Donkeys are extremely popular with the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the Greek island of Santorini every summer. However, the approximately 360 donkeys who live on this Greek island suffer during the summer season. They are forced to carry loads that are too heavy, and they are sometimes hit or beaten and denied food. Local residents decided to take pictures and videos to document this animal cruelty. This, however, has led to conflicts between activists and the donkey owners, for whom the animals represent a considerable revenue.
It all started when a video showing a donkey being beaten and mistreated by his owner was posted on Instagram on July 23. While the animal was struggling to go down the steps, its owner was hitting it violently and pulling on its lead. Many people responded with shock and horror to the video but none more so than the residents of Santorini.
This Greek island is steep and difficult to climb with its small streets and many staircases. Many tourists chose to do the ascent on a donkey’s back.
Our Observer Maria Astradeni Scourta is a member of an association called Direct Action Everywhere - Athens, a group made up of activists who focus on animal rights. Scourta says that most people just aren’t aware how badly many of Santorini’s donkeys are treated.
"The donkeys are treated like machines: when they are no longer efficient, they are discarded"
The donkey rides begin at 9am every day and don’t finish until the sun sets. The donkeys go from the port to the village of Fira (the capital of Santorini) and back. To get there, they have to climb about 600 steps. On average, the donkeys do seven roundtrips a day. They are forced to carry heavy loads up a 250-metre slope. Some of the donkeys who carry very heavy tourists end up with back problems or even injured spinal cords. Many donkeys also wear badly adjusted saddles, which can rub and even burn the animal’s skin.
However, the donkeys in Santorini do much more than just carrying tourists. Local people also use donkeys to carry heavy loads up the steep slopes, especially construction materials for houses located at the tops of the hills. Most of the time, when you see the donkeys going up these steps, they are leaning against the walls to keep going.
Working in the heat, with no breaks
When the donkeys are exhausted and aren’t doing their jobs as well, the owners hit them with sticks to get them to hurry up. The donkeys are treated like machines: when they are no longer efficient, they are discarded. Often, I’ve come across a donkey lying on the ground, unable to move and exhausted by the heat and its burden.
“You need to see beyond the idea of a picturesque donkey ride. Santorini isn’t just a postcard!”
Several different local organisations are now working to educate both tourists and locals about the plight of the donkeys. One of the organisations is Direct Action Everywhere - Athens. On July 27, the group gathered on the steps to carry out an awareness-raising campaign. Some of the videos taken by both passers-by and members of the groups in question showed donkey owners confronting activists.
The donkey owners became very violent. Some of them set fire to our banners and threw our bags down the stairs. Right now, we are in peak tourist season. The number of tourists will increase through the rest of August.
Our aim is to carry out campaigns to shock the tourists so that they don’t end up on the back of starving donkeys for a ride that is supposed to be both traditional and romantic. You need to see beyond the idea of a picturesque donkey ride. Santorini isn’t just a postcard!
Currently, the island which measures 76 square kilometres is close to suffocation. In peak tourist season, Santorini gets close to 70,000 tourists a day, 13,000 of whom get off of massive cruise ships.
When tourists come to Santorini, they see a picturesque and idyllic landscape. Back in the day, however, donkey rides were important to both the survival of and the development of the island. Locals used donkeys to carry their goods. But today, that’s no longer the case. Now, you can take a mechanical lift from the port up to Fira.
“We need to find a balance between tourism and animal rights”
Katerina T. (not her real name) lives in Fira.
The most important thing is to regulate the use of donkeys instead of just banning it. The donkeys are part of the cultural identity of the island. They’ve been here for decades. And tourism is an important part of the local economy. It costs around seven euros for a donkey ride, which is quite a lot. We need to find a balance between tourism and animal rights.
On July 29, the town of Fira reacted to the public outcry after the publication of the videos. The city government promised to enact a series of measures including limits on the hours that the donkeys can work and the loads that they carry. The mayor also announced that the number of tourists allowed to disembark on the island on any given day would drop from 13,000 to 8,000.
The town of Santorini didn’t respond to an interview request from the FRANCE 24 Observers. If they do respond, we will update this page.
In order to speed up the enactment of these new regulations, the activists launched an online petition to raise awareness amongst both local people and tourists about the plight of the donkeys. They have collected around 85,000 signatures.