Donkeys (and their cousins asses and mules) are almost as ubiquitous in India as are cows and dogs. And subjects of hard labour and scorn in equal measure. But not even in one’s wildest imagination could one think of a sanctuary for them. It turned out there is one, and in Leh town in Ladakh of all the places. This was the first attraction to catch my attention when I reached this town – and not any monastery or palace this region is more known for.
When I first saw a sign for the sanctuary – created very artistically – I could not believe what I was seeing. I decided to follow my curiosity, but it only led me to a series of more signs till I nearly out of town. I was beginning to wonder if someone was making an ‘ass’ out of me. But eventually I did find it just off the road leading to Khardungla Pass (the highest motorable road in the world at 18,380 feet).
Friendly signs greeted me – I have never seen so much respect for these animals – at the sanctuary, looked after by caretaker Padma Dorje. He told me the same was opened to public only in the first week of July 2008 (that’s a few days before I paid a visit) and is primarily funded by a South African photojournalist Joanne Lefson; the local affairs are looked after by Stany Wangchuk, who works with a travel company. Permission from the local officials to open this sanctuary was received only a short while before it was opened.
The animals here are primarily those who are not capable of any work, due to old age or disabilities, and have been abandoned by their owners. Not only do they get medical care and food here, but are also kept safe from street dogs; the dogs in these parts are known to be much more ferocious than their counterparts in the plains, and can kill and eat a donkey within an hour (according to the caretaker).
There are some baby donkeys here too, mostly born here only. Some more on the way; while some adult donkeys came in here pregnant, others got so at the sanctuary itself. When I visited, about 10 were pregnant. The process of getting the animals here started 3-4 months before it was officially opened. The male species are distinguished with red ribbons, while the female ones with yellow. In July when I visited, the population was about 65 of a total capacity of 180. Even when they are healthy, there is no intention to send the donkeys away. They are here for life.
Of course, looking after these animals is no mean task both in terms of effort and finances. According to the caretaker, the daily food bill is Rs. 4,000 ($100) for a diet of wheat, biscuits, grass and medicines. Each donkey need eight kilograms of food, besides a kilogram of wheat daily. There is also an annual rent of Rs. 30,000 ($800) for the property. Joanne pays most of the bills of the currently, with one percent being met by donations. Contributions are expected to go up as the place gets better know. I did my bit with a modest contribution of Rs. 100.
The animals do sleep comfortably though, with rooms provided for the purpose. No doubt a much needed facility, considering the cold summer nights and extremely harsh winters this region experiences.
On the whole, the donkeys seem to be leading a good life despite the pains arising out of age or health related issues. They eat well, feel inspired to mate and conceive, roll in the dust when they feel like and play pranks: One came from behind me while I was busy taking pictures and gave a good push into my backside, almost sending me rolling over sloping ground.
According to Joanne, who took this initiative after seeing the plight of donkeys on a visit to Ladakh, “It has been a fantastic experience so far- and I plan to return each year to feed my ‘children’ carrots and everything else thats sweet in life.”
All in all, at least some donkeys are being taken care of. Who would have thought of this? Hats off to Joanne, Stany and Padma.