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Fat tourists are giving donkeys spinal injuries on this island paradise, activists say

Animal activists say overweight tourists - mostly from the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom - are causing injury to the donkeys that carry them up and down the hills on the Greek isle of Santorini.
Animal activists say overweight tourists - mostly from the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom - are causing injury to the donkeys that carry them up and down the hills on the Greek isle of Santorini. YouTube screengrab/The Donkey Sanctuary

Animal activists working on improving the welfare of working donkeys and mules on the Greek island paradise of Santorini have added another threat to their well-being: Fat tourists.

The donkeys that carry tourists up and down the steep hills and cobbled steps on the island are suffering bloody, open saddle sores and spinal injuries caused by carrying overweight visitors, activists with a campaign called Help the Santorini Donkeys, have told British publications.

“Locals have even started breeding their donkeys with stronger mules so it is easier for them to carry fatter tourists,” writes The Mirror.

After a peaceful protest on behalf of the donkeys turned violent over the weekend, Greek authorities pledged to make changes to improve overall working conditions for the animals.

Described as the “precious gem of the Aegean,” Instagram-friendly Santorini is known for the white houses that hug its steep hills and cliffs.

Movie fans know it from “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” which filmed scenes on the island and whose producer called it “one of the most beautiful, magical places in the world.”

Christina Kaloudi, who moved to the island from Athens 10 years ago, founded a group called Santorini Animal Welfare Association which runs a shelter on the island.

She told the Mirror that over the last decade, the number of overweight American, Russian and British tourists has tripled.

During the peak summer holiday season between May and October, thousands visit the island where donkeys have traditionally been used to carry people up steep, stepped areas that vehicles can’t travel, according to The Sun.

According to Help the Santorini Donkeys, the donkeys should carry no more than 20 percent of their own body weight, the Sun reported.

“The obese and overweight tourists, combined with the lack of shade and water as well as the sheer heat and 568 cobbled steps, is what is causing such a problem,” the Sun wrote.

In the popular tourist town of Fira, people told the Sun that the donkeys make four to five trips up the more than 500 cobbled steps to the town every day, often with no rest, no protection from the sun and ill-fitting saddles.

“The holiday season on islands is now a lot longer than it used to be, meaning that the donkeys are pretty much in work the whole year round,” Kaloudi told the Sun. “If they are not transporting tourists up the steps they are moving building materials or transporting heavy bags of rubbish.

“There are some good owners out there that follow the code but generally donkeys are worked into the ground and then disposed of when their working lives are over.”

Over the weekend Kaloudi’s group posted a video to its Facebook page of a protest on behalf of the donkeys - spawned by a video of a donkey owner beating one of his animals - that turned violent. The incident, the group wrote, demonstrated “the reality on the island behind all the glamour of its touristic prestige.”

The activists, the Facebook post said, “came all the way from Thessaloniki to make a peaceful protest on the steps of Fira for the rights of the working donkeys.

“Not long after their arrival they were attacked by certain mule and donkey owners that took their phones and cameras, burnt their banner and physically assaulted them. Two of the activists were taken to the hospital ...”

Paula Legg, deputy content editor for UK-based The Donkey Sanctuary, said in a YouTube video in late June that “many of you have been in touch to express your anger at the welfare of the working donkeys and mules on the Greek island of Santorini.

“We share your distress and we wanted to assure you that solving this ongoing issue is an ongoing priority for us.”

Legg said in the video she was part of a team that had visited the island recently and “found that the welfare conditions for many of the working donkeys and mules, especially the tourist taxis, is inadequate.

“What we found has really concerned us. We are, quite simply, dismayed. And will be increasing our efforts to support the needs of these hardworking donkeys and mules.”

After the protest-turned-violent hit social media, Santorini officials issued a statement Saturday saying they had met with animal rights groups and animal owners to ensure “respect for the rights and well-being of donkeys,” The Jakarta Post reported.

Town hall officials said all parties had agreed on measures that included giving the animals shade during their rest times and making sure they have plenty of water and food.

The loads they carry and the hours they work will also be limited, island officials said, but nothing was said about how load limits, particularly of people passengers, would be enforced.

According to the Post, Santorini has struggled in recent years to deal with an increase in tourists. The island, for instance, has limited the number of cruise liners allowed to disgorge its passengers there.

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