Greek Island Campaign to Offer Relief to Abused Donkeys

April 5, 2019 Updated: April 25, 2019

The Greek government, a British animal welfare charity, and the cruise-line industry are kicking off a campaign to raise awareness for the ill-treated donkeys and mules at Greece’s popular island destination, Santorini.

On April 2, the Mayor of Santorini, Nikos Zorzos, said the campaign would start soon, according to The GuardianThe Donkey Sanctuary and Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) are key collaborators in the effort to sensitize tourists and locals to the abuse inflicted on donkeys and mules—which are being used to transport tourists, sometimes overweight, and heavy luggage up the 520 zigzagging steps to Fira, Santorini’s capital.

Fira, Santorini
A screenshot from Google Maps, taken on April 4, 2019, shows the location of Fira, Santorini in Greece. (Google Maps)

Donkeys have traditionally been used to ferry people from the island’s port to Fira, which sits more than 1,200 feet above sea level. The rides are popular among holidaymakers seeking the “real” Greek experience. But as Santorini’s popularity grew and tourists increased over the years—now reaching as many as 17,000 cruise ship passengers a day during summer—the number of equines suffering from spinal injuries, saddle sores, and exhaustion has reached record highs.


A chart from TradingEconomics.com shows the number of tourists arriving in Greece each year between 2009 and 2019.

Images of overweight tourists and overburdened donkeys spread on social media, raising awareness of the problem. Over the course of two years, an online petition decrying the plight of these donkeys and mules had gathered more than 108,000 signatures by the end of summer 2018.

It culminated in the Greek government publishing a new set of regulations in late 2018 designed to prevent owners from overloading their animals with more than 220 pounds, or one-fifth of their body weight. It also implemented other rules related to the care and treatment of the animals.

The new campaign comes on the heels of these new regulations, and right before the next peak tourist season begins. Zorzos told The Guardian the government plans to distribute information leaflets targeting donkey owners.

“Our mules and donkeys are part of our tradition,” Zorzos said. “Younger owners, especially, have understood that they need to be looked after.”

CLIA, which represents more than two-thirds of European cruise companies docking at Santorini, will screen an educational video called “In Their Hooves” on their ships as part of this campaign.

Tom Boardley, secretary general at CLIA Europe, said they have received feedback from tourists about the issue: “Over recent years we have had several complaints from cruise passengers about the way donkeys were being treated on islands such as Santorini: for example, where rides are offered on donkeys and mules that have been tethered for hours on end in the hot sun unable to access water,” he said in a statement published by The Donkey Sanctuary.

“We fully support The Donkey Sanctuary’s ‘In Their Hooves’ Campaign and hope it will go some way to reassure our passengers that we care about animal welfare in destinations on our members’ cruises,” Boardley  said.

Maria Deligianni, CLIA’s representative for the eastern Mediterranean region, told The Guardian that Santorini’s donkeys are an iconic feature of the island and helping raise awareness of their plight is an important aspect of their destination sustainability plan for Santorini.

The video urges tourists to pause and consider before they hitch a ride on the donkeys up to Fira.

“It suggests holidaymakers consider whether donkeys and mules are being treated humanely, have enough shade and water, as well as whether loads they are being asked to carry are suitable,” Catherine Rice, PR officer at The Donkey Sanctuary, told The Guardian. “If not, other options, such as walking or taking a cable car, might be a more responsible mode of transport.”

CLIA has also consented to limit the number of passengers who disembark from their cruise ships at Santorini. Zorzos told The Guardian the measure will be enforced this year, with no more than 8,000 people, spaced out over the course of a day, to be permitted ashore.

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