by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Trustworthy companion disappears from Bulgarian villages. Is it doomed?

Donkey Bulgaria

When was the last time you saw a donkey when travelling in rural Bulgaria? For many, Bulgarians included, this is a pointless question. The sight of a grey or brown donkey quietly grazing or pulling a cart is taken for granted in this nation's countryside, both as a charming relic of the past and as a sign that many people in EU-member Bulgaria are still too poor and/or too old to afford farm machinery or cars.

However, the statistics tell a different story. Donkeys are disappearing in Bulgaria. Their numbers have plummeted from 328,587 in 1990 to 35,000 in 2013. An astonishing decrease for an animal so popular that the first Bulgarian dictionary, published between 1887 and 1904, lists 36 words connected to it: from "saddling a donkey" to "female-donkey giving birth" to names of plants, the most well known of which is magareshki bodil, or donkey thorn, for thistle.

This is not the first time donkeys have faced extinction in the Bulgarian lands. Wild donkeys, or Equus hydruntinus, used to roam what is now Bulgaria when the last Ice Age ended. Homo sapiens hunter gatherers and Neolithic settlers hunted them to extinction. The region had to wait millennia until the first proper donkeys, Equus africanus asinus, domesticated in Africa about 7,000 years ago, arrived. When these descendants of the Nubian and Somalian wild asses settled in the Balkans remains unclear, but by the 1st millennium BC Thracians already used both donkeys and mules, their offspring from mating with horses. Some scientists speculate that ancient Greeks introduced them into the region. Greeks themselves adopted the animal as early as 2500 BC and used it to transform their landscape into the patchwork of olive groves and vineyards we know today.

Donkey Bulgaria

No matter how donkeys arrived in the Bulgarian lands, they were here to stay. Sturdy, unpretentious and outperforming horses in their ability to carry great weights, they helped villagers and urban dwellers to plough their land, transported humans and goods to the markets, and even helped to manage flocks of sheep. They were usually valued and given affectionate names, Marko being the most popular, but less fortunate donkeys might be brutally abused, especially when they demonstrated their proverbial stubbornness.

This close relationship with humans has cemented the donkey's place in folklore. A recurring legend claims that an ass was "responsible" for the fall of this or that Bulgarian fortress to the Ottomans. Here is how it goes: when the invading army realised that the defenders of the fort would not give up, they took a donkey and did not let it drink for a week. When they let the crazed animal free, following its instincts it led them straight to the hidden water source of the fortress. Once the Ottomans took control of the water, it was all over for the defendants.

Unsurprisingly, most of the many proverbs that include donkeys refer to the animal's humbleness, stubbornness and supposed stupidity. These are used to reflect common traits in human behaviour, such as "As stubborn as a donkey on a bridge." In many sayings, the hard-working and often abused animal becomes a symbol of the hardships of ordinary people at the hands of the powerful. "When the stallions kick one another, the donkeys suffer" and "The donkey was invited to a wedding, but only if it brought its saddle along" are good examples. "Scabby donkeys smell each other even when they are nine hills apart" is the Bulgarian equivalent of the more poetic English-language "Birds of a feather flock together."

Donkey Bulgaria

When a Bulgarian wanted to underline the importance of gentle hints in interpersonal relations, they would say "Beat the saddle so that the donkey gets the message." Some still say "I won't mind if a pure-bred horse kicks me, but I am against a scraggy donkey doing the same" when they want to vent frustration in the hands (or hooves?) of empowered fools. Members of Equus africanus asinus species were also used as an illustration of weather conditions. To Bulgarians, extremely cold weather is "donkeys snarl."

Donkeys also appear in folktales, but most of the time, just as in real life, in a supporting role only. For example, when Hitar Petar, the poor but witty hero of countless tales, wanted to sit by the fire in a crowded tavern, he ordered a bowl of beans and bacon for his donkey, which was in the stables. When the patrons headed out to see a donkey eating beans (which, of course, it did not), Hitar Petar got to sit by the fire. Bulgarians still say "Let's see whether the donkey eats beans" when they want to express sarcastic incredulity that something will happen.

Even when the donkey was the protagonist of a tale, it was rarely a heroic one. Quite the opposite. One donkey, for example, devised a smart way to get rid of the heavy burden of salt it carried: it jumped into a river so that the salt dissolved. When the donkey tried to repeat this tactic on the following day, it failed: this time his master had put two bags of wool on its back that became twice as heavy once soaked with water. A parable in which a flock of camels are mad at their master's decision to choose a donkey, rather than a horse, as leader of the pack, illustrated the frustration of anyone who had to obey idiots. Another tale is about a donkey that was supposed to parade, in all pomp and circumstance, before King Solomon himself. When the ass reached the king, it brayed at the top of its lungs, dropped down and rolled in the dust. "Why did you do that? Didn't I tell you to behave?!," cried the horse who, as the leader of the pack, was concerned about appearances. "I wouldn't be a donkey if I did not misbehave in front of the king," replied the ass.

Donkey Bulgaria

Understandably, magare, or donkey, became a slur used to refer to stupid people, while magariya described deliberate misbehaviour, nuisance, particularly in the presence of many and/or important people. One of the few tales that contradicts this popular notion is about an elderly donkey that fell into a well. Unable to get the animal out, its owner decided to bury it alive. When he started throwing soil into the well, the donkey kicked it under its hooves and climbed up to freedom. A really clever donkey, indeed, and a parable to not give up, even in the direst circumstances.

Donkeys are found in Bulgarian literature, too, but just as in folktales, they rarely take centre stage. Probably the only piece of Bulgarian literature that gives voice to the otherwise silent donkey is the poem Magare by Vasil Stoyanov, an early 20th century author. Many Bulgarians over 40 can still recite the first stanza:

They might claim otherwise,

But I'm a clever guy

My ears might be too long

Yet it doesn't bother me at all.

Donkeys slowly started to lose importance for Bulgarians in the 20th century. Mechanical power began to replace them in agriculture and transportation, a process that intensified under Communism, when small farms were collectivised into gigantic industrial ones. Curiously, the number of donkeys still increased. While there were 169,390 donkeys in Bulgaria in 1939, in 1985 their numbers peaked at 348,769. Donkeys were bred on specialised farms, and in 1975-1995 made up 70% of animals used for traction in Bulgarian agriculture. Villagers also stuck with them for transportation, as buying a car required waiting 10 years between paying for it and actually getting behind the wheel.

Donkey Bulgaria

A number of factors led to the post-1989 donkey decline in Bulgaria. Collectivised farms closed and the land was returned to its previous owners, or rather to their children and grandchildren, who had already settled in cities and had little desire to become farmers. Those who did opted to till small plots of land with new equipment, now readily available on the free market. The free market also brought cheap second-hand cars from Western Europe, making donkey carts redundant.

The decline of the donkey is now seen not only in numbers, but also in demographics. The preference for female donkeys (59 percent) or castrated males (18 percent), which are easier to control, has caused a shortage of uncastrated males to produce offspring. The Bulgarian donkey population is also ageing: the median age is 8-15 years, and donkeys under two years of age make up barely four percent of the population. While Bulgarians disapproved of and mocked the opening of a sanctuary for elderly donkeys in Banichan village near Gotse Delchev in 2016, the initiative by a Swiss NGO addresses a real problem. Too often, old donkeys unable to work anymore end up as an ingredient for a (reportedly delicious) dry sausage.

In 2019, scientists at the Agricultural University in Stara Zagora began to address the plight of Bulgarian donkeys. They introduced young animals and started educating farmers on what use the animal could have in 21st century Bulgaria. Donkey milk is an increasingly popular ingredient in the beauty industry, and its low-fat and high-vitamin content makes it a healthy food. Some farmers have even started producing donkey cheese.

Another promising sign of recovery are the donkey rallies in Gurkovo, near Stara Zagora. The Eco-Friendly Rally started in 1971, but stopped when Communism collapsed and locals found themselves overwhelmed by more pressing matters, like unemployment and poverty. The rally was revived in 2005. It is held on the first Saturday of September and attracts crowds from across Bulgaria and even abroad. Gurkovo also has a dedicated Donkey Museum. We can only hope that donkeys themselves will not disappear altogether, making the museum more relevant than ever. 

A 1970s tourist attraction: A donkey driver poses with his animal at Sunny Beach

A 1970s tourist attraction: A donkey driver poses with his animal at Sunny Beach


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