Alan! ALAN! Get back here now!’ Wellies splashing and arms flailing, Tracy Garton is running up and down a frozen field in Lincolnshire in pursuit of a mischievous donkey.
At the request of the Mail’s photographer, she’s trying to drape a Santa hat over his head, but Alan — a nine-year-old, one-metre-high donkey — is having none of it.
He’s already had a nibble of the faux holly wreath we’ve wrapped around his ears and the red felt hat soon ends up squelched in the mud under a wayward hoof.
‘Alan! You are such a naughty boy,’ scolds Tracy, patting his furry nose and feeding him some crumbs of ginger biscuit from her palm.
In January Alan the donkey was found tethered to a lamppost in a supermarket car park near Birmingham, forlorn, starving and shivering in the cold
Alan, of course, is not a typical name for a donkey. But Alan is anything but typical.
In January, he was found tethered to a lamppost in a supermarket car park near Birmingham, forlorn, starving and shivering in the cold, having been abandoned by a group of travellers who had callously left him there to die.
Tracy, who owns and runs Radcliffe Donkey Sanctuary in Alford, Lincolnshire, got a call from a concerned passer-by and rushed to Alan’s rescue.
Today, he is barely recognisable as the pitiful, dejected creature she first laid eyes on.
Not only is he one of the sanctuary’s best-loved residents, but his story has been turned into a book — and it’s tipped to become this year’s surprise Christmas bestseller.
Alan The Christmas Donkey is the heart-warming tale of how this little donkey became the star of the sanctuary’s festive calendar and turned its fortunes around.
He’s been dressed up as a reindeer, accompanied Father Christmas on primary school visits — and has even been asked to perform in the village Nativity play.
‘There really is no other animal like Alan,’ says Tracy, 54, who’s been running the sanctuary with her husband Steve, 59, for the past 25 years.
Tracy, who owns and runs Radcliffe Donkey Sanctuary in Alford, Lincolnshire, got a call from a concerned passer-by and rushed to Alan’s rescue
‘He’s very affectionate but also playful — a bit of a lovable rogue. He likes to get involved in everything. If you’re painting a fence, he’ll get the brush in his mouth to help. If you’re having a cup of coffee, he’ll try to grab the mug by the handle.
‘He’s also the messiest donkey I know. No matter how many times you brush his hair, he’ll have it matted and muddy again within minutes.’
Alan is one of 49 donkeys at Radcliffe, sharing 28 acres of green fields with two horses, three ponies, three cats, countless ducks and chickens, two ‘zedonks’ and a ‘zonkey’ (two different types of donkey/zebra hybrids with black and white stripes on their fur). All are rescue animals.
Tracy has saved many of them from near-death, some have come via the RSPCA, and a shocking number of them have been dumped at her door in the dead of night by their owners.
She insists she didn’t set out to open an animal sanctuary. In fact, she says: ‘I’d never wanted donkeys in my life.’
It all started in 1991, when, on a whim, Tracy, who was then working in her family’s chain of video rental shops, volunteered to look after an unwanted mule named Muffin.
She rented a field from a nearby farmer and spent weeks avidly researching how to care for her new charge.
Next came two donkeys from the beach at nearby Skegness, which she offered to look after over the winter. Soon she was flooded with requests from animal lovers and stressed owners up and down the country.
Today, she devotes every waking minute, from 5.30am to 11pm, to her donkeys. She’s named each of them and can recognise them by sight and also by the sound of their bray.
‘It’s bad luck to rename a donkey if it’s already got a name, but if it doesn’t then I like to spend a few days with it to get a sense of its character,’ she explains. ‘They’re gentle, intelligent creatures so the name needs to be right.’
While Alan might sound strange, there’s also Persil (because of its white coat), Dynamic Derrick (who, at over 16 hands — 5ft — is on track to become the biggest donkey in the world); and Bamboo, a French donkey which Tracy says fondly ‘is as thick as two planks’.
Today, he is barely recognisable as the pitiful, dejected creature she first laid eyes on
Other residents include Itchy Titchy, Little Boris, Dolly Day Dream and Noddy, while Alan’s stable-mate is a feisty zedonk named Tigger, who refuses to leave Alan’s side.
‘It didn’t take me long to come up with the name Alan,’ says Tracy. ‘It’s solid, stable and dependable — just what he needed after such a horrible, tough time. When people meet him for the first time, they often say he looks like an Alan.’
Sure enough, the small creature, who barely comes up to my hip, has a sort of old-mannish, bumbling nature and a tuft of mane over his nose which looks uncannily like a toupee. He waddles around, nuzzling into anyone and anything that looks or smells interesting and playfully butting the other donkeys.
When he’s finished causing havoc in the field, he settles down in his stable and — just as the photographer is about to take another shot — rolls over in the hay, covering his previously pristine coat with a blizzard of white flecks.
Tracy laughs and slips him another half a ginger biscuit (his favourite) from her sleeve.
She’ll never forget the first time she saw Alan, weak and shaking in the corner of a car park, tied up by a length of dirty rope while onlookers gaped but did nothing to help.
It was January 6 and she and Steve had driven 130 miles from the sanctuary to Birmingham with a horsebox, after receiving an early-morning call from an animal-loving stranger who had spotted the donkey’s plight.
‘He looked so sad and pathetic,’ Tracy says. ‘Sometimes donkeys stop eating and just give up — and once that’s happened it’s very hard to bring them back.
‘He was emaciated and scared. He hadn’t had food or water for days.
‘His fur was coming out in clumps and he was so thin his bones were poking through. His poor feet were so overgrown [donkey hooves, like human toenails, grow constantly and need regular trimming] that they were curling underneath, so it was very painful for him to walk. I just knew we needed to get him home.’
One more night in the cold, she says, and Alan wouldn’t have survived.
Back at Radcliffe, it was a slow process nursing him back to health. For days, he ignored his food (donkeys usually eat grass and hay, with carrots, Polos and gingersnaps for treats) and wouldn’t look Tracy in the eye.
‘He was wandering round like a zombie, with no character,’ she recalls. ‘We kept him in his own field and he could see the other donkeys, but he wasn’t interested.
‘Even when we put them together, he would just slump in a corner, looking glum.’
Then one day, around a week after his arrival, Tracy heard the most ear-splitting noise — ‘like a wail crossed with a scream but at a pitch that set my teeth on edge’.
To her delight, it was Alan, merrily braying for the first time — a very positive sign.
Little by little, as his health improved, Alan came out of his shell. He soon proved himself popular among the other animals, and on one occasion even alerted Tracy (with that unique cry) when another donkey fell into a ditch.
News about the adorable new arrival spread and the sanctuary saw record numbers of visitors queuing up for a cuddle — or a ‘selfie’ — with Alan. For his part, he seemed to adore the attention.
‘Donkeys are more like dogs than horses,’ Tracy says. ‘They love being fussed over and will often follow you around. You can really build a bond with them.
‘But a lot of people see them as second-class creatures.
‘I’ve met some awful owners who keep their horses in perfect condition, with all the vets’ bills and farriers’ fees you could imagine, but leave their donkeys to rot. I think it’s mostly ignorance. People don’t mean to be cruel, but there’s a mentality that they’re not racehorses, so you shouldn’t treat them as if they are.
‘It shocks me what people can do to animals. I have to be detached, or I’d get angry and upset.’
In the early days of their business, Tracy and Steve made the decision not to have children but to focus instead on their donkeys.
In many ways, they’re like her babies: she plays with them, talks to them and stays up all night by their side if they fall ill.
She’s only had the one day off in 25 years — and even then, when Steve took her to the zoo for the day as a surprise, she was so anxious to get back she almost made him turn the car around.
‘You have to love it to do what I do,’ she says. ‘The hours are gruelling and the donkeys don’t say thank you, although I do think they’re grateful. I have no social life and I don’t go on holidays.
‘I don’t even celebrate Christmas. It’s just another day. I’ll be up at the crack of dawn, mucking out.’
She doesn’t ask for presents, either — unless they’re donkey-related. One year, Steve bought her a dumper truck. This year she’s asked for lead ropes and buckets.
And her ‘babies’? They get a festive treat on Christmas morning: a slug of Guinness, full of nutritional barley and hops.
Winter is a slow time for the sanctuary, which closes to the public during January and February. It costs £50,000 a year to run and relies entirely on donations (entry is free) and a ten-strong team of tireless volunteers.
Tracy is fundraising for a new shelter for her two oldest residents —donkeys can live up to 40 years — and is entirely reliant on the generosity of visitors.
In the past, they’ve held jumble sales, tombolas and even a celebrity auction to raise money, for which donations flooded in from, among others, the Queen Mother (who gave bone china, travel rugs and silver teaspoons), Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Michael Caine and Sir Paul and Linda McCartney. This time, however, it was Alan himself who would ride to her rescue.
One of the volunteers had the idea of hosting a festive fundraising party, with the local brass band, plenty of food and drink — and Alan, dressed as a reindeer in felt antlers and bells, to accompany Father Christmas.
Though he marched the wrong way during the parade, stole visitors’ mince pies, tore off Santa’s beard and brayed through the carols, Alan was a huge hit.
Christmas cards began arriving in their hundreds for the sanctuary’s star attraction. ‘There are eccentric old dears who write and tell me how devoted they are to Alan, and children who give him all their pocket money,’ says Tracy. ‘It’s very sweet — and a bit overwhelming. He gets more Christmas cards than me!’
Invitations flooded in, too, with school visits and community outings. And as his remarkable story storms to success in the book charts, there’s a new adventure in store.
‘The other day, I got a phone call from the man who makes Casualty and Midsomer Murders,’ Tracy reveals. ‘He wants to make a festive TV show about Alan, to be shown next Christmas.
‘I’m not sure what to think of it all. I don’t know if we’re interesting enough to be on TV. Then again, Alan is a bit of a charmer.’
Like all great A-listers, Alan’s even got a stunt double. When he’s too tired of the limelight to perform, Tracy sends Pumpkin — another pint-sized rescue donkey — in his place.
‘You can’t tell them apart,’ she says. ‘Pumpkin has been to the library with Santa and he does the Palm Sunday parade. Everyone thinks it’s Alan.’
So what next for this little Christmas donkey?
Well, next year Alan celebrates his tenth birthday — with a ginger cake, of course — and Tracy’s expecting a huge turn-out to mark the occasion.
After that, it might be time to hire him an agent.
‘When you think of where he’s come from, it really is extraordinary,’ Tracy says, brushing Alan’s scraggly mane out of his eyes.
‘We might have saved him, but he’s paid us back over and over again. I know I’m not meant to have favourites, but this one has a very special place in my heart.’
Alan The Christmas Donkey, by Tracy Garton, is published by Pan, priced £7.99. For more information or to donate to the sanctuary, visit www.radcliffedonkeys.com