Donkeys are having their moment but they remain in peril  

Marianne Steele, CEO of Donkey Sanctuary
Marianne Steele 1st August 2023
A still of a man and a donkey walking in a field, taken from the film The Banshees of Inisherin.

The Banshees of Inisherin. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

After years of misconceptions and stereotyping, the public portrayal of donkeys is changing. Two feature films, The Banshees of Inisherin and EO, showed that donkeys are not stubborn or stupid, writes Marianne Steele, CEO of The Donkey Sanctuary.

When Polish film director Jerry Skolomowski won the 2022 Jury Prize at Cannes for EO, a movie showing our imperfect world from the perspective of a donkey, he gave a memorable acceptance speech, dedicating the award to every donkey that appeared in the film.

Another feature film followed. Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy, The Banshees of Inisherin, featured Jenny the miniature donkey in a central role. It won four BAFTAs in January including Outstanding British Film. Although it didn’t win an Oscar it brought donkeys to a global audience, generating lots of discussion online and in print about Jenny.

Aside from the awards, what was remarkable about EO and Banshees was their accurate and sensitive portrayal of their donkey protagonists. There was no ridicule involved; these donkeys were not stubborn or stupid. On the contrary, in both films donkeys were chosen because of their intelligent and calm demeanour, in contrast with the often cruel and foolish pettiness of the human characters. For once, donkeys were playing themselves and to great effect.

We can all learn from the stoicism of donkeys

There is one trait that donkeys embody more than any other animal – stoicism. The Philosophy of Stoicism is also having a moment, popular amongst those searching for a more meaningful approach to life. Stoic, when associated with donkeys, suggests both acceptance and resilience. Modern Stoics describe the philosophy as about being steadfast, strong and in control of yourself – much like a donkey.

It’s hard to know if there’s a link between the re-emergence of stoicism and a growing appreciation of the traits that make donkeys such dependable and loyal companions. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the politics of the day or our treatment of the planet, but if the ultimate purpose of Stoicism is to live in agreement with nature, that is something that both humans and donkeys can get behind.

An unlikely champion

A Premiership footballer is not the most obvious advocate but in Kai Havertz donkeys have found a champion. Long-used as a term of derision in football, the Arsenal and Germany star has given new meaning to the nickname ‘donkey’.

When Kai revealed that his former team-mates at Chelsea called him ‘donkey’, not for his football but because of his calm and thoughtful demeanour, he was changing the narrative about what it is to be a donkey. Kai was given a toy donkey as a child and subsequently went on to sponsor donkeys at a local sanctuary, where he discovered an affinity with the animals.

Kai told The Guardian: ‘From day one, I felt a special relationship with donkeys. It’s a very calm animal: maybe I personalised myself in them because I’m calm too. They chill all day, don’t do much, just want to live their life. I loved them always. And when I lost, I would go to the sanctuary. You look at the animals, see something human in them. It was a kind of recovery, a place I felt peace.’

Donkeys deserve a better future

Despite their newfound fame, donkeys remain in peril. They need our help. Earlier this year The Donkey Sanctuary launched an ambitious new strategy – a global plan to improve the lives of five million donkeys over the next five years. Continued media support highlighting the plight of donkeys – moving away from their stereotyped image of stupidity – will help us achieve our aims.

This is a revised version of a blog that originally appeared on The Donkey Sanctuary’s website

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