly, softly you went where you were called.
Thank you for having been with us for so long
For being such a good friend
Leaving us with the pictures of your past
And with many sweet memories of you.
Stevie, the cute little pig who recently came to live at the Donkey Paradise, now has a wonderful outdoor pen, built by the volunteers, in which she can snuffle about, feel the fresh air on her skin and enjoy her new freedom.
Before she came to the Donkey Paradise, Stevie only had a small, dark, interior space as her home. When she first went out into her new enclosure she was very afraid and squealed “like a pig” all the way. She wears a halter to walk to her pen and then, at night, she returns to her indoor shelter. She still squeals whenever she has to go out, but now it is happening less and less as she learns to adapt and enjoy her new environment.
Just two months ago, Bella, a large, scared, sick mare, was rescued from neglect. She was under-nourished, nervous, nearly blind and lacking care in her sad, sick, state. Good fortune finally found Bella, when she was taken in by Marleen to sanctuary at Donkey Paradise where love and care awaited. She was given her own stable, clean water, nourishing food, good grazing, veterinary care and the human kindness she deserved. Although she remained aloof to other animals, preferring to graze alone, slowly she built her trust back in humans to allow the care she desperately needed. Simone devotedly treated her hoofs and suppurating wounds: regularly and lovingly cleaning, treating, dressing and binding. Her big brown eyes, clouded with cataracts and weepy, were gently washed.
This week the hard decision came as she lay down unable to rise one morning: Bella’s once strong body now so frail. The time was now due to relieve her from anymore suffering. She was put to sleep with Simone by her side, and slipped away peacefully at Donkey Paradise.
Animals are amongst life’s great teachers – Bella’s lessons included courage, gentleness and the willingness to trust again. Whilst here in sanctuary at Donkey Paradise, we trust Bella felt compassion and unconditional love in return, if only for a brief period, in the last chapter of her life. RIP ‘Brave Bella’
Stevie the pig lived in the stable next to Bella our new resident horse (see earlier blog) and, If Bella’s conditions were squalid, Stevie’s were appalling: a tiny, three-metres-by-one-metre space, never cleaned, no water, no light. At least Bella got to go outside sometimes. Stevie was stuck in her cage and more or less forgotten.
A couple of days after Bella arrived at Donkey Paradise, a space was prepared for Stevie in Stable Zero and she was brought to the sanctuary. Marleen’s old dog Jolly normally occupies the back seat in her Pajero, but this day, her bushy black-and-white tail was displaced by the constantly wagging little tail of Stevie, who oinked all the way from Arriondas. In fact, Stevie oinks almost all of the time, whether she’s being fed or watered or left alone. The only time she stops is when she’s picked up. This prompts the most terrible squealing, as if she were about to be killed. Once we got her into her half of Stable Zero and set her down on the bed of straw, the squealing stopped and the happy oinks returned.
A new arrival always prompts interesting responses from the established creatures. Stevie has particularly drawn the attention of the Donkey Paradise dogs, who often scurry up to her gate to sniff or bark. (Whether or not they want to eat her or are simply curious remains in question.) Unfortunately, Stevie’s stablemates Elfie and Finn – a mule and an Asturian horse – are not so thrilled about the new arrival. When Stevie was brought in, they immediately retreated to the far side of the stable, where they stayed until the following morning. Getting them out into the fields in the morning or into the stable in the evening used to take five minutes; now it takes half an hour. Sometimes, it’s not the new arrivals that need to be managed more carefully but the animals who already here and have to adjust to a different routine.
It’s still early days, but Stevie’s transition appears to have gone very well. Volunteer Tara has worked with Marleen on getting her feeding regimen right, and volunteer Ille is preparing a mud bath to go in Stevie’s quarters. Then she will be able to cover herself in mucky, stinky, piggy glory.
The two most recent four-legged arrivals at Donkey Paradise are Bella, a big brown horse, and Stevie, a wee black pig. Both came from the same place near to Arriondas.
Marleen heard about Bella first. Her owner called to say the beautiful old horse of his childhood was going blind; could Marleen do something about her eyesight, or maybe even take her to Donkey Paradise? She was, after all, the beautiful old horse of his childhood, and it would break his heart to have to take her to the slaughterhouse.
Marleen arranged for a vet specialising in eye treatment to examine Bella. The vet said that with antibiotic eyedrops, one eye could be completely saved and the other partially restored. Bella would not go blind after all.
I went with Marleen to give Bella her first eyedrop treatment, and there I saw what squalor she was living in. Bella is a large horse, as large as any of the animals at Donkey Paradise, but her stable was just a few times larger than she was. She had no water to drink, and the floor of her stable was filthy. Her brown-and-white hair was terribly knotted all over and covered in sticky burrs. I expected a horse living in such unpleasant conditions to react badly to strangers. However, Bella took her first eyedrops without any fuss. She also drained an entire bucket of water, poor thirsty girl.
Marleen continued to visit Bella morning and evening for the next week and a half, administering eyedrops and a little food and water. Bella responded very quickly to treatment. Within a few days she started to come to Marleen as soon as she arrived (thankfully the weather was fine so Bella could be out in the field rather than in her stable), and she continued to take the eyedrops willingly. Soon she would be ready to come to Donkey Paradise.
The transition of a new animal into life at Donkey Paradise is never guaranteed to go well. Often, they are animals who have been abused or neglected, and they sometimes find the transition very stressful. So, when Bella arrived in a big white truck, we all watched to see how she would act once released into her new home.
Thankfully, Bella quickly identified a patch of green grass in front of the house and began grazing on it. She seemed calm and curious. She went peacefully to her new quarters – the Perrera, a fenced-off area within the main paddock – and ate fresh oat straw from her large trough. That night, the two white horses that roam free in the main paddock, Kari and Mara, trotted over to the Perrera and got acquainted with their new equine compatriot. They haven’t had a chance to spend any time roaming together yet, but they will in time. Maybe they’ll be friends?
With food, medication, and shelter established, there was one more matter to take care of to improve Bella’s quality of life: her knotty hair. Volunteer Marieke took on the task of brushing Bella all over, and an hour and a half later, Bella was restored to good condition. She is perhaps cleaner than she has been in decades.
Now Bella is allowed to wander the main paddock during the day, grazing at the acres of fresh grass and chomping the occasional fallen apple. So far, her presence has not disturbed the donkeys of Stable One and Stable Four, who are accustomed to having the main paddock to themselves. In fact, venerable old Alfredo appears to have taken a shine to Bella. Normally, Alfredo skulks around the stables, or restricts himself to the area right in front of the house. Now, he can often be seen plodding behind Bella and grazing where she grazes, even if it’s out of our sight.
Marleen says that before Alfredo was rescued, he lived in close quarters with a horse. So it might be that Bella has not only gained a new lease of life at Donkey Paradise, but she may also have brought renewed vigour to Alfredo, who can once again have a horse for a friend.
Once upon a time there was in the Donkey Paradise a much beloved volunteer. He, a traveler, had seen a lot of places in the world and now wanted to settle down and learn to grow his own food. Around the cabaña in the valley he created his own small paradise. Miche -Michael – left after a stay of 2 years. He and Maria now have their own family.
In case you wonder where the name of our new donkey ‘Miche’ came from: now you know, he was named after our volunteer with that name. Donkey Miche came from Gijon, where he had lived alone and without a shelter in a plot of land near the harbour for over 15 years. He is not really used to people or other donkeys. He wants to make friends but doesn’t really know how to go about it.
After his castration he will be able to live together with lots of other donkeys; he will be able to socialize and gain the skills needed to make friends and he will be well cared for.