OTUMBA, Mexico—Mexico’s donkeys, once omnipresent across the country, are disappearing. But now, a donkey-themed park on the outskirts of Mexico City is trying to bring them back.
“In the 90’s, there was a population of around 1.5 million specimens, but today it’s estimated that there are around 300,000 [donkeys],” said Raul Flores, administrator of the donkey theme park and sanctuary Burrolandia, or Donkey Land, citing figures from Mexico’s National Institute for Geography and Statistics.
While some other estimates vary, there is a clear consensus that the numbers are in a steep decline–part of a global trend brought on by technological advances, urbanization and most recently, rising demand for donkey skins in China.
In few countries, however, is the animal as culturally significant as in Mexico. Depicted in everything from folkloric art and souvenirs to old western films and modern cartoons, the image of a man wearing a traditional sombrero and walking with a burro, or donkey, by his side, is synonymous with Mexico.
A little more than a decade ago, the demand for donkeys had fallen so low that one could be purchased in Mexico for about $15. Now, the numbers have plummeted at an accelerated rate while the price has skyrocketed in the country to $300 or more.
Both the drop in numbers and the rise in prices owe in great part to China’s increasing demand for burro skins, which are used to produce a gelatin called elijao that is put into alternative medicines. As the market for elijao has outstripped the capacity of country’s own population of burros to produce it, China has increasingly sought out skins abroad, decimating populations across the world and even leading to the theft of the animals and clandestine trade.
Faced with such mounting obstacles, Burrolandia is one of a number of initiatives in Mexico attempting to preserve the donkey’s place in the country’s culture. The Flores family founded the sanctuary in 2006 in Otumba, a small town just outside the capital with special significance for the burro.
In centuries past, Otumba was the site of one of the most important burro markets in the country. Today, it’s home to Burrolandia as well as an annual burro festival that attracts a hundred thousand visitors and is held on May 1–international worker’s day.
“We believe that on the day of the worker it’s necessary to recognize the hardest worker, which is the donkey,” said Flores.
The sanctuary pays homage to the animal everyday, and also showcases works of folkloric art and all kinds of kitsch, such as anthropomorphic burros and even a furry Chevy Impala, decked out with donkey ears and a tail. The main attraction are the 61 burros who were either rescued from the slaughterhouse, mistreatment, or in the case of a few, born there.
Visitors learn about the history of the burros in Mexico and to look past the misguided stereotypes about the animals, chief among them that they are dumb. “In school we say burro to the dumbest, most clumsy person,” said Flores. But in reality, they are very smart and their brains are larger than those of horses, he added.
The burro originated in Africa and was brought to Mexico in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. It became the beast of burden of choice for many in the country due to its relatively low cost compared with a horse or a mule and its strong work ethic.
Spending time at the sanctuary, VICE World News found that they are also very affectionate, rubbing themselves against people and clamoring for attention just like a dog or a cat. It’s hoped that having such an experience will help convince city dwellers and younger generations that burros are deserving of respect, and worthy of being saved.
“The burro helped man for a very long time. It’s time for us to return the favor,” said Flores.
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