Tourists have been accused of being “too fat” to ride the donkeys on the Greek island of Santorini, leaving them with crippling spinal injuries.
Thousands of holidaymakers pay to ride the donkeys up the picturesque tourist hotspot’s cobbled winding hilly streets but animal rights campaigners have said many of them are “too fat” to sit on the animals.
Charities say the donkeys have become so overworked that locals have been forced to cross-breed them with mules so they will be capable of carrying heavier loads.
Up to 1,200 tourists visit the small island every day between May and October to take in its beautiful scenery, and many hire donkeys to carry them up to the best viewpoints.
But animal activists say the donkeys are forced to carry more and more tourists who are obese, leaving them with spinal injuries and open wounds from ill-fitting saddles.
A spokesman for the Help the Santorini Donkeys charity said: “It’s recommended that animals should carry no more than 20% of their own body weight.
“The obese and overweight tourists, combined with the lack of shade and water as well as the sheer heat and 568 cobbled steps, is what is causing such a problem.
“There should be a weight restriction. With donkeys it should be no more than eight stone, but how would that be imposed and who would be there to make sure that happened?
“Now they’re having to resort to using cross-bred mules because the donkeys just aren’t strong enough.”
The donkeys make up to five journeys per day up the white cobbled steps to the town of Fira in temperatures of up to 30C, say campaigners.
Christina Kaloudi, 42, moved to the island from Athens 10 years ago and set up the Santorini Animal Welfare Association to help overworked donkeys.
She said the number of overweight tourists from the US, Russia and the UK arriving on the island has trebled in the past 10 years.
“The holiday season on islands is now a lot longer than it used to be, meaning that the donkeys are pretty much in work the whole year round.
“If they are not transporting tourists up the steps they are moving building materials or transporting heavy bags of rubbish.
“They are made to work in terrible conditions without adequate water, shelter or rest and then I find them tied outside my shelter, barely alive.
“I have between 15 and 25 donkeys here, but I am glad that people bring them to me as they would normally be left to die or killed because owners don’t want to pay to have them put to sleep.
“For some their final walk is to the shelter because they are just hours from death.