Safe haven Woman creates a holy land for abused donkeys

GAN YOSHIYA, Israel -- Few animals can match the donkey for its biblical reputation.

In the Old Testament, a talking ass saved the prophet Balaam from doom as they plodded down a road toward the angel of the Lord.

In the New Testament, Jesus made his final entry into Jerusalem seated on a young donkey as residents strewed palm fronds in their path.

Nowadays, despite its illustrious pedigree, the donkey is a less-than-exalted creature in the Holy Land, a gentle beast of burden that can't get any respect.

Instead, what often gets heaped on donkeys is abuse.

Some donkeys here get their ears lopped off by rowdy young boys for no other reason than sport. Others have been doused with gasoline and set ablaze or beaten to death with a hammer -- also for fun.

The creatures are even vulnerable to the bloody politics that roil this part of the world. Not long after the current intifada broke out in September 2000, Palestinian militants tried to use an explosives-laden donkey cart to kill Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. The donkey and the cart blew up before they reached the intended target.

More recently, during a Palestinian protest over Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank, an unlucky donkey, deemed to represent Israel, was paraded among the crowd and then punished by the demonstrators, who sliced off both its ears and its tail, according to animal rights activist Lucy Fensom.

Fensom knows the story because that mutilated donkey is now in her care -- along with 42 others she has rescued from mistreatment over the last 2 1/2 years.

One-woman campaign

Together they live on a four-acre plot of land in Gan Yoshiya, a small, dust-choked residential neighborhood about an hour's drive north of Tel Aviv. This is Fensom's Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land, a sanctuary she set up for abused and injured donkeys to live out their days in peace.

From here, Fensom, a 31-year-old transplanted Briton, pursues a quixotic but impassioned one-woman campaign to save as many of these animals as possible and to elevate the donkey's lowly status.

It's an uphill battle. Complicating her efforts are cultural differences, linguistic barriers, a lack of funds and criticism from those who say she shows more concern for animals than she does for her fellow human beings.

"Yes, I care about people ... but because humans suffer, it doesn't mean animals have to suffer as well," she said.

Fueling her missionary zeal is a deep love of four-legged creatures -- about the closest thing there is to a secular religion back in Fensom's native country. "You know how the English are with animals," she said.

A British animal rights group gave Fensom the start-up money -- about $60,000 -- to establish her donkey refuge three years ago.

The need for a shelter in Israel occurred to Fensom while she was working for the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the early 1990s. A haggard-looking donkey was often hitched near the society's offices, brought by its Bedouin master who worked in the factory across the street.

Fensom began tending to the donkey when she could and grew increasingly attached to it.

She gave up her job as a British Airways flight attendant and moved back to Israel to establish her donkey haven in late 1999.

Usually abandoned

Every week, Fensom goes on a patrol of nearby villages, looking out for donkeys tied up in fields, pulling carts or simply roaming free, abandoned by owners who no longer have any use for them.

The donkeys Fensom takes home with her are usually already abandoned and therefore more vulnerable to random cruelty.

Some of the donkeys have had parts of their legs amputated because their restraints had gouged so deep that gangrene set in. One donkey was blinded through mistreatment. A few are missing ears.

Fensom has only once had to have a donkey put down.

"They're much stronger than horses in their ability to cope," she said. "If something goes wrong with a horse, they go down like that. But donkeys are very hardy. "