A Sanctuary for the Lovable and Threatened Donkeys of Split, Croatia

In a pine-shaded park overlooking the sea in Split, Croatia, a fuzzy donkey emerges among a cluster of joggers, dog-walkers, and families.

The passersby stop and smile, delighted to encounter such a creature in Croatia’s second-largest city. Some people snap photos of the grey donkey with their phones. A father and his young son ask the animal’s handler if they can stroke the animal’s muzzle. Eventually, the donkey wanders off, searching for the ideal patch of greenery to nibble upon. She seems content when she finds a grazing place. It has commanding views of the sparkling Adriatic Sea and neighboring islands.

With a short attention span, the donkey trots off again, stopping next to an abandoned phone booth. Seemingly unrelated at first, the juxtaposition of the two is symbolic in that both animal and booth were once considered essential in daily life. Today, in most parts of the world, they’ve both been rendered obsolete by technology.

Not long ago, donkeys were commonplace in the Mediterranean — beasts of burden that sometimes carried weight greater than their own. They toted water and food and helped to mill grain. But today, because of new forms of transport, the animals’ numbers have shrunk dramatically. By some accounts they are approaching extinction in their native environments.

Marjan Park’s donkeys are descendants of animals that once called the Split Zoo home. The zoo closed a few years ago, and many of the animals were resettled. Today, 8 donkeys, 15 sheep, one goat, and two Shetland ponies still live there. Five employees help care for the animals.

Split resident and artist Hrvoje Cokarić is trying to find an innovative way to help the remaining animals still calling Split’s former zoo home. He has spearheaded a project called Toward Europe Split. The project’s aim is to ensure that Dalmatian donkeys are recognized as an important symbol of cultural heritage even though their role has changed in the 21st century.

“Why are [the donkeys] disappearing?” Hrvoje said. “Because they lost their purpose. We must find a new purpose for them.”

Toward Europe has created a week-long artist’s residency program. Participants from Croatia and abroad have taken part, creating projects that incorporate the donkeys in some way. A local art gallery even offers free lodging to artists participating in the venture. The city of Split helps with vet expenses and basic food costs, with some funding from Croatia’s Ministry of Culture.

Hrvoje envisions the participating artists making short videos, classical paintings, even performances with the donkeys. Currently, Hrvoje and several others are making a documentary about the donkeys. More than ten artists have participated in the residential program so far, with each program generally lasting seven to ten days.

The Toward Europe team is also in the process of retrofitting saddles to hold solar panels that will harness renewable energy. Artists can then take the animals out into the park, and have a means to charge their telephones, cameras, and other electronic devices used to fulfill their artistic vision.

As for the former zoo space itself, Hrvoje and other community partners envision transforming it into a less-institutional landscape where the animals can wander more freely and visitors can learn about what life was once like in Croatia. They’d like to create an educational center.

“We could have workshops for residents and tourists and show them how to milk the sheep, how to make cheese, and what do with the wool,” Hrvoje said. “This could also serve as a gene bank [for this type of donkey].”

The fledgling educational program is already a hit with community members. So far it’s involved high schoolers, young people from a youth correctional facility, and people with special needs.

In an age when some children don’t know what a donkey is (unless, Hrvoje joked, they’ve seen the movie Shrek), the initiative is an important one. Hrvoje elaborates on this theme in the Toward Europe brochure, writing:

“Young people don’t have a chance to meet donkeys anymore. They don’t feel their tenderness and warmth, they don’t gaze into their eye and they don’t laugh at the lurch of their ear. They don’t live with him and they don’t feel gratitude towards him for carrying their burden.”

Hrvoje descends from a long line of ‘donkey whispers.’

“My family was connected with donkeys,” he said. “My great-great grandfather was well known for his abilities to tame wild donkeys.”

Since Hrvoje’s donkey expert forefathers died before he could glean information from them, he has had to learn about donkey behavior and care independently.

“There are no books in Croatian to train with,” Hrvoje said. “However, I have been finding information in an American mini donkey association handbook.”

One of Toward Europe’s projects is to document how to raise donkeys.

“Perhaps only 30 people in Croatia have knowledge of donkey [rearing],” he said. “We’d like to profile older people and their donkeys and share the profiles on YouTube,” he added.

Marina and her donkey mates are a North African species of donkeys, hardy animals that would’ve once carried more than their own weight — perhaps upwards of 200 kg (440 pounds).

But if Hrvoje has his way, Marjan’s donkeys won’t carry more than 40 kg (88 pounds).

“They carried enough in history — let’s make a better future for them,” he said.

A donkey grazes on grass at Marjan Park in Split, Croatia.
Donkey Marina grazes in Marjan Forest Park. She’s named after a famous actress, Marina Abramović. Hrvoje says Marina is almost 4 years old.
donkey Marjan Split Croatia
A young girl pets Marina the donkey, with Toward Europe founder Hrvoje Cokarić overseeing the interaction.

Marjan Park stairs Split Croatia
Marjan is a popular spot for Split’s walkers and joggers as well as tourists seeking extraordinary views.
View of Split, Croatia from Marjan park.
Split’s sun-drenched promenade, as seen from Marjan Park.
Split Croatia ferries islands
Ferries depart from Split, destined for neighboring islands.
A donkey grazes at Marjan Forest Park in Split, Croatia.
Marina grazing (left) and attracted by a carrot (right).
Hrvoje shows us a prototype for a donkey saddle with solar panels that can be used by participants to charge electronics.
Hrvoje holds a wooden box containing gold-painted donkey poop. It’s a quirky fundraising effort for Toward Europe. For €50, donors can purchase a golden nugget and then use it as official currency for buying Toward Europe experiences.

Fifteen sheep live in the confines of the former zoo.
Hrvoje gives treats to the eight resident donkeys. In the left corner is an African goat. Hrvoje explained that when the goat’s mother died, many people thought this goat would die too. As an experiment, they let the goat co-habitate with the donkeys. Today, she’s the unlikely leader of the herd, Hrvoje explained.
Stray cats await food Marjan Split Croatia
Hrvoje, as well as other good samaritans I met, feed the stray cats residing in Marjan Park.
Donkey stands by gate Marjan Split Croatia
Marina faithfully waits for Hrvoje at the entrance to the former zoo.

Shawn’s Video:

Where in the World?

Further Information:

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.

17 thoughts on “A Sanctuary for the Lovable and Threatened Donkeys of Split, Croatia

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Bobbi. I also have a soft spot for these guys. We were just in Montenegro a few weeks ago, and kept bumping into a local who lived in a stone cottage halfway up a mountain. We’d run into him at the supermarket and he could never talk for too long, because his donkey was waiting in town to help him carry the groceries back home. :) Hope you’ve been having a wonderful spring!

    1. Carol, you can imagine my delight when I first bumped into Marina the donkey while I was out walking one evening. Split is one of Croatia’s largest cities, so it was fun to see a donkey not far from an urban area.

      In my husband’s hometown his parents would sometimes see a semi-feral donkey out in the desert. Do you know if there are many in Australia?

      1. The camels were imported in the 1800s for transport in the deserts. There’s not really a need to manage them because the whole inland is a big empty space so they have plenty of room. Hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. :)

  1. It is these happy encounters with local celebrities – Marina the donkey, that provide unforgettable travel memories. It is such a joy, Tricia, to travel with you and your husband. You words and photographs always capture the spirit, the very essence, of the places you takes us to. You share your spirit of adventure and love of new encounters, with all who travel with you. Cheers Virginia

    1. Greetings Virginia, always wonderful to hear from you! It’s true that interactions with people like Hrvoje and personalities like Marina make a place come alive. Somehow, I think Marina knows she’s a local celebrity, too. :) Here’s hoping you’re enjoying a wonderful spring?

    1. Hi Darlene, nice to hear from you! We are well — just hopping between Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina these past months.

      Do you see many donkeys in Spain? I imagine the donkey populations are dwindling there too?

    1. Thank you, Kelly. You’re correct that there are a good number of donkey lovers out there. I’ve connected with a few of them as a result of this post, and it’s been heartwarming to hear their stories. Some are donkey-owning expats, another reader was an animal welfare advocate who traveled to donkey sanctuaries around Europe and the Middle East.

      I see you’re passionate about solo travel — that’s great! Before my husband and I met, I went on a lot of solo adventures. I met a lot of kind people along the way. Sometimes they were worried about me traveling by myself and wanted to take me under their wing; at other times, they were just eager to share their culture with a far-away visitor.

      Have you been to Croatia?

      1. Both are beautiful cities; here’s hoping Dubrovnik won’t be so crowded in February. I was once there in April, another time in July, and the springtime visit was wonderful — especially in the evenings when all the daytime visitors had left.

        A happy weekend to you, Kelly!

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