Meet the rescued donkeys and mules at El Refugio del Burrito

“You are lucky. Paco de Lucía is normally not very fond of cuddles, seems like he likes you”. I turned around to see the sanctuary worker smile at me. Paco de Lucía, a nearly 9-year-old rescued mule was pressing his adorable face outside the paddock, begging for more cuddles as he made the funniest frowns trying to reach further. How could I resist?

He was one of the bigger mules in the paddock. Half donkey and half horse, a mix created for more resistance and strength. His shiny black coat showed some brown patches on his upper legs. He seemed like he had put perfect brown make-up around his eyes, and dipped his nose in bleach; light brown at the tip and darker brown moving further up towards his otherwise black face. His rigid ears were moving backward in delight as I scratched them. Moments earlier he had tried to eat up my jacket.

El Refugio del Burrito
Paco de Lucia wants to meet you

Paco de Lucía was the leader of the donkeys and mules in the paddock, I was explained, and all the other animals respected him. The sanctuary worker turned away from Paco de Lucía as she spotted the young donkey Kai at the opposite side of the large paddock.

“Come, Kai! Come! Come here sweetie, and get some cuddles!” The smaller, black donkey leaped towards her, eager to receive her hugs. She laughed in delight as she received him with kisses on his white snout, arms around his head and loving scratches. Her love for the animals was hard to conceal.

“Kai recently came out of the quarantine area and he still hasn’t found his partner. All the animals have to stay there when they first arrive until they are cured for wounds and diseases and they are mentally in shape to interact with the other animals. Kai is such an affectionate donkey, so I hope he finds someone to partner up with soon.” Her affection was highly contagious as her dark eyes sparkled at the sight of these rescued donkeys and mules.

A rescued donkey
The rescued donkey, Kai

Together with nearly 40 other animals, Paco de Lucía was rescued from abuse back in 2013. 13 donkeys came to El Refugio del Burrito. With no access to water, the animals were forced to consume rotten vegetables to survive. They were constantly tied up, 24 hours a day. Surrounded by other donkeys and horses all so skinny you could see their ribs through their dirty, smelly skin. Skin ripped open by barbed wire, metal tools, scrap and rubble from the area they were tied up. Skin infested by infections, flies, and maggots. Nowhere to lie down comfortably. Overgrown, painful hooves without the possibility to run or move freely. This used to be the life of Paco de Lucía before he came to the donkey sanctuary in Fuente de Piedra.

Three years later, the owner was sentenced to 9 months in jail for animal abuse. This was the first time El Refugio del Burrito, a non-profit donkey sanctuary originating from England, won a lawsuit in Spain. A huge victory for the sanctuary and a giant victory for animal rights.

El Refugio del Burrito

The sanctuary is home to rescued donkeys and mules from all over Spain. An important part of their work is to secure a good life with all the animals needs covered. They also re-home donkeys and mules when possible. El Refugio del Burrito has large, spacious paddocks where the animals can run around. They always have access to open stables with comfortable beds where they can lay down when they want to rest and constant access to a roof. Also, no one forces them to do anything they don´t want to.

El Refugio del Burrito has large paddocks where the animals can run freely.
El Refugio del Burrito has large paddocks where the animals can run freely.

All individuals are free to hang out with their partners all day and all night. Donkeys tend to partner up two or three and they will stay together for life. They play together, eat together, rest together. According to the sanctuary, they never split partners up even through sickness or death as the bond is so strong. The surviving donkey will even be left with the body of their dead partner for a while to grieve their loss. For me, there is no doubt that these animals will be loved and cared for as long as they live in the sanctuary.

A donkey resting his head on his partners back
Donkeys partner up two or three and do everything together. When one is tired, he rests his head on his partners back.


El Refugio del Burrito also works passionately towards a better future for donkeys and mules used in pilgrimages and fiestas in Spain, like Romeria del Rocío which is the most important pilgrimage in Andalucía. Donkeys, mules, and horses make an important role in the up to 80 kilometers (each way) long pilgrimage.

Every year, El Refugio del Burrito monitors the pilgrimage together with SEPRONA (Nature Protection Service of the Civil Guard) and the city council. Together, they check animals that don’t look apt to work to assure their well being. They also offer aid to animal owners once arrived at El Rocio.

For more information on their work during El Rocío, these two articles could be of interest: El Rocio 2018: Animal welfare improves, but rental and old mules suffer the most and We put in place a 24 hour on the ground operation to ensure animal welfare in El Rocio, the largest pilgrimage in the Western world.

Donkey at the donkey sanctuary
A donkey at the donkey looking for cuddles

The last 15 years, another important case for the sanctuary has been to work towards the wellbeing of the Donkey Taxis in Mijas Pueblo. The biggest tourist attraction of this attractive white village overlooking Costa del Sol is a tour on donkey back. Unfortunately, the donkeys are not treated well. They are tied up 24 hours a day with no opportunity to rest. Also, they carry way more weight than they should. Often the donkeys are kept working until they are too old.

El Refugio del Burrito is working with the city council in Mijas to secure the animals’ rights and well being as long as the Donkey Taxi continues in the village.

On the long term, the dream is to stop the tourist attraction and find more sustainable work for both animals and animal owners. You can read more about their work with Mijas donkeys here.

I have also written about the Donkey Taxi in Mijas in my blog posts Why you should never ride a donkey in Mijas and 7 Tips to responsible travel.

The rescued animals

Dante, a white-ish, one-eyed donkey was pleading for more cuddles. The family walking in front of me had stopped by his side and took turns in cuddling his handsome face as he stretched his neck further out of the fence. His legs have noticeable marks after the ropes that had been used to tie together his four legs. Apart from his missing eye, there are numerous physical signs of abuse on his body.

Together with Abu, Colino, and Vidal, he was rescued from terror. They were all tied up in such a small area that they became aggressive towards each other and they all have scars from bite marks. Today Dante shares a paddock with Abu and Vidal as they still have difficulties socializing with the other animals, but together they are happy.

Rescued mules
Rescued mules looking for contact

Before I ended my day in the sanctuary I had some first-class cuddles with Apache. Together with Paco de Lucía, he was rescued back in 2013. He shows no signs of discomfort and has clearly adapted to his new life.

Feeding time for the rescued animals
Feeding time for the rescued animals

As I left the sanctuary, Paco de Lucía was busy chasing away the other mules and donkeys from the newly served food. He is definitely the boss of the pack. Luckily, where they are now, there is enough food for everyone.

How to support El Refugio del Burrito

Do you want to support El Refugio del Burrito? Even just by visiting you will support. The sanctuary is only a day trip from Malaga and takes a small donation for entry. They also have a tiny shop where you can buy gifts to support their work. On Saturdays, they usually have a guided tour where you can go inside some of the paddocks and cuddle the animals, absolutely worth it.

Cuddles with Apache
Cuddles with Apache

It is also possible to donate money or to adopt a donkey. By adopting a donkey you will pay a monthly fee that contributes to the care of the donkeys. Wouldn’t this make a great Christmas or birthday present for an animal lover?

The sanctuary also has volunteer programs for those who can stay for a while and help out.

Check out their web page or shoot them a message on Facebook if you would like to visit or volunteer. There is a lot of love to be shared if you decide to do so.

READ NEXT: Things to do in Mijas (and what not to do)

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