Saving donkeys in India and Carluke - video

The Donkey Sanctuary is one of the biggest single animal charities in the world, helping donkeys as far apart as India, Brazil...and Carluke.

At her home at Hillhead Farm, Elma Cunningham - who taught for over three decades at Carluke High - is now Donkey Welfare Adviser for the South of Scotland with the charity.

Elma Cunningham with donkeys Coco and Skye

Elma Cunningham with donkeys Coco and Skye

Elma’s family - the Russells - worked with horses for generations, and she got her first donkey as a child. She has shown and judged donkeys all over the country, winning national championships and choosing the winners at prestigious shows including the Royal Highland.

For the last 18 years she has been working with the Donkey Sanctuary, for the last two as a welfare adviser.

“It is fantastic fun,” said Elma.

“It is hard sometimes, with some of the things you see and have to deal with. But one of the good things is that we don’t prosecute owners. We help.”

Most of the work involves following up complaints that owners are not looking after donkeys properly.

“We can resolve about 95 per cent of the complaints with the owners,” said Elma. “They maybe don’t realise how often donkeys need a farrier, or that donkeys need a shelter. They can ask for help, and they get it.”

Or owners can choose to relinquish the donkeys. Only once in her 18 years has Elma had to call in another body with legal powers to remove animals being mistreated by an owner.

The Donkey Sanctuary runs care courses for those with donkeys, or those interested in rehoming donkeys - and Elma stresses that it is donkeys! They go out in pairs, as the animals bond!

If owners relinquish them to the Sanctuary, donkeys from much of Scotland will spend time with Elma in Carluke, being cared for until they are ready to be rehomed. Up to ten pairs a year can be rehomed in Scotland, and Elma, or her colleague covering the north of Scotland, will visit them in their new homes to see how they are getting on.

One example involved two geldings, Rabbie and Gus.

The owners were getting up in years and not quite so fit to give the animals the attention they were used to. The boys went to Elma’s yard, were vetted, checked by the farrier, deemed suitable for rehoming and set off to a new life in another part of Scotland.

On Elma’s twice yearly visit to Rabbie and Gus, her welcome is second to none. And each time they are waiting at the gate, shining coats, well-trimmed hooves and sparkling eyes – just wondering what to get up to next.

Rabbie and Gus have landed on their eight little hooves, loved to bits, well in to their routine and the new owners are safe in the knowledge that the skills and expertise of The Donkey Sanctuary are only a telephone call away.

Elma’s stables outside Carluke currently house a number of donkeys, including a pair given over by an elderly woman in Ardnamurchan, who was struggling to care for them. Elma keeps in touch with her too, letting her know how they are getting on; and one brought from Skye, whose life was saved by the charity.

Baded in Devon, The Donkey Sanctuary was founded by the late Dr Elisabeth Svendsen in 1969.

“She was a donkey fanatic like myself,” said Elma.

“It is a great organisation to work for.”

“It is one of the biggest single animal charities in the world.

The charity works in countries such as Brazil, and India, where donkeys carry loads in the brick kilns.

“We do a lot of work in these countries, and have vet exchanges and farrier exchanges,” said Elma, summing up the education needed in third world countries: “If your donkey falls down, don’t beat it! Find out what is wrong.”.

Since 1969, The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 18,000 donkeys and mules sanctuary in the UK and Europe and there are currently 6,200 animals in the charity’s care. For those currently in Carluke, life is definitely looking up!

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Contact Elma on or read her thoughts at her blog: