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. Balaam couldn't see the angel, but the donkey could. The animal's power of spiritual perception, coupled with its newfound voice, spared rider and mount from being struck down by the angel's flaming sword.
In the New Testament, Jesus made his final entry into Jerusalem seated on a young donkey as residents strewed palm fronds in their path. For Christians, the triumphal ride on Palm Sunday fulfills a prophecy that the long-awaited Messiah would appear in just this way, mounted humbly on a colt.
All that renown was millenniums ago. 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. Many are painfully hobbled by their owners, who tether them with wire or rope wrapped so tightly around their hoofs that the restraints become embedded in the flesh.
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. A few weeks later, another donkey was killed by a grenade thrown by Israeli soldiers who feared it was a walking bomb.
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 neglect and mistreatment over the last 2 1/2 years.
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.
Barriers Are Many
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.
Fensom knows that her efforts can seem frivolous in a place full of so much human misery. But she brushes such complaints aside.
"Yes, I care about people ... but because humans suffer, it doesn't mean animals have to suffer as well," she said. "We need balance in the world. We need people who care about people, people who care about kids, people who care about old people and people who care about animals."
Fensom seems to draw inspiration from her surroundings, an ancient land where donkeys have had roles--even speaking parts--in mystical stories about the human and the divine.
"I definitely feel like there's some higher source driving me to do this," Fensom said. "It's kind of like I've been chosen.... I feel like I'm on a mission."
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. England itself is home to the world's largest donkey sanctuary, in Devon, which has taken in more than 8,300 donkeys since its founding in 1969.
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. After returning to Britain a few years later, she arranged for the animal to be shipped there--a mission of mercy that caused a minor stir in the British media--and lo, the idea of a promised land for donkeys in Israel was born.
She gave up her job as a British Airways flight attendant and moved back to Israel to establish her donkey haven in late 1999.