Life in the afternoon

It’s 10 o ‘clock in the morning and we’re driving through the olive-grove landscape of the Campina, south of Cordoba, in search of a man and his mission.

Now, there are a couple of things worth pointing out at this juncture: firstly, the above phrase ‘heading due west’ makes it seem like a very simple journey. It isn’t. And secondly, the description of Pascual Rovira as “famous” is somewhat misleading. Well-known, certainly, both in the town and far beyond, but Rovira’s fame has something of the double-edged sword about it. His fellow townspeople acknowledge him, they even tell you (eventually) where to find him, but it’s done in a way that conveys exasperation rather than pride. For here, in this farming community where animals are traditionally treated as no more than working beasts, here in this country where bullfighting, after all, is considered a magnificent day’s entertainment and death in the afternoon is still part and parcel of everyday life, here in Rute, in a part of Spain where bulls are proudly bred for the kill, Pascual Rovira has devoted his life to rescuing donkeys. And the locals, it has to be said, seem to think that he’s loco.

Trying to actually find Seor Rovira proves a touch difficult. First of all there’s the journey to Rute itself, driving along scenic secondary roads through rolling countryside, following signposts that become increasingly of the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t variety. We get lost several times and then, just as frustration is really beginning to set in, we spot an expanse of water glinting ahead of us. A landmark. The reservoir at Iznajar.

From Iznajar it is plain sailing and soon we find ourselves parked in the attractive town of Rute and enquiring of the locals about the whereabouts of Pascual Rovira. “Ah, Rovira,” they say, raising their eyes to the heavens, pointing us in one direction while gesticulating wildly in another and explaining all of this in galloping Spanish. We make a few attempts to find the sanctuary, get trapped into the town’s one-way system at least three times, get shouted at, get lost and, just when we are convincing each other that one donkey is the same as the next and questioning why on earth we ever wanted to meet this local eccentric anyway, we find ourselves in the old part of the town, on the edge of a vast area of natural parkland. Donkey territory, we figure.

“Burros?” we ask the two old men out walking in the mid-day sun. “La Casa del Burro? Pascual Rovira?” One of them lifts his walking stick and points up the hill, past a little bridge, to where the road forks sharply to the left. “A la izquierda,” he gesticulates. With a “gracias” and a wave of the hand, we head up the road, over the bridge and turning left as instructed, drive up along a dirt track towards a shaded, wooded hillside.

And suddenly there they are. Some 30 donkeys or so, in a large fenced-in area, with stables to the rear. Large ones, small ones, dark ones, light ones. Some of them look like donkeys all right, others are more like horses, while some of them look like a cross between the two. All of them look healthy and happy, frolicking in the sun, lapping from the water troughs, swishing each other with their tails to stem the onslaught of that most determined of all insects – the Spanish fly. So, donkeys aplenty, but still no Seor Rovira.

Disappointed that we aren’t actually going to meet the man himself, we are making our way back to the car when the sound of an approaching vehicle stops us in our tracks. A jeep comes flying up the hill, dust rising in a cloud all around it, and brakes to a halt just below us. Out jumps a dark-haired Spaniard, smallish in stature, about 40 years of age. “Pascual Rovira?” we ask him. And it is.

His English is poor and our Spanish little better, and yet he manages to explain to us the fundamentals of how his donkey sanctuary works. This particular enclosure, for example, is only part of Rovira’s “Casa del Burro”. There are two other sanctuaries in the vicinity, all of them housed on land donated by a local aristocrat, the Marquis of Vastos., who has, at this stage, handed over some forty acres of his private estate into the safe-keeping of Pascual and his donkeys.

The sanctuary and, in fact, the association ADEBO (now an internationally recognised body for the defence of the donkey) was set up in 1989 when Rovira became alarmed at the fall in the number of indigenous donkeys – from two million in 1960 to just 100,000 30 years later. And so he embarked on his mission, a mission that was to take over his life. Ploughing his own money into the enterprise (his day job is selling ladies’ lingerie in his father’s drapery store) and with the backing of his wife Kika, a college teacher, he set about saving the species, rescuing those that were being maltreated and restoring them to health, so that the breeding line could carry on. In 1992, he organised the first international donkey conference, which was attended by animal welfare groups from around the world, including the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and the International Donkey Protection Trust, which donated 2,000 to Rovira’s cause.

He is passionate about his cause. Yet, watching him among his beloved burros, you realise that this is more than a cause – Pascual Rovira really loves these animals.

As we walk among them and they crowd around us, looking for attention, he has a story to tell about each and every one of them. There is Mandela, he tells you, pointing to a smallish, light-coloured donkey at the water trough. Mandela? Well, when this little fellow was found, he had been locked up (bricked up, actually) in a shed for five years, never seeing the light of day. Then there is Alondra, a beautiful creature who was found abandoned in a ravine with a washing machine tied around her neck. You only have to spend a short time in Rovira’s company to realise the full extent of this love affair – a quiet murmur in one’s ear, a gentle stroke on another’s flank, his arms around yet another donkey’s neck. At one point he produces a brush to groom one of them and is immediately swamped by about nine or ten animals, all of them vying for his attention and he, small of stature, buried in their midst, laughing, with only the top of his coal-black hair visible among their swishing tails.

As we leave the enclosure he starts to talk in galloping Spanish again. You catch a few words here and there. “Antonio Banderas”. “Maana”. “Mi casa”. “Bebida”. So, we follow him back down the dirt-track, back into the town itself and into his house. we go with him, to have that bebida. We’re offered the local hooch, a particular anis that was Rute’s main claim to fame before Rovira began his donkey mission in the town. Once inside his home, you realise that this passion really is his life – everywhere there are photographs of the donkeys, of Rovira with the donkeys, of his children with the donkeys, of the good and the great with the donkeys. He proudly shows you, hanging on the wall, the photo of Queen Sofia with Mandela and then goes on to explain the earlier Antonio Banderas reference. The Spanish-born actor is apparently due in Rute the next day, driving up from his home in Malaga and bringing with him Melanie Griffith, his wife. They want to meet Rovira to discuss how they can offer assistance to him and his sanctuary.

In the organised chaos of his home – children wandering in and out, Boyzone blasting out from a teenage daughter’s bedroom, wife arriving in from college – you notice that the living room is effectively “the donkey room”. There are faxes everywhere, photos line the walls, cuttings from Spanish newspapers cascade out of a drawer and photocopied articles from animal rights magazines are strewn across the desk. And you wonder to yourself how long it’s been since this dark-haired, charming Andalucian last sold any of the sceptical ladies of Rute any items of lingerie. For that may be his work but this is his life.

Then, finally, it’s time to go and, with much hand-shaking and many smiles, Pascual Rovira waved us off from his front doorstep and we drive off down the street and back into the newer part of the town. We park the car and, taking some of the leaflets that Rovira has given us about ABEDO and the history of the sanctuary, we head into a small bar for a glass of wine and a few tapas. It was here earlier that we’d asked how to find the donkey sanctuary. And now, hours later, the locals remember us.

We are conscious of the mutterings and the sceptical glances. Suddenly the television in the corner is turned on and you see that a bullfight is in full swing. The men cluster around, looking forward to the entertainment of gory business ahead. Death in the afternoon. While just up the road, the local lingerie salesmen is hell bent on saving lives.