Backstory: Donkey deliverance

An accidental activist in the Holy Land.

From Tel Aviv's glittering skyline, it's a 30-minute drive to the other side of the world - the heart of the West Bank and this desperately poor Palestinian farming community where jobs are scarce and transport runs on four legs, not four-wheel-drive.

Here, almost every household has at least one donkey - for transport, trade, or plowing - but few treat their animals as anything more than a necessary tool. Today, though, the Dian Fossey of donkeys, Lucy Fensom, hopes to change that mentality just a bit.

I'm expecting the founder of Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, the only donkey sanctuary in the Middle East, to be solemn, tough, maybe even cranky. So I'm taken aback when a bubbly blond Englishwoman - fully made up, looking glamorous in black (flecked with donkey hair) - rushes up to my Jeep in the muck of a local farmyard and launches into an animated, giggling conversation.

A former British Airways flight attendant, Ms. Fensom traded stilettos for rubber boots and manicures for muddy nails, almost by accident. On a visit in 2000 to Israel, she saw a badly treated donkey, and on impulse bought it for $200 (donkeys here can be had for as little as $20). After having it flown to a shelter in Britain, she arrived at the airport to face - to her astonishment - a horde of reporters.

"What are you going to do next?" one pressed. Caught by surprise, she answered hastily from the heart, "I want to start a sanctuary in Israel."

Donations poured in, and Fensom soon found herself back on a plane to Israel - in service not of passengers, but of donkeys. With no expertise, help, or even knowledge of the language, she took on a mission to bring modern Western animal rights to a traditional culture whereeven human rights aren't yet settled. Since then, the accidental activist has rescued 110 donkeys - abandoned, unwanted, or confiscated by local authorities. They're cared for at her four-acre sanctuary in a rural settlement east of Tel Aviv. She also conducts "mobile clinics" like the one in Azun today offering free veterinary service and advice aimed at raising esteem for the animal.

"There are times I wonder what I'm doing here," she admits with a grin.

Shivering in the cold, heels sinking into the mud, I can see what she means as we survey the farmyard seething with jostling donkeys and Palestinian men staring incredulously at the Western women in their midst.

***

Donkeys have been beasts of burden in the Middle East for millennia. A donkey carried a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys worked the land, carried people and produce, and are still in use in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a vital, utilitarian means to an end. But donkeys are also victims of the most gruesome kinds of abuse, perhaps because they're barely seen as animals at all. Before Fensom arrived on the scene, no charity worked to protect them.

"I'm doing something no one else has bothered to," she says, without hint of self-congratulation. "Lots of people think I'm crazy, which is fair enough. Sometimes I think so myself. But I do believe, strange as it sounds, that some kind of higher force put me here to do this."

The big question, however, in a region where children are frequently caught in crossfire and the ill are refused permits to reach medical treatment: Why donkeys? Why these beasts with a reputation for stupidity and stubbornness?

"First, I believe that when you set an example of compassion for animals, you also breed compassion for humans," Fensom explains. "Second, by helping working donkeys at clinics, you're also helping their owners. These people's livelihoods depend on their donkeys, so it's in everyone's interests to keep them fit, healthy, and working. And the political situation isn't the animals' fault - so why should they suffer?

"Donkeys," she adds, "are humble creatures that spend their whole lives serving man. There should be someone looking out for them."

***

Today is Lucy's first visit to Azun to establish a branch of her outreach program for Palestinian working donkeys. She knows to tread carefully: She'll only reach the donkey owners if she's diplomatic and nonjudgmental. Otherwise they'll see her as an interfering outsider.

The economic reality she's bucking is evident in Zuhir Marabi's situation. An unemployed local, he's gladly brought his donkey for vet service, noting: "The money I can make back from working a donkey - pulling a cart, digging the land - compared to how much I would spend at a vet doesn't justify the investment. I don't feed the donkey regularly ... only when I'm working, because I can't afford it. I have six children to feed."

Fensom is savvy enough to know that, in the end, her audience may just nod agreeably to get a freebie. But whatever the Azun crowd's motives, there's a huge turnout.

"One big problem," she explains, "is that we often give out free head collars to replace painful makeshift chain harnesses. But then when we come back the next week, they've sold them and the donkeys are back in the same situation."

As if on cue, one donkey owner grumbles, pointing at a farmer leading a skinny donkey away: "That guy got a newer one [collar] than mine. And his is red, mine's only blue."

As we edge around the donkeys - some looking ready to kick anyone within reach - Fensom explains that the clinic treats sores on noses and backs caused by ill-fitting harnesses, and ankle wounds from wire hobbles.

"It then takes time to make them realize that beating donkeys with sticks, pushing them too hard, inflicting injuries, or just abandoning them to their fate is inhumane," she says.

Mr. Marabi offers a matter-of-fact view of the disregard for animals: Sick or old donkeys are, he says, "taken to the zoo, where they feed them to the lions. But if we can't afford to transport it, we just take it somewhere, kill it, and burn it."

Fensom is admirably contained, adding: "I want to buy the zoo a captive bolt gun, for humane slaughter. If they've got to feed them to the lions at all, it should at least be quick."

For an Englishwoman, from a "nation of animal lovers" that's home to at least 12 donkey shelters, such pragmatism is impressive. It's bred of the difficulties - from financial to life threatening - she faces.Funding is tight: The sanctuary receives no support from Israeli or Palestinian authorities; it relies precariously on donations from the West.

And almost every rescued donkey she points out at the shelter has its own tale of danger: In the quest to save them, Fensom has been menaced by mobs, received threats of arson, and most recently one of her outreach shelters was leveled during the night by a local with a personal grudge.

***

After several chaotic hours of service, the crowd at Azun thins and the clinic is completely out of supplies.

"It's so difficult," Fensom sighs, "sometimes I feel so encouraged and uplifted and other times so desperately disheartened." Yet it's clear that her work makes an immediate difference both to the donkeys and the owners who rely on them - even if they don't always take her long-term advice.

Most of all, though, she shows that it's possible to care about animals without being a "crazy animal rights activist" and to take a hands-on approach, while still having time to apply her flight attendant makeup and smile when necessary.

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