It was a pleasure to be part of ‘El Paraiso del Burro.’ The 3 weeks flew by faster than I could have imagined and in that time, I learned a lot about donkeys that I didn’t know, which is basically everything about them. Marleen’s knowledge, the knowledge of the people from the other donkey sanctuary and helping with making a quiz about donkeys for an open day took care of that. I feel like I could start my own sanctuary now!
In my last week two people from a donkey sanctuary in Extremadura came to show us their vision and way of taking care of donkeys in Spain: the kind of food, which donkeys go together well, treatments, bedding, medication and more. I found it so interesting to hear what they did differently and especially why. Sharing ideas can be very inspiring and it makes me look further than my own little world, which is refreshing.
I loved helping with the donkey care and learning about every donkey’s special needs and their characters. This also applies to the other animals such as the horses and dogs. And it’s so nice to see how much effort there is being put in into the care of all of them (even the rats!)
Next to the animal care, I liked how you could just decide to start your own project. You could just think of something that you thought could use some change, ask Marleen and begin. It could really be anything, like gardening, building things, making art… all to make the place a little more lovely every day. When I heard that the main house wasn’t even there in the beginning, I could not imagine how this place must have looked like years ago and all the changes that have been made. Seeing it develop must have been so cool.
It’s not only the stories about El Paraiso that I like, but also very much the stories of the people that I met: how they discovered this place, the reasons why they came, what they did before and their plans for the future. Hearing the travel stories from people, all the places they’ve been to and all the things they went through are so inspiring and makes me feel like I can’t wait to create my own adventure. – I really have to write down every new idea because there are almost too many to remember.
During my stay I found out that, for a lot of the volunteers, it wasn’t their first time being here. Marleen must do something right if so many people keep comig back! And I think she does, because to everyone she is very welcoming and there is always a place for someone to stay. In my case it was in the lovely caravan on top of the hill where the donkeys would chill around and sometimes disturb you by scratching against the caravan while you’re trying to have a little siesta!
The hospitality is great and porridge in the morning is my new favourite thing and I am definitely going to try making it at home. Also, 3 times a day a warm meal is so good and was really something I didn’t have to get used to! Although I am not really into cooking and I am not really a good cook, this place makes me excited to try new things and learn to cook properly. Thank you to those who taught me some new cooking (and baking) stuff. Everyday these lovely meals made by the volunteers or Marleen is a luxury I appreciated so much and maybe even more when I am not there.
When I look back at my stay, I think I fell a little bit in love with the region ‘Asturias’ with its oh so green mountains and snow on some tops, which make the views so amazing, especially in the mornings when walking the dogs up to the hilltop. One of the first things I thought when I took the bus to ‘Paraiso del Burro’, was that the landscape reminded me of a place, green and massive, where dinosaurs could live, and in my imagination, I could see one appearing right around the corner (which would have been ridiculously cool). And even though that would never happen, luckily there was a donkey called Pancho at the sanctuary who basically makes the same sound as a T-rex!
I am really going to miss this place, the people, the animals and all the experiences. I can’t wait to come back and hopefully see the people I met again – which doesn’t seem that difficult since so many people come back here ;).
‘Till that time, I’ll still have some little straw pieces appearing in random places to keep as souvenirs.
Our big Mastin Arvo died last week, after almost 12 years of living together in friendship.
The previous owner of the Paraíso felt that I would need a big dog for protection and he also knew people who wanted to get rid of a Mastin puppy. My friend Leo and I went along, just to have a look at him, and think about it afterwards………..However, we never did that. I was lost the moment when the owner put him on my two hands: an adorable 6 weeks old Mastin puppy not bigger than a cat. It was difficult to believe such a small puppy would be able to protect anyone, but we could not resist him anyway and took him home there and then.
Arvo, named after the musician Arvo Pärt, grew up running around the farm in freedom and in harmony with the other dogs and cats. At one point he indeed developed the idea that it was his duty to protect the people here and that´s what he did. Nobody unknown would enter the property when Arvo was running around free. If he showed his teeth and growled, he was definitely impressive. With other dogs, and people he knew, he was very friendly.
More recently, Arvo was found to have cancer and after the operations he moved a lot less than before, although during the night he would like to disappear into the forest and sleep there. Before breakfast he would be back again. About two months ago he stayed away for five days and nights in a row and when he finally came back, he was starved, dried out and deadly tired.
He didn’t seem to recover from his escapade. Arvo stayed weak and even wasn’t so interested in eating anymore. A blood test showed that he had hardly any red blood cells left. Medication didn´t help anymore, so we knew we had to let our old buddy go. Arvo died on a sunny day the end of March. We gave him his final resting place on his favourite hill from where generations of volunteers have heard his characteristic howl.
Arvo had some nicknames: the straw king, six hills giant, big puppy. He was all of that and more, and will never be forgotten.
Phew! After a very wet February, March has been a lovely month with plenty of warm sunshine which means happy animals, and helpers, enjoying plenty of time out of doors. The trees are showing signs of new life as buds and blossoms start to appear. It is always a lovely time of year at the Donkey Paradise.
An update on Frodo
Life at the Donkey Paradise is always a mixture of emotions and often we have to deal with sadness in the midst of joy. Although we did everything we could for Frodo, his time to leave us had come. The day before he died he went out, well escorted, into the pasture where he grazed happily for two hours. The next day, however, he couldn´t stand anymore and kept falling. His body just gave up, but his spirit never did! Frodo lived with us for five years and was much loved. Behind his grumpiness he had a heart of gold, which shone ever more clearly as he grew older.
Our dog project
Two years ago, Marleen took in Nina, a rather young stray dog to join our small group of dogs. During the first few weeks all went well and harmoniously, but then the fighting started and it became ever more aggressive and ferocious. We then had to keep the dogs apart, tied and on leads, to avoid the fighting, but still the dog situation continued to be unbalanced and tense and Nina even started to attack people. Fortunately, Dutch dog trainer Susan Shui offered help. She came, worked with all the dogs – and Stevie the pig! – and the results are very promising. Before she left, she also instructed some of the volunteers on how to continue the training until she comes back in May.
Our Mastin Arvo came to us almost 12 years ago, and Marleen finds it difficult to see the big fellow he is now and remember that, as a puppy, he could sit on her hands. Arvo was operated on twice for cancer and now also has bad hips, therefore he doesn´t move about much anymore. Nevertheless, three weeks ago he went away during the night and did not come back. We looked for him everywhere, day after day, but without luck. The fifth day he came back emaciated, extremely hungry, dried out and deadly tired. How happy we were to have him back! Sadly though, he is in a bad state: he has severe anaemia and may not live much longer.
I am pleased to say that February is turning out to be a much better month weather-wise than January was for everyone at The Donkey Paradise (El Paraíso del Burro), but especially for the donkeys as they can now get back out into the meadows. I hope that I’m not speaking too soon as there is a saying here in Spain about February being “febrerillo loco” which basically means that the weather can do anything it likes!
Our blog this month is about one of our eldest donkeys, Frodo, and has been written by Marleen:-
Frodo, one of our oldest donkeys, is currently not in good shape. Not only does he have a big infection in the back of his body, but also his legs are wobbly and he easily trips or slips. Obviously in the last phase of his life, he needs much care and attention day and sometimes also night.
When I see him now, old and dependent on people that care for him, I can´t help thinking back to how we first met: at the side of the motorway in Gijon. There was no grass, no water, no nothing. When I approached him, he tried to bite and kick me. He was definitely the grumpiest donkey I’d ever met. He trusted nobody.
His grumpiness carried a message, of course. As did his slimness and unkempt coat. He’d had a lousy past and it wasn’t easily forgotten. A year after his arrival, he had given up biting and only tried to kick if brushed on his legs or belly. Yet another year later, he could be brushed completely without any problem. But even today he doesn’t trust it when he is caressed or touched.
Frodo is the perfect example of why El Paraíso del Burro exists. There are many more Frodos everywhere living in sad circumstances. Let’s hope we will be able to give at least some of them a much better life.
JANUARY started well with plenty of dry weather and cold, but sunny days and the donkeys spent a lot of time out of doors, however this didn’t last! The second half of the month has been wet, wet, wet and this is due to last a bit longer yet. The river Piloña, which runs below the finca and alongside the main road, has become a raging torrent, swelling and bursting its banks in places until it looks more lake Lake Piloña!
All this rain may improve the water levels in the reservoirs (apparently, they were only at around 50% capacity before this) but it is not good news for the donkeys who now have to spend a lot more time indoors. This means that they get extra cuddles and grooming and have easy access to dry bedding, food, salt licks and water. They can also listen to music all day long.
Donkeys are a desert animal and they like dry, warm conditions best. Many people treat them much as they would do a horse and leave them outside in all conditions, sometimes without any shelter at all. This is very bad for a donkey as they do not have a double layered waterproof coat like a horse does. Rain and snow seeps through to a donkey’s skin causing him to become freezing cold and he may, as a result, get skin infections or become more seriously ill.
A donkey needs shelter from bad weather at all times of the year and particularly so in winter. He or she also needs an area of concrete or other hard surface to stand on so that he does not get mud fever which will affect his lower limbs. Look after your donkey well and he or she will live happily and healthily for many years to come.
A very Happy New Year to all our followers. In 2019 we hope to bring you more blogs from the Donkey Paradise in Asturias, Spain. In the meantime, here is a link to our Winter Newsletter which we hope you will enjoy.
This honest and personal account was written by a Volunteer at The Donkey Paradise
« In the larger context of my life so far, coming to The Donkey Paradise was a very good decision. I could call it one of the best, but I’m trying not to sound overly emotional.
I had been wasting away in a university library for two years when I decided to quit my studies and come here instead. I’m gonna be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell people you’re throwing away a promising future to go and work on a donkey farm. But I felt like that was what I needed to do and I’m fairly sure I was right. The thing is that volunteering isn’t just traveling. It’s sharing people’s lives for a little while. It’s sharing their work and their joys and their troubles as well I suppose.
Growing up, it was natural to me that I would get a degree, get a well-paying job, buy a house and have kids as quickly and efficiently as possible. As my parents had done and as all my friends’ parents had done. And for a long time I was alright with that idea, it was nice to be certain of what the future held. But the longer I studied, the less I could stand thinking of the future and of spending eight hours a day for a large part of the rest of my days doing a job that I wasn’t remotely passionate about. And I did try to muster up some passion, I really did, but I just didn’t have it in me.
The problem I was faced with then was that I had grown up with limitless hot water from a tap and central heating and shopping as a way to pass time. And I guess I had realized years before that, that material things don’t make me happy –
But then who was I to declare a thing like that when I had never experienced life without them.
It is November and the days are warm and beautiful, but at night it gets cold. If the stove isn’t kept lit in the afternoon, then the temperature inside the Cabana is the same as outside. I take one of my sweaters underneath my duvet with me to sleep, so that in the mornings I have something warm to put on underneath another sweater, a hoody and a coat on top. What I’m trying to say is that it’s really goddamn cold and getting out of bed in the mornings is tough. But then we feed the donkeys breakfast and afterwards we gather in the warm, cozy dining/living room of the main house and we have Marleen’s glorious, warm porridge and the sun rises and several times a day we nudge each other and motion towards the view of the Picos and we stand there and take in the beauty of this place.
I’m trying hard not to romanticise things. There’s more to frugal life than saving money on heating. There’s no Wi-Fi here and we try not to shower more than twice a week and sometimes there are water shortages and we can’t shower for days on end and in my first two nights here I seriously considered leaving. But once you have gotten used to things, and you get used to them very quickly, it becomes second nature and you start enjoying things like sitting in front of a lit stove at night or finally taking that warm shower.
So yeah, sometimes it’s cold and hard but at night, we sit around the table after a well-earned and wonderful homecooked dinner and for hours we do nothing but laugh and laugh about the weirdest things and life is good.
That’s an expression I’ve heard a couple of times here: “It’s a good life.” And it is.
Paraiso del Burro, 17.11.2018
Sissi Böhm »
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!