It seems that wherever you look these days there are burros catalans—those long-eared, white-muzzled donkeys that also go by the name of ruc or ase. Almost every second car bumper bears a donkey sticker and you can buy products ranging from lighters and key rings to coffee mugs and soft drinks adorned with the animal’s distinctive image.
From virtual obscurity, this docile but energetic beast has, over the past three years, been adopted as a symbol of Catalunya, its culture and its language. Yet its newfound popularity, and the strong reaction elicited from many Catalans if asked how they feel about the dewy-eyed donkeys, makes it hard to believe that 25 years ago their numbers had plummeted to just 10.
The figure is all the more staggering when compared to the end of the 19th century, when there were more than 50,000 of the breed in existence across Catalunya. Even today, they are still verging on extinction with only an estimated 400 Catalan burros remaining in the region.
Before their recent moment in the spotlight, the donkey enjoyed a long history. Although its earliest roots can be traced to Somalia, the first evidence of the Catalan burro dates back to 1000 BCE. Initially it was used to carry minerals and produce from the mountains, then later to help cultivate the land and clear forests. But as machinery began to take over many of these tasks and traditional ways of life changed during the 20th century, the burro became obsolete, and its numbers fell.
The animal’s recent resurgence is largely due to the efforts of the Associació per al Foment de la Raça Asinina Catalana (AFRAC), and the Rucs del Corredor Association.
These small groups of enthusiasts were so concerned about the plight of the indigenous donkey that they established breeding and assimilation programmes, the benefits of which are slowly becoming apparent.
However, their dedication and hard work doesn’t explain the phenomenal popularity of the burro today and its emergence as a nationalist symbol. The origins of this began as a joke between two friends from the lakeside town of Banyoles.
Jaume Sala and Àlex Ferreiro dreamt up the idea for the burro car sticker in 2003 as an alternative to the ‘Toro d’Osborne’, the black bull symbol used to promote brandy on giant billboards around Spain. They were looking for an image to counter what they saw as Spanish “excessive centralism” expressed in the bull and other facets of life, such as the law requiring cars to have the ‘E’ of España on number plates.
“The donkey seemed like a good way to fight against the Spanish bull in a subtle way, because if you don’t feel Catalan, you are not going to have the burro sticker,” said Sala. “As well as being an animal that has its origins in Catalunya, it has similarities with the manner in which Catalans do things—in moderation and without being strident.
“But there are many ways to interpret it. It can be seen as a defence of a language or culture, and as a symbol of identification.”
Originally, the pair ran off 50 stickers to hand out among friends, and when they realised how popular they were, another 3,500 were printed. The symbol and the accompanying campaign ‘Planta’t el burro’ (‘show off the donkey’) struck a chord with people and now more than 300,000 of the adhesives have been sold.
The key to this success seems to be the affinity many Catalans have with the donkey and its positive qualities. They see it as stubborn, hard working, quietly intelligent and able to endure tough conditions and survive great hardship—traits that many Catalans associate with their national identity.
This is not an opinion held by everyone, however, and there are those who feel the ‘Planta’t el burro’ creators could have chosen their symbol more wisely. Among them is Pedro Hernansáez, a vet in Girona province, who doesn’t think Catalunya should be represented by a donkey.
“I understand that they wanted to find something to counter the Spanish bull, but the donkey is a cheap symbol. It stands for someone who is silly or foolish,” he said.
The campaign also sparked off a legal dispute between the Banyoles pair and Eloi Alegre, a designer from Sant Cugat, who created the original burro image. Both sides claimed the other violated an 2004 agreement over the use of the symbol and were seeking €30,000 in damages. However, in February a court ruled that the agreement had not been breached and denied both parties’ claims for compensation.
Court wrangles aside, however, Sala has no doubt that thrusting the Catalan donkey into the limelight has helped alert the public to the fact that its numbers have dwindled to dangerously low levels.
“There has been so much TV and media coverage that people have been made aware of it. I think our campaign has helped a lot,” he said. Perhaps in recognition of this, Sala and Ferreiro were invited to speak at a conference, ‘La recuperació del burro català’ (‘Recovering the Catalan donkey’), held last November in their home town. As well as discussing cultural aspects of the Catalan donkey, the event covered various subjects including artificial insemination and the breeding of hybrids.
Among the organisers were the founders of AFRAC, Pere Comas and Esteve Bosch, two vets who set up the association in 1978 because they were so concerned the burro català might be lost completely. “We started out by buying four donkeys and breeding them,” explained Comas.
They went on to establish a centre for reproduction at the Bosch family’s finca (estate), Can Serrallonga, in the hills above Banyoles, where AFRAC members can bring their animals to breed. People can also go to the centre to learn how to ride and take courses demonstrating old methods of ploughing and working on the land, the traditional uses of the farm donkey before tractors and four-wheel drive cars took over.
The best bet for the burro’s future now seems to be for breeding hybrids—there is interest in some South American countries where the donkey is still used on the land and in tourist-related ventures where it can be used for trekking and buggy rides. Bosch said others would simply end up as an “animal de companyia”, munching the grass at farms in the mountains where they would be much-loved pets.
As a sign of the burro’s improving status there were 85 animals entered for competition at this year’s Fira de Sant Martirià in Banyoles—the oldest horse and burro show in Catalunya.
But while they will never attain the numbers of old, Bosch is quietly confident the Catalan burro will survive: “Twenty-five years ago there were just 10 burros left. Now there are around 400. I hope that it will continue to grow in number in the years to come.”
From the archive: July 2007