Jesse Christelis moved to a smallholding outside Randfontein more than seven years ago after he and his partner, Zak Hendrikz, sold their house in Newlands, Johannesburg, to get out of the city for the quieter farm life.
The intention was that Christelis would breed sheep while Hendrikz continued his acting career, but that all changed when they were given two donkey foals, three and eight weeks old, who they dubbed Saartjie and Betsie. Christelis hand reared them to be used as guardians for the flock, to protect them against stray dogs and jackals.
What happened instead was that Christelis totally fell in love with the donkeys, sold the sheep and started looking to rescue abandoned donkeys.
“Commercial farmers regard donkeys as worthless, while subsistence farmers and township residents use them as beasts of burden,” he said.
“When they are past their useful life, many are just abandoned. On commercial farms, if they haven’t been castrated, they start over-breeding and get rounded up to be sent for slaughter.
The couple started attending auctions all over the country, buying donkeys where they could. In those days, donkeys would sell for R300 a head, based only on their weight, destined to become polony or C-grade meat.
To date, Christelis and Hendrikz have rescued 583 donkeys. They’ve been brought back to the farm, had all the necessary vaccinations and have been rehabilitated before being sold on as pets to good homes, companion animals and therapy animals.
Then four years ago it all changed. The Chinese demand for donkey skins, an essential ingredient in the centuries-old medicine, Ejiao, which is used to treat everything from high blood pressure to treating coughs and as an aphrodisiac, meant that donkeys were now being sold on auction for an average of R2 000 a head, irrespective of their condition or their weight.
More worrying was the surge in theft of the animals in rural and township areas and their bush slaughter - bludgeoned to death in the veld, stripped of their hides and their naked carcasses dumped.
“Within a year, the price jumped seven times,” said Hendrikz. “At one auction, we saw donkeys going for as high as R2 200.”
There was a public outcry, which served only to drive the donkey trade underground, while well-intentioned donkey sanctuaries were springing up all over the place. All the time the country’s population of donkeys was being depleted at an irreplaceable rate with no benefit for anyone except the opportunists.
The challenge for Christelis and Hendrikz was how to create a sustainable business, rather than operating as a charity, dependent on handouts and goodwill, a business that would benefit both people and donkeys.
The answer came when Christelis found a rare blue-eyed donkey jack (male) in Rustenburg. It was the first they’d ever seen, so they took DNA samples and sent them to the Netherlands and to the US. The geneticists told them this was a unique mutation.
“We decided to start a highly specialised breeding programme with this uniquely South African blue-eyed donkey,” said Christelis.
The donkeys are sold from R25 000 a head, in a bid not just to capitalise on their rarity, but also to try to reverse the perception of donkeys being worthless.
But even this was not the answer because of the time factor involved; a jenny (female) carries the foal for 13 months and then the foal takes a further three years to mature.
And so, after many nights of research, the “Donkey Dork”, as Hendrikz calls Christelis, came up with the idea of milking the lactating jennies to create a whole range of natural skin care products free of allergens; creams and soaps, and then milk.
“Donkey milk is an ancient remedy,” he said. “Legend has it that Cleopatra had a herd of 700 donkeys being milked every day for her bath, which gave her her legendary complexion. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote about how he helped children with asthma.
“Donkey milk is the closest mammal milk to human milk, making it the ideal substitute for babies with cow’s milk protein allergy or those who can’t tolerate formula.
“We had a lactose intolerant 9-month-old who had been on laxatives since birth and was terribly undernourished. After a week of donkey milk, her asthma and eczema had cleared up entirely, she was able to go to the toilet without medicines.”
There have been many other success stories from adults too, particularly those with compromised immune systems.
“Donkey milk contains a natural antibiotic, a natural antihistamine, it’s great for respiratory problems,” he said. “A donkey dairy in Oklahoma, who we have become well acquainted with, are using it to treat auto-immune disorders in children, the results have been astounding.”
The milking of donkeys has to be a very humane process. The jenny has to be milked in the presence of the foal, otherwise she won’t release the oxytocin to let down the milk.
Unlike cows, which are separated from their calves and then produce 40 litres a day, jennies provide only 250-500ml per milking and the majority of the milk is left for the foal. Christelis milks his herd only three times a week, the rest of the time the jennies and their foals are left together to enjoy normal pasture life.
The Donkey Dairy has a total herd of 112 donkeys.
The milk is frozen and couriered to buyers on a bed of dry ice, all over the country. Packed in 250ml bottles it sells for R60.
It’s an elixir, with far more scientific proof backing it, than Ejiao - without needing the donkey to be killed first.
“It’s amazing,” said Christelis, “the donkey has always been a beast of burden, now it’s actually become a true beast of mercy, benefiting babies with allergies and adults with an array of health issues.
“Our main aim is to change people’s perceptions of donkeys, so that these incredible animals can receive the respect they so deserve.”