Brian, my husband, and I were lucky enough to be accepted as volunteers for a couple of weeks at El Refugio del Burrito in Fuente de Piedra, Spain during September 2008. As we drove north from Malaga we wondered what we were letting ourselves in for but we needn't have worried! As soon as we entered the gates of El Rufugio we felt at home!
El Refugio may not be as huge, green and pristine as The Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth but the wonderful feeling is nonetheless all there! Our first sight of donkeys were those in the 'car park paddock' - Hope, Rosi, Canela, Roberta, Catalina and Burrita. Every donkey a beauty in a different way, from flowing white coat to cropped ears (poor Hope had been horribly mutilated in her previous life and now has only stumps for ears).
We were made so welcome by Lea Seward, farm manager, and her dedicated team (both English and Spanish) and settled ourselves into our temporary home - within sight, sound and scent of donkeys, so absolutely perfect!
Next day we learned the routine of morning mucking out and clearing paddocks. What is it about donkeys and cleaning equipment? Leave a wheelbarrow (usually full) unattended for just one minute and a donkey is sure to tip it over! Leave a broom and it will certainly be taken in mouth and trotted away with! And, when they weren't stealing our tools, they were stealing our hearts!
Time for a tea break and a chance to practice my very poor Spanish! We had some hilarious moments with our new found Spanish friends equally keen to try out their English! So I would start a conversation in Spanish (with a very English accent!) to be answered by a Spaniard in very Spanish sounding English! I now know lots of new phrases, like "There's donkey dung in the water trough" and "Platero has just knocked the wheelbarrow over!" but just how useful they'll be on my next holiday to Spain…!
Nursing duties and morning feeds took us up to lunch time and - perhaps the best time of the day for me - a quiet afternoon grooming donkeys and getting to know them, while the staff enjoyed their well deserved siesta. Several donkeys would quietly queue up for a brush and edge ever closer until it was quite possible to do two at a time. Grooming Rosina inevitably meant being gently sandwiched between her and her wonderfully close (in every sense of the word!) companion, Josephina. Brian would be wielding a less pleasurable but just as important paint brush and has positive proof that the aim of any self respecting donkey is to render a newly painted white wall as grubby as possible as quickly as possible!
Early evening duties included extra feeds and sweeping yards and, as the staff left for the evening, Brian and I would take the chance to walk around to have a quiet evening chat with our friends. And what friends - miniature donkeys, huge Andalucian and Martina Franca donkeys, a wonderful variety of mules and dear Jack, the blind pony who never put a hoof wrong in getting around his paddock. Every one special in his or her own way - most with a sad history of neglect - but now safely surrounded by well deserved love and care. As darkness fell we would retreat to our home and watch our donkey neighbours - well, just being donkeys! Nothing better! Then a quiet few hours before a chorus of brays would herald the dawn of a new day.
Every member of the team at El Refugio, from grooms to gift shop, are very dedicated and it shows! We were proud and happy to be a small part of it for a short time.
Do visit - it's a very special place and I promise you'll feel better for spending time there. A visit may not change your life but it will make your day!