It's 9PM on one of the hottest days in July, and someone brings Barbara Doulgerakis a skinny mare. Apparently, the horse gave birth a few days ago but has not eaten or drank water since. Most nights Barbara stays up late feeding the animals with baby bottles and petting them to keep them calm. "It can take a couple of months for them to trust you and let you touch them," she explains. "Animals like the ones brought to me are so tormented by violence, hunger and endless hours in the sun, that they are afraid of their own shadow”.
Despite having grown up on a farm in Auckland, New Zealand, Barbara could never foresee owning a donkey shelter in the village of Petrokefali in Crete. The first time she visited the island in 1969, she was 17 years old. Her father had spent time there during WWII, and he wanted show his family the places he had fought on. “I loved Crete instantly”, she said.
Then, she met her husband, Fanis Doulgerakis. They got married when she was 19 and moved to Zaros. Barbara didn't speak Greek, the villagers didn't speak English and her husband struggled to find work as a photographer – so they packed their bags for New Zealand where they would stay for the next 15 years.
When her husband asked her to go back to the island she reacted – It wasn't easy with three teenage children. Now, she doesn't want to leave. "It has been twenty years since the last time I was in New Zealand, but I can't leave my animals."
The first donkey, Agapi, was found tied to a tree in 1994 – she hadn't been fed or watered for days. Barbara took her to back to their farm and kept her with their chickens, dogs, cats and peacocks. The news travelled, and with time people started bringing Barbara and her husband stray animals. Most of them were sick, old, with pests, leg injuries and decayed teeth – almost moribund.
In 2006, she decided to officially open the Agia Marina Donkey Shelter, working alongside a group of Dutch and Greek volunteer vets and dentists who visit Crete twice a year. Barbara, her husband and their team, travel from village to village, finding abandoned donkeys and bringing them back to the shelter. Then the real work begins: medicine, foot massages, preparing the special soft mix she feeds them with as most of the donkeys can't even chew due to the extreme decay in their teeth and mouth.
Of course, each animal has a story and a name. There's Nefeli, who was rescued from a nearby village, after a girl called to say her grandfather would beat up the donkey every time he got drunk; Pelegrino, who at 43, is one of the oldest donkeys in the shelter; and Star – a horse that was caught in crossfire during a vendetta and shot in the neck. Twenty two donkeys and horses live in the farm today and if there was more space, Barbara would take in more.
Selling them is also out of the question: "Here they will live freely until the end of their lives. They have been tortured enough," she says.
In the 1950s, half a million donkeys lived in Greece but today hardly 13,000 of them remain. Once the animals cannot stand the chores in the field any more, they are sold for meat or abandoned without food – usually tied to trees and left to be eaten by wolves.
There are other similar shelters in Greece, all under the care of "madmen" like Barbara and her husband, but the situation is worsening. "The problems are huge," she explains, "and the state doesn't help." In 2012, for example, a student who had found and fed an abandoned donkey in Eretria called Barbara asking for help. Barbara employed a couple of friends, and travelled from Greece all the way to mainland Greece in order to take Hermione (the donkey) back to her farm.
"I can't say no, when people call asking for help. The financial crisis has made things worse, too. An old man in Psiloritis called me a couple of months ago, crying and asking me to take his donkey because he could not afford the animal's medicine on his small pension. Each donkey costs about 800 Euro per year."
Barbara and her family, along with friends from abroad and Greece, are making sure the animals get the medication and care they need. "My granddaughter, who is studying in Scotland, is visiting for the summer and spends her days here with the donkeys," she says with pride. "It is impossible to leave them. Having them come over and bow their heads for a pat after having spent months in fear – that's worth all the trouble and then some."