Elisabeth Svendsen, donkeys’ savior, dies

Elisabeth Svendsen, who turned a concern for neglected beasts of burden into the Donkey Sanctuary, a sprawling British charity that has rescued thousands of mistreated and overworked equines in the United Kingdom and worldwide, died May 11 after a stroke. She was 81.

Mrs. Svendsen was running a hotel in rural England and planning to become a donkey breeder when she bought her first donkey, Naughty Face, in 1969. Then she saw seven of the creatures held at a livestock auction in a cramped, lice-ridden pen. Horrified, she resolved to become a donkey savior.

“Donkeys have worked so hard for man but have been downtrodden all their lives, and it seemed no one was doing anything for them,” Mrs. Svendsen told a newspaper in Plymouth, England, in 1998. “Someone had to champion donkeys’ causes and give the help they needed.”

She began collecting blind donkeys, old donkeys, obese donkeys, donkeys with breathing problems. By 1973, she had 38 under her care, and the cost was becoming prohibitive.

Then she received a call from a lawyer who said she had received an inheritance from a stranger, an elderly woman named Violet Philpin.

Philpin had bequeathed her 204 donkeys. “That’s when I stopped being a hotelier and took up donkeys,” Mrs. Svendsen later said. “I had no choice.”

She founded the Donkey Sanctuary, a charity that has since grown into what is perhaps the largest donkey-advocacy organization in the world. Headquartered at a seaside farm in Devon, England, it has taken in 14,500 needy donkeys over the past four decades and currently employs more than 500 employees around the world.

The animals have arrived with mutilated ears and festering sores. Some were simply abandoned at the end of long careers pulling carts and carrying heavy loads. At least one came with a case of alcoholism; his name was Bracken, and he was a mean drunk who bit off a woman’s finger while under the influence.

“It’s rather amusing, no doubt, for pub owners and their clientele to watch a donkey clamp its lips around a dimpled glass pint mug and swill it down in one go,” Mrs. Svendsen told the Associated Press in 1996. “But it’s a very different matter when the donkey gets aggressive and has to be sent to us for drying out.”

The charity has tapped a deep reservoir of donkey affection, receiving about $36.5 million in 2009, mostly from donations and bequests. The sanctuary features all-you-can-eat accommodations and a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and research center.

The charity also has 60 employees who roam the United Kingdom to investigate complaints of abuse.

The organization keeps special watch over the approximately 1,000 donkeys-for-hire that traditionally give rides to children on holiday at British beaches, and it sponsors an annual beach-donkey beauty contest to reward owners for attention to animal welfare. Among the awards is one for best-trimmed feet.

As donkey abuse became less of a problem close to home, Mrs. Svendsen began to focus her efforts elsewhere, especially countries in Asia and Africa, where tens of millions of donkeys fetch water and haul goods to market.

Her charity has worked in more than a dozen countries, dispatching mobile donkey-care clinics to India, Kenya, Mexico and elsewhere.

Mrs. Svendsen established a specialty clinic in Ethi­o­pia, where donkeys’ average life span is only nine years, compared with more than 30 in Britain. She hoped the hospital, complete with a donkey emergency room and a donkey-powered ambulance, would help extend the creatures’ lives.

“We have many critics,” Mrs. Svendsen once wrote, “those who feel the money we spend on donkeys could be better spent on old people, young people, on battered babies, the list is endless. All worthy causes, but my love is donkeys and it is to them I wish my efforts to go.”

Elisabeth Doreen Knowles was born Jan. 23, 1930 in Yorkshire.

She became enamored of donkeys when she was a girl. “They had such soft, warm muzzles, such beautiful, trusting eyes, and they seemed to look at me as if perhaps they knew what was going to happen in the future,” she said.

She worked as a teacher and a secretary before she and her husband, Niels, started a family. They devised a dryer for baby diapers, sold their invention to a manufacturer and used the money to buy a hotel in Devon in 1966.

She and her husband later divorced.

Survivors include their four children, Clive, Lise, Sarah and Paul, who is head of the Donkey Sanctuary’s European operations; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In the mid-1970s, Mrs. Svendsen founded a sister charity, a therapeutic donkey-riding center for children with disabilities.

She retired in 2007 after writing more than a dozen books, including children’s tales and the autobiographical volumes “Down Among the Donkeys” (1981) and “For the Love of Donkeys” (1993).

“Donkeys are humble. They never ask for anything, yet they are always derided,” she said. “I just think they’re the most lovely, put-upon animals.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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