First, there is the image problem. But that is an old one. More recently, there are modern intrusions and fading memories of the donkey’s role, even here in the highlands of northeastern Portugal, where for centuries indigenous Miranda donkeys helped farmers plow fields and carry goods.
After decades of neglect and, some argue, misunderstanding, the fate of the donkey has come to resemble that of its human counterparts in hard-pressed European hinterlands: threatened by declining population and dependent for its survival on, yes, subsidies from the European Union.
Now, in an era of austerity, even donkeys have been swept up in the debate over just how far the European Union should go to maintain its farming regions, which are facing cuts to their financial support. The aid this year amounts to $78 billion, or 43 percent of the European Union’s overall budget, but under a recently struck deal, the farm spending will fall slightly until 2020, to about $68 billion a year, accounting for 38 percent of the union’s budget.
Since 2003, the large and docile Miranda donkey, named after the area where it lives, Tierra de Miranda, has been listed as an endangered breed. The Miranda, which has white markings around its eyes and a thick coat that it sheds as it grows old, has steadily been displaced by the tractor and other modern farming equipment.
And as young people continue to leave rural areas for the cities, the donkeys are also being threatened because the farmers who once cared for them are growing too old to keep doing so.
“I remember donkeys would be seen walking along most of our roads, which really isn’t the case now,” said Filomena Afonso, the director of the animal genetic research department in Portugal’s Agriculture Ministry, who estimated that the country’s donkey population had fallen to a quarter of what it was in the 1970s.
Until recently, the Miranda donkey was “on a one-way road to extinction,” said Miguel Nóvoa, a veterinarian and the director of an association that keeps 140 Miranda donkeys in two shelters, one for breeding and the other for donkeys that are old or abandoned.
Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, who have used national and European Union subsidies to breed Miranda donkeys, the population has recently stabilized around 800. Farmers have also been able to apply for subsidies — $230 a year for each animal — which have persuaded more of them to keep their donkeys, despite their dwindling worth as farm labor.
Without those subsidies, “it would make no economic sense to keep my donkeys, however attached I am to them,” said Gonçalo Domingues, a 70-year-old farmer who has two Mirandas. Still, another farmer, Camilo da Igreja, sold his two donkeys in October, after hip surgery left him too weak to look after them.
In reality, at a cost of about $650 a year, it makes little economic sense to keep a donkey, even with the subsidies, experts say. “Farmers now own donkeys out of love rather than for the subsidies,” said Javier Navas, a veterinary scientist who is preparing a doctoral thesis about donkeys at the University of Córdoba, in Spain.
Conservationists say that donkeys remain under threat, not only in Southern Europe but across the Western world.
“People just don’t realize that the whole donkey species is in an endangered situation in Europe,” said Waltraud Kugler, a Switzerland-based project director at the SAVE Foundation, a European animal conservation organization.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists 53 donkey breeds spread across Europe, including Russia and some former Soviet republics. Ms. Kugler said her organization estimated that about 30 European breeds were at risk, each with a population under 1,000.
It has not helped, Ms. Kugler said, that the donkey has suffered from a bad image, which has left it little studied by scientists. “The donkey is seen as the stupid animal of the poor,” she said, “and that is a reputation that is very hard to get out of people’s heads.”
Even in Northern Europe, where donkeys serve more often as pets, they are misunderstood, Ms. Kugler said. They are often kept in meadows, where the grass is ill suited to their digestion, and the soft soil is bad for their hooves, which are designed to withstand rocky ground.
The animals have steadily been displaced by the tractor and other modern farming equipment.
“Modern society has completely forgotten what made the donkey unique in the first place, which is that it originates from the desert and is used to difficult ground and having little fodder,” Ms. Kugler said.
Those attributes make the Miranda donkey especially well suited to Portugal’s highlands. Farmers here speak Mirandese — an officially recognized language in Portugal — and the region sometimes appears frozen in time. One older woman, dressed in a widow’s traditional black, explained that she still used her donkey because her family could not read or write and had never applied for driver’s licenses.
On the other hand, Orlando Vaqueiro, the Socialist mayor in charge of two of the highland villages, Paradela and Ifanes, said that, in purely economic terms, “the honest answer is that subsidies bring nothing.”
“You need the subsidies to keep donkeys and farming traditions,” he said, “but the result is also that everybody here has become completely dependent on them, so that there is no spirit of innovation and no desire to modernize or even produce more.”
But even if Europe has witnessed an exodus from the countryside to the city, traditional rural life, which the donkey has long been a part of, has regained some appeal among young people struggling through hard times in Spain and Portugal.
Luis Sebastião, a 22-year-old military police officer, said he regularly made the eight-hour bus trip from Lisbon, where he is stationed, to spend weekends in his native highlands, where he hopes to retire.
“I’m very lucky to have a job in Lisbon, but where am I going to have a better life once that work stops?” he asked. “This is where I really feel at home, alongside the donkeys and everything else that makes this place so special.”
International New York Times. Nov 2 2013