It's a cool, gray morning on the Devon coast in southwest England. As the last mists lift off the hillside that holds Slade Farm, the inhabitants, both animal and human, start to go about their day's business. Suddenly the air is rent with a sound that is a cross between an asthmatic bagpipe and a rusty door hinge. It is picked up and repeated, echoing off the hills. The donkeys of Slade Farm are waking up. Around 8 a.m. a short, blond-haired woman walks into the barnyard. Soon she is surrounded by donkeys, hundreds of them. "Mother's here," she announces happily.

In Elisabeth Svendsen's world, the donkey is king, and his suffering days are over. Svendsen, 57, runs England's Donkey Sanctuary, on 818 acres of rolling Devonshire countryside. There, more than 1,700 donkeys graze or frolic as the mood moves them, gazing at the blue Atlantic, safe at last from abuse and neglect.

Like many of the people who devote themselves to lives of single-minded sacrifice, Elisabeth Svendsen stumbled on her vocation. In 1968, she and her husband, Neils, bought a hotel in Devon from the proceeds of a dishwasher that he had invented. They also bought a donkey, Naughty Face, for their children. After Naughty Face gave birth to two foals—which could have fetched as much as $500 each—the Svendsens went into donkey breeding as a sideline.

Then, in 1970, Elisabeth went to Exeter on market day and saw seven small, terrified donkeys crammed into a tiny pen. As she was debating whether or not she could afford to buy them, they were sold. They were the last donkeys that Elisabeth Svendsen would miss.

"I suddenly realized that I shouldn't be breeding donkeys, because there were so many out there in trouble," says Svendsen, who began taking in abused and cast-off donkeys. Among the first she rescued was Lucky Lady, a beach donkey she discovered being beaten by its owner. After reasoning failed, Svendsen warned him: "If you strike her again, I'll kill you." Instead of carrying out her threat, Svendsen struck a deal with the owner and Lucky Lady became hers for $95. Svendsen's inventory swelled unexpectedly when the owner of Britain's other donkey sanctuary died in 1973 and left Svendsen 204 animals, as well as debts in excess of $18,000.

Svendsen and her then-husband began to devote more and more of their time and money to the rescue of donkeys. They mortgaged the hotel and bought Slade Farm, 146 acres of hills sloping down to the Atlantic. They fenced off fields and repaired barns to accommodate their guests. Then they got their first break. They received a bequest for close to $14,000. It seems the donor's nickname had been Donkey, and in his will, he decided to take care of his namesakes.

Since then, Svendsen has depended on donkey lovers' largesse, and the money has always come in. "Whenever I've been so desperate or so short of money that I didn't know where to turn, it's almost like a prayer has been answered. In the morning, there's been another check for 1,000 pounds. It just happens every time." With the money, Svendsen has been able to hire a staff of 92, including veterinarians, nurses and a farrier (who clips the donkeys' hooves).

Donkeys are not the only guests who receive special attention on Slade Farm. It is also home to the Slade Centre, a day camp for handicapped children, run by Svendsen's sister, Pat Feather. Some 200 kids visit every week, and one of their favorite activities is riding the donkeys. "As I love donkeys, I also love children," says Svendsen. "If I ever get depressed, I just walk across to the Slade Centre and watch the children for half an hour." At the other end of the age spectrum, Slade Farm occasionally plays host to senior-citizen groups.

Seeking to protect ill-treated donkeys outside Britain, Svendsen formed the International Donkey Protection Trust in 1985. On July 4, she will open a sanctuary in Kenya, her first outside England.

Back in Devon, the donkeys keep arriving, as many as seven a week. They are housed in blue-and-white stalls, most with a view of the ocean. Eventually, they are allowed out in the fields, where they can pair up with a lifelong friend. From then on, the two are treated as a couple—moved together, fed together and, when one is sick, sent to the hospital together.

If a good home opens up, Svendsen is glad to send out a few donkeys. In 1973, three of her alumni were happily lodged in a baronial estate owned by three elderly sisters. All went well for several months, until one November day when one of the sisters telephoned and told Svendsen: "You'll have to take them home. They've become naughty little donkeys. At our age we can't be expected to push and pull them up the stairs."

"Stairs?" asked a baffled Svendsen.

"Of course," the woman replied. "We can't leave them out in the stables in this cold weather. We put them in the guest room."

  • Contributors:
  • Dianna Waggoner.