Donkeys are having a moment, not that they care. The sturdy creatures, famous for their stoicism, are screen sirens now. Donkeys have starring roles in two of the most celebrated films released this year: British-Irish director Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, which premiered at Cannes and took home the jury prize.
Skolimowski cast a donkey, not the most elegant of equines, as his lead after coming across one and being taken by the liquid beauty of his eyes. In an interview with NPR, he said: “What struck me was the size of his eyes and a specific melancholic expression of those eyes, which I thought could be read as a comment on every situation the donkey would find himself in. And then, by cutting to these enormous eyes, one at least could imagine what was going on in the donkey’s head.”
Watching the film, you’ll see he was right – it’s very moving to look into a donkey’s eyes and impossible not to see a personality as interesting and varied as any beloved Pet or horse. Fair warning: in both films, bad things are done to donkeys by cruel people. But the donkeys are also doted on and cuddled by people who love them.
Donkeys might not be impressive in the showy way a thoroughbred stallion is, but they are much more fluffy and snuggly. In EO, there is a gorgeous pastoral scene where a group of disabled children hold their gentle donkeys close, murmuring to each other. Colin Farrell’s character in The Banshees of Inisherin is best friends with a miniature donkey, who relaxes by the fire with him and generally seems like excellent and adorable company.
Hayden Kristal, a comedian and a rancher with three donkeys, one standard and two miniature, is well-accustomed to them stealing every scene. “They have such distinct and colorful personalities and they can be little troublemakers,” Kristal told me. “They’re always finding new and creative ways to disrupt my day – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but even on the ‘worse’ days, I’m laughing.”
Kristal’s TikTok videos of Dexter, Pickle and Donkey Devito’s escapades – stealing shoes, pretending to be asleep and bopping each other over the head with toys – have been viewed millions of times. They can seem obstinate because of the time they take to think everything through, Kristal says, and donkeys have long memories.
“This week, Dexter has been so mad at me because he was yawning, and I poked his tongue as a joke. He won’t look at me.” Still, “I love them with my whole heart, and I would have a million of them if I could.”
Kristal’s videos show a playful and joyful side to donkeys, which contrasts with our typical image of them. This time of year, many, many centuries ago, some unnamed donkey was carrying a very pregnant Mary, the mother of Jesus, around Palestine. That story contributes to donkeys’ overall narrative as a true beast of burden – humble, hard-working and uncomplaining.
This doesn’t always serve them well, according to Laura Foster, the country manager of Ireland’s branch of the charity organization The Donkey Sanctuary. “There is a tendency to celebrate the stoicism of donkeys,” Foster told me, “but actually, from our perspective, that means you’ve got to be extra vigilant.”
Donkeys are prey animals who have learned to mask signs of pain to not alert potential predators of their vulnerability. To the untrained eye, donkeys may seem to plod along without much feeling, but people who care for them know better.
Foster explained: “There is an expression, ‘the dull donkey’, for when donkeys keep their head down and seem quiet even if they’re not doing well. It’s only the most subtle of facial expressions or signs of lameness that show they could be in a lot of pain.”
That fortitude over fear and persistence over pain adds to the donkeys’ sad charm. Knowing it makes hearing how some donkeys are treated all the more heartbreaking. Ejiao, an ingredient used in traditional Chinese remedies for skin issues, comes from donkey skin. This leads to the slaughter of millions of them each year. Similarly, in Nepal, thousands of donkeys do heavy, difficult work for much of their lives, hauling materials up from brick kilns.
In Ireland, where donkeys for the most part no longer work in agriculture or industry, many end up neglected or abandoned. Foster told me that animal welfare is connected to people’s welfare.
“We definitely see [a] correlation [between] the cost-of-living crisis and the numbers of donkeys that are returned to us,” she told me. “We’ve seen a spike in the work we do in the community and we have had a huge number of donkeys returned to us from their guardian homes.”
For a very long time, we needed donkeys. Now, they need us. It may be the ideal time for these funny, steady, lovable creatures to shine.
Maeve Higgins is a Guardian US columnist