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Postcard with donkeys, Cyprus

Photo by Athena Lao (7 December 2012) via Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Working donkeys, once a common sight in Cyprus, have become easier to spot on postcards than in real life. I looked at the same images during every trip to Cyprus between 1994 and 2004 – a donkey laden with baskets, or piles of dried twigs, and an elderly Cypriot walking by its side or perched on top of the load. These postcards saw better days and reflected different times, and different Cyprus. With every visit the contrast became more pronounced.

If you want to see the donkeys now you need to escape the coastal towns, full of tourists descending on Cyprus looking for a piece of Mediterranean heaven. Worlds away from the beach, hidden in mountains, are the small villages, with narrow dirt roads winding precariously around steep slopes. Donkeys and mules (a cross between a horse mare and a donkey jack) travelled these roads, carrying goods and people across the dry and mountainous terrain since at least 2500 BC, and remained the most popular and practical form of transport for centuries. Donkeys need only a quarter of the daily food requirements of a horse, and as Juliet Clutton-Brocks, a British zoologist, said, a mule ‘has more stamina and endurance, can carry heavier loads, and is more sure-footed then either the ass or the horse.

But the role of the donkey in Cyprus was not always limited to work. In the eighth and seventh century BC in Salamis, local nobility developed a custom of killing horses and donkeys as part of funerary celebrations. The animals, two or more, would draw the chariot with the deceased until the entrance of the tomb (dromos). And this is where they stayed. The position of the skeletons in one of the tombs tells a grim story of the final moments. The first animal was killed with one stroke and fell flat on the ground. The others were killed in a state of panic, trying to escape. The animals may even have been buried alive under the soil thrown over to fill the dromos. Now covered with a protective glass, the white bones glitter in the fields of Salamis as a remainder of a lavish ceremony in an otherwise empty tomb.

This custom lasted for a relatively short time. Live donkeys (and horses) were far more valuable than dead ones. In fact, they were almost never eaten throughout Cypriot history, a taboo that kept meat of domesticated horses away from people’s plates for most of the European history.

While horses in Cyprus and elsewhere in ancient world evoked status and prestige, participated in wars and decided fate of civilisations, donkeys kept on working. They were too common and mundane to compete with horses for the attention of artists and their clientele. Ancient Cypriots wanted to be represented as warriors not farmers. As a result, donkeys rarely feature in vase painting or terracotta, and when they do, the scenes are not far removed from the modern postcards. One of my favourite objects in the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney is a small clay figurine of the Cypriot donkey with one of its ears gone missing sometime between the fifth century BC and the present. With the harness and twin-baskets, the donkey is ready to hit the road.

The Cypriot donkey was famous throughout the Mediterranean for its size and capacity for carrying a large load (75 kg and over). It was also noted for its loyalty and patience. John Thomson, a Scottish photographer who visited Cyprus in 1878, wrote:

Cyprian donkeys and mules are most leisurely in their habits, and have a wonderful aptitude for patiently awaiting their masters. They will stand for hours at a time without stirring from the same yard or two of shade, their heads turned towards the sun, so that with the least possible exertion of their nether quarters they keep constantly in shadow as the sun goes round.

As recently as the 1930s and 1940s, the population of donkeys and mules in Cyprus amounted to 50,000 animals. But from mid-20th century on the number of donkeys has been dwindling, replaced by tractors, pickups and SUVs. According to the 2002 census carried out in southern Cyprus, only 2200 working or retired donkeys were left. The no-longer-wanted animals have been simply abandoned, and have depended on charities or become feral; either way, their fate has been linked to becoming a tourist attraction.

In 1994, Mary and Patrick Skinner, representatives of the 60,000-strong group of British expatriates living in Cyprus, registered a charity ‘The Friends of the Cypriot Donkey’, and opened a shelter where the no-longer-needed donkeys could retire. From six animals, the sanctuary based in small village of Vouni grew to house 37 in 1996 and 57 in 1997. When I visited Vouni in 2004, there were over 100 donkeys of all shapes, ages and various colours. Some of the younger and healthier donkeys were offered for use during harvest while others could be taken for walks. All of them could be adopted. The ‘Adopt a donkey’ scheme helped the non-profit organisation to feed and house the equids. Apart from caring for sick and unwanted animals on site, the charity also provided medical and welfare services to all remaining donkeys and mules still working in Cyprus as part of its ‘Outreach Programme’. In 2007 Mary and Patrick retired and the organisation was taken over by the Devon-based organisation ‘The Donkey Sanctuary’. Other, smaller donkey farms (like in Oroklini village in Larnaca district) have since sprung up to provide donkey rides for tourists.

While donkeys in the Greek part of Cyprus are employed in tourism or are provided with a well-earned retirement, the donkeys in Northern Cyprus have to fend for themselves. The population of feral donkeys living in Karpas, an underdeveloped peninsula in the north-eastern part of the island, is a legacy of the 1974 Turkish invasion, although its origins may go back to the end of 18th century. Apparently the local villagers would release donkeys in winter, when they were not needed for work and food was scarce, and every summer catch and tame some animals for the season’s work. The fugitives established a feral population.

Feral donkeys, Cyprus

Photo by Franco Pecchio (3 December 2007) via Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The domestic animals left behind in the exodus of Greek Cypriots in 1974 and the subsequent closure of the area contributed to the increase in the number of feral donkeys. A study conducted almost 30 years later (2003) counted some 800 living in the wild. In lean years donkeys have been known to cause damage to crops and fields in the area, raising demands for a removal of the population, if not by physical extermination, then by catching and domesticating, or exporting to Turkey. The plans to send donkeys to Turkey met with outcry of environmental groups.

These groups, including the Greenpeace Organisation of Cyprus and the Society for the Protection of Animals, lobbied for Karpas to be declared a natural wildlife park for at least ten years. It is yet to happen. The document signed in October 2008 between the Economy and Tourism Ministry and the Turkish Cypriot Hunter Federation, gave the authority for the donkey protection to hunters. It is not a surprise that Cyprus Mail described the protocol as ‘a bad joke’.

Only few months earlier, in March 2008, ten donkeys were found shot dead in Karpas. The death of the donkeys, blamed on hunters or famers, mobilised young Turkish Cypriots (and a handful of Greek Cypriots) to launch a campaign ‘Let’s stop the massacre of Karpas donkeys!’ on Facebook. The groups attracted more than 3000 members and in April 2008 organised a rally ‘Save the Cyprus Donkey’ on a beach in the Karpas Peninsula.
The Facebook group says the Karpas donkeys ‘are the symbol of Cyprus and it is our responsibility to protect them’. Somehow during the last 40 years, the feral donkeys of Karpas have acquired a status of ‘wild animals’ and ‘rare breed’. Even more, they are considered by some as the only ‘real Cypriots’. A twist to the ethnic conflict on the island?

What has happened to donkeys is Cyprus over the last 70 years or so exemplifies the fate of animals in the urbanised world. As a result of industrial development, many animals have been effectively removed from everyday life – no more horse-trams, horse-carriages or ploughs drawn by oxen. Others have become increasingly exploited for pleasure, leisure and entertainment, and protected in order to fulfil the requirements of human consumption. They were and remain useful symbols of national, social and individual identity. Seeing that the wild and rare animals tend be admired and preferred as heraldic symbols, the change in the status of the no-longer-quotidian Cypriot donkey was to be expected. But it is enough to save the Cypriot donkey?

You can read more about donkeys and other animals in Cyprus, as well as other examples of the complexities of human–animal relationships in Australia, China, India and the UK in the new book from Sydney University Press: Animals in the Anthropocene: critical perspectives on non-human futures.

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