When someone slyly refers to an animal “going to live on a farm,” it’s usually an euphemism for the death of a dearly loved pet that no one wants to admit is gone. In the case of Jarjeer, these animals weren’t well loved from the beginning, but they really do get to live out their days on farm where they can cavort and frolic, literally free from burden.
A charming and slightly eccentric British couple, Charles Hantom and Susan Machin, didn’t intend to build a haven for donkeys and mules on a pretty piece of land south of Marrakech in Oumnass. They retired from practicing law and meant to run a B&B here. But along the way, their love of animals made them recoil at the maltreatment of donkeys in the medina; they befriended a veterinarian and supported his work in treating these overworked and abused animals. The refuge started innocently enough when the vet had a donkey who had been brought back to perfect health, but was perfectly unwilling to be a beast of burden. The vet asked Charles and Susan if they didn’t want to take in a donkey on their large piece of land? Over the course of seven years, one animal became more than 50, and an open paddock was encircled with proper gates, fencing and stables; and then veterinary stables were added where they can treat animals with significant injuries and illness.
Visiting Jarjeer is like visiting the best petting zoo, ever. The animals in the hospital wing of the stables are in truly dire straights, but they are living in shaded comfort and getting close care from experts. Once you walk past that somber but hopeful row of stables, you emerge into two sunny paddocks filled with donkeys eager to socialize. Susan can recite the backstory of each animal, the circumstances by which they came here, the horrors they suffered up to that point, and the resurrection of the animals’ personalities as they came to relax and trust their new home. I walked into the smaller paddock where the younger animals are kept and they immediately surrounded me with curious faces and enormous dark eyes. We were all the same height, and it was slightly surreal standing in the middle of their eager, interested faces - all of them wanting to check out the new person. “Hey, who’s this? What’s in your hand, is that a camera? Your shirt tastes good, I’m going to gnaw on it a little bit. Scratch my ears! Scratch my ears!” I felt like a star athlete surrounded by fans, and while I don’t speak donkey I am certain they were asking for selfies with me. I tried to take their pictures but they were so eager to inspect and sniff at everything that the resulting photos are comical.
In the bigger paddock with larger animals, the same scene played out but with more social dynamics at play. These animals were older and some had been at Jarjeer for years at this point, while others were newer arrivals. They had a pecking order that became clear when one of the oldest animals kept inserting himself every time I tried to pet or photograph another donkey. He was to be first in line for getting attention, then the others could have their chance. Charles reemerged on the patio overlooking the paddock and explained this particular donkey rules the compound and everyone knows it. I think because I violated the social contract from the outset, he kept coming over to remind me to fawn over him as penance. The personalities and gentleness of these enormous, strong animals made an impression, as did the earnest respect and commitment of the Charles and Susan for rehabilitating them. It was lovely and a bit stunning to witness.
[Jarjeer: March 2018]