The Oppression of Donkeys in Seaside Tourism

  • Paul A. G. TullyEmail author
  • Neil Carr
Original Paper


All domestic animals have, to date, been under-researched in tourism studies, and donkeys, the focus of this article, are no exception. Many studies have shown that wild, endangered, and iconic animal species are participants in an unequal relationship with tourism in which their sentient nature is ignored. This paper illustrates why this is also the case for domestic animals, with a specific emphasis on donkeys. Following a case study in the UK resort of Blackpool, the paper uses sociological analysis to uncover how the tourism sector instigates and supports the exploitation of donkeys. As such, the discussion considers how the content of three interacting forces - economic exploitation, unequal power, and ideological control - are in operation to oppress donkeys’ at the British seaside. The article, thus, demonstrates how the tourism sector facilitates donkeys’ oppressive treatment. This creates challenging questions for a sector that enacts and maintains speciesism in society.


Animals in tourism Donkeys Animal oppression Speciesism 

1 Introduction

Donkeys’ have been a participant in the human world for generations. As a domesticated animal, they have played essential roles in wars, agriculture, food production, migration, and other fundamental aspects of society (DeMello 2012; Geiger 2013; The Donkey Sanctuary 2019a). Donkeys’ domestication stems from Northern Africa over four thousand years ago, where their role as transport for heavy loads in difficult conditions established them as tough working animals (Rossel et al. 2008). As time progressed humanity firmly established them as a tool for use in agricultural work and as a form of transport around the world (Blakeway 2014; Rossel et al. 2008). Additionally, during the early twentieth-century human action saw donkeys become synonymous with providing tourist pleasure through entertaining activities.

Despite their long association with tourism, the role of donkeys in the creation of tourist experiences around the world has been undervalued. They can be found globally facilitating tourism-related activity in multiple ways, including as transport for visiting ancient ruins (Usher 2018), as assistants on treks and expeditions (Beddington 2017), and as entertainment at farm attractions (Hodgson 2019). Furthermore, donkey rides on British beaches became an established tourism activity in the early twentieth century (Walton 2000), and today tourists can encounter donkeys in seaside resorts around the world. In short, donkeys are, undeniably, an animal worker of the global tourism industry. However, despite this historical and global relationship coverage of the donkeys’ position in the sector is lacking in tourism-animal research (Blakeway and Cousquer 2018).

The lack of critical research consideration for the donkey in the tourism sector is problematic given the growing societal awareness of animal sentience (Carr and Broom 2018). This growth has led to increasing concern about the treatment and wellbeing of donkeys’ in the sector, including in Kenya (Praxides 2018), Greece (Smith 2018), Portugal (Dollimore 2018), Russia (Clarke 2019), and the UK (Whitehead 2018). Furthermore, charity organizations, such as The Brooke Hospital for Animals (2018), The Donkey Sanctuary (2019b), and SPANA (2019), are increasingly raising awareness of the poor treatment of donkeys across the tourism industry. Therefore, studies need to consider the undervalued and potentially problematic roles donkeys’ have and are subjected to in tourism.

This article uses sociological analysis to examine the position of donkeys in a traditional tourism context. The study of animals in sociology is still a niche area, but a growing number of scholars have begun considering animal treatment in societal activity (see Carter and Charles 2011; Cudworth 2011; Irvine 2007; Nibert 2002; Peggs 2009; Tovey 2003; Twine 2010; Wilkie 2015) as sociology can shed light on the oppressive animal practices of society (Peggs 2012). This analysis must include the operations of tourism as the sector is a major part of “contemporary social life” (Cohen and Cohen 2017: 2), and is a principal industry for human engagement with animals (Markwell 2015a). Therefore, this paper investigates the British donkey rides that originated in the early twentieth century and continue to entertain tourists in destinations today. Following a case study approach, the discussion uses sociological analysis to uncover how the tourism sector instigates and supports the exploitation of donkeys. The article, thus, demonstrates how the tourism sector facilitates donkeys’ oppressive treatment.

2 Literature Review

This section provides context for the discussion of the donkeys’ treatment in tourism and the sociological analysis that is to follow in this article. Donkeys’, and all domestic animals, under-researched position in tourism (Young and Carr 2018) means this literature review makes a broader assessment of wild, endangered, and iconic animals’ relationships with the sector. The discussion establishes that studies show animals are often participants in an unequal tourism relationship, thus indicating the ways in which the sector facilitates animal oppression. As future sections will show, similarities exist between the treatment of the wild, endangered, and iconic species acknowledged so far in tourism research and the domestic donkey.

2.1 The Unequal Tourism-Animal Relationship

Sentience is increasingly a critical component in contemporary society’s view of and relationships with animals. The increasing acceptance throughout society of animal sentience and resulting concerns about their welfare is causing a greater focus on areas that negatively affect animal lives (Broom 2014). Growth in concern stems from an acknowledgement that animals can experience or perceive feelings, including pain and joy, among others (Carr and Broom 2018; Dawkins 2006). For instance, studies have established that donkeys’ are sentient beings with an appreciation of social interactions, an ability to show annoyance, and demonstrate conscious reactions to painful situations (Geiger 2013; Geiger and Hovorka 2015; Merrifield 2008). Human acceptance of animal sentience should influence the treatment of them as it creates responsibilities and obligations in human action (Broom 2010). Acknowledgement of sentience demands an empathetic treatment of animals that is based on a care value grounded in ideas of compassion, love, respect, appreciation, and kindness (Bekoff 2007). However, this challenges the tourism sector’s use of animals that for generations has valued species instrumentally and not intrinsically (Fennell 2012), thus as a resource for facilitating human desires and not as sentient beings. In fairness to the tourism industry, it has not been unique in the way it has viewed and used animals but is instead emblematic of the traditional relationship between human society and animals.

An animal, which tourists wish to see, becomes part of a destinations’ entertainment package (Fennell 2012), with tourism-related processes designing and manipulating the animals’ construction for tourist consumption. This has, and continues to be, demonstrated through the commodification of endangered animals such as pandas (Cohen 2010) and polar bears (Henderson 2011) by zoos. Animals may be trained/made to perform activities or decorated for the tourists’ entertainment (Cohen 2012), as exemplified with the training of Thai elephants to perform ‘entertaining’ tricks or in the draping of them in ‘traditional’ Thai costume (Bone and Bone 2015; Cohen 2015). Additionally, tourism practices may use anthropomorphic methods to make animals more relatable for visitors and help to obscure the negative treatment of them from the tourists’ view (Cohen 2010, 2015; Wiener 2015), as evidenced in the personification of orcas in captivity (Desmond 1999). Design and manipulation techniques work by creating a more meaningful experience (from a human perspective) through narrowing the human-animal divide, thus making an animals’ participation seem more willing and natural (Cohen 2009). These processes are a method to achieve the creation and fulfilment of tourist desires and, in turn, the increase of economic profitability of the tourism sector (Duffy 2014). Hence, the physical animal is a resource designed and manipulated for human gain.

Animals’ also become part of a destinations entertainment package through their symbolic construction for the tourist gaze (Markwell 2015b). In other words, processes manipulate an animal’s identity to suit the requirement of the sector. For instance, polar bears become “highly entertaining [...] fascinating and charming” with “magical and mystical qualities” through tourism promotional documents (Yudina and Grimwood 2016: 725). Other destination processes result in an animal identity merchandised through inanimate objects, such as tourist souvenirs (Beardsworth and Bryman 2001; Markwell 2015b). These commercialized representations help in establishing iconic destination imagery that communicates specific ideas to the tourist (Cloke and Perkins 2005); constructing animal ideas aimed at enticing tourists to, and satisfying them in, a destination (Beardsworth and Bryman 2001; Bertella 2013; Markwell 2015a). In short, these representative processes value a manipulated animals’ identity as a resource for the achievement of tourist satisfaction and industry profit maximization.

Tourism is a worldwide human-focused pleasure industry. The sector is “a social phenomenon” that revolves around the personal desires that people have and a global industry that attempts to create and fulfil these needs and wants (Carr and Broom 2018: 2). As such, tourism operations commodify any resource that can create and/or satisfy a tourist desire (Cloke and Perkins 2002; Connell 2013; Gotham 2007). As such, animals’ are both physically and symbolically a manipulated resource utilized by humans to achieve human gains in tourism. Consequently, they are treat instrumentally, as objects, undermining their position as sentient beings and, in the process, ignoring their personal wellbeing. Instead, any welfare considerations are confined to thoughts about the continued success of the animal as a valued object/commodity (Carr and Broom 2018).

Animal welfare and animal rights are the two most common concepts in debates concerning the treatment of animals by humans. Animal welfare contemplates how humans use animals and aims to improve their wellbeing during this use. The elimination of abuse and neglect, satisfaction of behavioural needs in captive environments, and ensuring the correct skill level for their handling are just a few examples of how animal wellbeing may be enhanced (Grandin 2015). Alternatively, animal rights, in its strictest form, considers how animals are used by humans and seeks to abolish all uses, as proponents of this position contend that no individual (human or animal) is “more deserving of higher moral regard than another” (Fennell 2015: 28). The animal welfare concept has increasingly received attention in tourism, whereas the coverage of animal rights remains marginal (for a detailed assessment see Fennell 2015).

Both of these human constructed concepts have received criticism. It has been suggested that a focus on animal welfare, as is present in tourism, may be problematic due to its application meaning improvements in animal treatment are “relatively minor in scope” (Garner 2010: 125). That is, whilst a focus on welfare is unquestionably an important element of the treatment animals receive, it fails to account fully for how humans exploit them (Francione 2008). For example, zoo animals may receive state of the art care (Mellor 2016) but at the same time be used, in artificial environments, for the benefit of human entertainment. Not dissimilarly, a pet dog may be used as a source of love and entertainment but be given a high quality of care by its human owner. Care must be taken when defining ‘use’ as opposed to abuse as it may be exploitative even when an animal shows no signs of resistance or even appears to be willing to engage in a type of behaviour. Differentiating between these two situations requires an animalcentric approach, as suggested by Carr and Broom (2018). From an animal welfarist perspective, not all use is automatically exploitation. In other words, just because humans use (or utilize) an animal does not necessarily mean it is abused, physically or psychologically. Such perspectives stand in direct opposition to the views of animal rights proponents. However, the concentration of animal rights on the idea of granting equality between animals and humans, with debates focused around thoughts of personhood (human characteristics that, it is debated, animals do not have), is also criticized as unrealistic and implausible (Garner 2010). Instead, Broom (2014) proposes thinking of obligations as an alternative to rights. These are the obligations humans have towards animals as sentient beings. Providing good welfare would be one such obligation. These obligations are “a duty to act, or to refrain from acting” in a manner that has potential negative consequences for animals (Broom 2014: 13). Such as duties not to enslave, manipulate, constrain, or deprive. Broom’s approach, while having gathered many supporters is, of course, inherently an animal welfarist one rather than one associated with animal rights. Analysing tourism activities with this idea of human obligations has the potential to, radically, alter the view of animal use in the industry.

2.2 Analysing Animal Oppression in Tourism

Through their position in tourism, animals’ are treat as commodities and objects. Thus, they become the objectified ‘Other’ to be utilized for achieving human pleasure (Burns 2015). That is, in their use as something to experience, as marketing and documentation tools, and through destination objects, animals are a versatile product for tourist consumption (Markwell 2015b). Hence, the pursuit of economic gain by creating tourist pleasure sees animals treat as commercial products (Duffy 2014). In this way, the sentient animal becomes an economic tool in the tourism sector. The sector consistently treats animals as a resource, not through a value of care but one focused on economic outcomes. Therefore, tourism-related practices display widely held traditional beliefs of human superiority over animals (Fennell 2012) and indicate how an anthropocentric tourism sector facilitates animal oppression. It is this unequal tourism-animal relationship that the donkey is a participant of.

In the 1970s Richard Ryder devised the term speciesism, as a concept that denotes a prejudice based on species membership (Ryder 2000). Speciesism is the notion that the interests of the human species group dominate over those of nonhuman animal species (Fennell 2012; Peggs 2012). This is visible in the activities of the tourism sector illustrated in this paper as an animals’ use happens for human gains. Despite a seemingly obvious connection, however, speciesism is largely unacknowledged in both research and the wider tourism sector (Fennell 2014). Ryder saw speciesism as a form of prejudice based on injustices, exploitations, and oppression created by “the doer’s negative attitude and actions” (2000: 242). Nibert considers this as limiting, though, because it disregards the importance of “the social structural basis for the oppression of other animals” (2002: 12). Hence, Ryder focuses on individual reasoning with little concern for the forming, operation, and maintenance of speciesism in society (Nibert 2002). Nibert, therefore, views speciesism as an ingrained aspect in the economic and cultural practices of society, and it is this understanding that can make visible its presence in the tourism sector.

This concept of speciesism leads Nibert (2002) to analyse the oppression of animals in society. In sociology, discussions about the concept of oppression and oppressive practices are common, seeing those oppressed as experiencing a hindrance to “exercise their capacities” and in “expressing their needs, thoughts, and feelings” (Young 1990: 40). As Nibert remarks, oppressive social arrangements result in the “exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, deprivation, or vulnerability to violence” (2002: 6) of specific groups. Oppressive arrangements are a relationship where a group’s disadvantage is another’s privilege, and these arrangements are about power imbalances, as one group has the opportunity to impose superiority over another (Bohmer and Briggs 1991; Glasberg and Shannon 2011). This concept has relevance to the discussion above regarding the tourism-animal relationship, as the human-focused tourism sector uses animals to satisfy tourist desires and gain economically while ignoring their sentience. Thus, it exploits them as a resource, manipulates their actions and appearance, marginalizes their true identity and, as such, deprives them of intrinsic value.

Nibert suggests that oppressive treatment occurs because of the “widely held, socially shared beliefs” of human dominance over animals (Nibert 2002: 10). He analyses animal oppression through a specific framework. Containing three factors (economic exploitation, unequal power, and ideological control), his framework provides the ability to explain interacting forces in the development and maintenance of oppression. The first factor examines the way animals become economic resources, while the second looks at the ways in which humans exert power and control over them (Peggs 2012). Finally, the third factor, ideological control, relates to how the view of oppression is rationalized and legitimated or, put another way, “appears as the right thing to do” (Nibert 2002: 13). Nibert’s three-factor framework provides the structure for the upcoming discussion. Therefore, it offers a platform for explaining how the tourism sector facilitates the oppression of donkeys at the British seaside.

3 Methodology: A Case Study

The data in this article is from a qualitative case study of donkeys in the UK seaside destination of Blackpool. This section explains the processes involved in researching this case study, which concentrated on the supply-side of tourism as its interest was in exploring how Blackpool’s tourism sector stages the seaside donkey practice (Edensor 2001). An advantage of studying this one case was the opportunity to use multiple data sources (Yin 2014). Hence, the study utilized interviews, observations, and document analysis. This allowed the first author to gain significant insights into the role that the donkey has in Blackpool’s tourism sector.

Throughout the twentieth century Blackpool, located in the North-West of England, built a reputation as the UK’s primary working class holiday destination and became famous for cheap seaside pleasure activities, such as Punch and Judy shows, sandcastle competitions and donkey rides (Walton 2000). Following a period of significant decline during the 1990s and 2000s (Sharpley 2009), Blackpool has, over the last 15 years, rebuilt its reputation through investment and modernisation. The town’s renowned promenade now contains world famous branded attractions and restaurants alongside iconic offerings from theme parks to penny amusement arcades. However, tourist demand leads to the maintenance of traditional seaside pleasures, including the donkey rides, as tourists’ are increasingly seeking nostalgic experiences through traditional activities (Chapman and Light 2011). Today, Blackpool receives around 18 million visits annually (STEAM 2016).

3.1 Data Collection

The interviews concentrated on discovering the meanings destination stakeholders give to the donkeys as part of Blackpool’s tourism entertainment package. Through choosing supply-side stakeholders via purposive sampling, thus deliberately selecting participants based on their role in the tourism sector (Buchmann 2017), nine interviews were undertaken with representatives from destination operators, government and authority members, visitor service employees, an independent marketing organization, and a local tourism association (see Table 1). Employing this strategy allowed the selection of a diverse range of views while only considering individuals with relevance to the study (Buchmann 2017). A challenge in this approach was related to gaining stakeholder buy-in to the interviews, with the first author contacting 35 destination stakeholders and gaining nine interviewees. Furthermore, it should be noted that all the donkey operators approached declined to participate in the study. No interpretation should be gleaned from this as there is a lack of evidence to indicate why they declined to take part.
Table 1

Interviewee details





Local tourism association



Visitor services



Visitor services



Visitor services



Destination operator



Government and authority



Government and authority



Destination operator



Marketing organization


The interviews used a semi-structured design and, therefore, each used an interview guide with topic questions and prompts but ultimately interviewee responses led the conversation (Rowley 2012). Allowing participant answers to lead the interview enabled exploration of their thoughts on the donkey in Blackpool’s tourism sector (Jacob and Furgerson 2012). The first author conducted an initial pilot interview, which led to slight adjustments in the guide. This fine-tuning process continued throughout the research and allowed for the conducting of effective interviews.

Further data collection occurred via the first author spending time observing tourism-related activities in Blackpool. The one case focus created the opportunity for direct observations in the town’s tourism sector and of the seaside donkey practice (Yin 2014). Hence, observations provided the researcher with insights into Blackpool as a destination and the donkey in this tourism context. More precisely, observations included the donkey rides on the beach, viewing how donkeys, sometimes individually or attached together in 2’s, 3’s and 4’s via their reins, were made to walk by operators every time a child tourist purchased a ride. Observations around Blackpool involved searching for representations of the donkey in tourism-related situations away from the beach - particularly as symbolic references (i.e., tourism souvenirs). The observations followed an unstructured method, with no specific design and no participatory involvement with the sector (Veal 2018). That is, observations happened informally as the researcher looked for explanations and understandings about the donkey in the town’s tourism sector, and the recording of field notes allowed the first author to recall this data later in the study (Veal 2018).

The first author also undertook a document analysis. He considered any evidence source, written or otherwise, that was available to ‘read’ visually (Bryman 2016). The documents considered were news articles, websites, official publications, destination reports, historical documents and records, photographs, TV programmes and video clips, promotional material, and tourist souvenirs. The first author put each piece of evidence through a quality check based on a documents’ “authenticity, credibility, representativeness, and meaning” (Scott 1990: 19), thereby assuring each source was of a high standard.

Despite the outlined access challenges for the interviews, the use of these “multiple measures of the same phenomenon” (Yin 2014: 121) provided a strong dataset for this study. The study employed a process of triangulation to produce a robust dataset that has validation through the different collection methods (Creswell and Miller 2000). This is apparent as the themes that emerged in the data exist across each of the collection techniques used.

3.2 Data Analysis

During and after the collection stages, all data underwent detailed analysis in the search for recurrent meanings. Initial analysis commenced during the data’s collection, so throughout interview transcription, the collection of documentary evidence, and the gathering of field notes and material objects. As data collection advanced, the first author became more familiar with the data and began to uncover patterns. Hence, this research used thematic analysis as a way to uncover “ideas within the data” (Guest et al. 2012: 10). Following the dataset’s completion, the first author examined all evidence again for ideas about the donkey in Blackpool’s tourism sector. This was not a case of only identifying the use of consistent words or phrases, but also focused on finding the implicit and explicit ideas across the data (Guest et al. 2012). These findings are now incorporated into the discussion of the next section in the exploration of how the tourism sector facilitates donkeys’ oppression.

4 Discussion: Animal Oppression in a Tourism Tradition

This article now begins the process of critically considering donkeys in the tourism sector. In this section, using Nibert’s framework as a platform, the discussion focuses on the three interacting forces that frame the donkeys’ treatment (Nibert 2002). This enables the paper to demonstrate how the tourism sector instigates and supports donkeys’ exploitation.

4.1 Economic Exploitation: Human Pleasure and Profit

Throughout society, human industries exploit animals for economic gain. As such, they profit by using animals as food sources and labour power, by turning them into saleable items, through their use as entertainers and in many other ways (Nibert 2002; Peggs 2012). This basis for exploitation has undeniable relevance to the tourism sector, which, as seen previously, puts animals through a commodification process. Therefore, through examining how the donkey provides tourists’ with an entertaining experience and the designing of this practice, the exploitation of them for human pleasure and, in turn, profit is apparent.

Donkeys’ provide beach entertainment by carrying children upon their backs and, as such, perform physical labour on the beach. Costing £2 to £3, children sit in the saddle while the operator walks the donkey for about 100 yards and back. A beach performance like this - including a kitschy designed donkey featuring dyed fluorescent pink mane, jingling bells and ribbon decorations, and leather saddle atop a colourful blanket following a line of donkey dung and making hoof prints in the sand - is a traditional scene in Blackpool. Donkey rides became a feature on Blackpool’s beach as the seaside holiday grew in popularity during the twentieth century (Walton 2000) and, as Peter said, today the practice continues to “thrill younger children as very much part of the offer”. That is, in among the modern commercial attractions, the theme parks and piers, the food and drink scene, events and shows, the souvenir shops, and amusement arcades, the donkey ride continues as a tourist attraction. Hence, the donkeys’ labour is part of the resort’s entertainment package, tasked with creating pleasurable tourist experiences (Fennell 2012). As illustrated in Olly’s comment:

“I’ve taken my nieces and nephews down [to the beach] and, erm, when they come to Blackpool. And, you know, we went to the piers and it’s fairly expensive, and going to some of the tourist attractions and ice creams, but the donkeys was the highlight for them, and the thing they took from their weekend.”

The aim at the foundation of the creation of these experiences is, of course, profit generation. As a donkey operator remarks in a TV interview, it is a way for him “to make a living” (Bargain Loving Brits in Blackpool 2017), and as Luke noted, “If it’s sunny and tides out pound to a penny they’ll be down there plying for trade”. In short, the seaside donkey practice is, primarily, a commercial enterprise, as epitomized in recent developments that have seen the seaside donkey practice modernize to accept card transactions. The attachment of an e-commerce terminal to a donkey’s saddle with the ability to accept contactless payments was highly publicized in the UK (Brett 2014). Thus, the donkeys’ use is, clearly, as a resource for creating an economic gain.

Identifiable in the donkeys use as a source of entertainment is the way that they are a designed beach performer. Operators use particular techniques to package the donkeys, thereby making them more appealing for the tourists. As such, they are ‘dressed’ with decorations such as ribbons and bells, colourful blankets, and fluorescent pink hair dye, thus manipulating the donkeys' natural appearance for touristic purposes. These decorations have become an integral part of the seaside donkey practice. As Cathy, recalling her donkey memories, said, “They have little hats on and the little bells, and you hear them jingling as they walk along, that’s just the beach”. The donkeys have to appear in a certain way in Blackpool’s tourism, as they must appeal to the tourist and keep the traditional view of the seaside donkey present. However, the donkey has no choice but to receive the human action and it is impossible to view the use of hair dye to turn their mane a fluorescent pink as a caring act focused on the wellbeing of the donkey.

The seaside donkey practice also uses naming techniques for touristic appeal, which is a simple aspect in the anthropomorphising of the donkey. As the operator comments, “the traditional names are always the best, the traditional ones like Bobby and Teddy” (Bargain Loving Brits in Blackpool 2017). Due to this naming, the creation of a very personal tourist experience happens. As Olly explained:

“They have the names on their noses [via a metal name plate attached in position by the reins], so it’s like very personal and then like my niece would say this is Lucy, this is my donkey. Erm, so then when she comes back, you know, it may be a different donkey, but in her mind it’s still her donkey”.

This is reinforced by the operator, who stated that “every year the same kids can come back and ask for the same donkey” (Bargain Loving Brits in Blackpool 2017). The donkey names, though, are a tool of the seaside donkey trade, which are recycled to keep the traditional ones alive. Furthermore, it is a tool purposively used to form a connection with the child as it can generate future business. In other words, the name is part of generating tourist pleasure and, in turn, increasing profits, thus continuing to exploit the donkey as a resource.

The discussion so far establishes that the tourism sector exploits donkeys in the same way that many industries treat animals throughout society - namely, for economic gain. Donkeys’ are workers in Blackpool’s tourism sector who perform physical beach labour to entertain the tourist; thus, they become a commodity. For this practice to have tourist appeal specific design techniques treat the donkey instrumentally. So, for example, decorating and naming processes continue the donkeys’ exploitative treatment as a resource. Consistently through the seaside donkey practice, the focus is on creating pleasurable tourist experiences and, in turn, generating profit. In doing so, little apparent thought is given to the intrinsic value of each donkey as a sentient being.

4.2 Unequal Power: Constructing ‘The seaside donkey’

Destination processes that display how tourism exerts power and control over animals support this exploitative treatment. As Yudina and Grimwood (2016) illustrate, support for the tourism sector’s exploitation of animals comes from destination documents and material objects, as depictions reinforce a specific tourism-focused animal identity. Animals in tourism become symbols of specific destinations distributed through marketing material, souvenirs, photographs and other inanimate objects (Markwell 2015a). These representations serve the purpose of characterizing the animal in a certain way that authenticates their presence in the destination and the tourist experience. In viewing representations of the donkey in Blackpool, it is possible to identify how the construction of the donkey occurs to suit the tourism sector’s requirements, thereby supporting their exploitation.

The local authority presents regulations for the beach donkey rides in the form of a 1942 donkey charter (Blackpool Council 1942). This officially published document sets the upper age limit of riders at 16, grants the donkeys set ‘working hours’, and gives them an hour ‘lunch break’ and the ‘day off’ on Fridays. This document’s prominence occurs, despite modern veterinary checks and licencing requirements occurring, as it helps the sector maintain the traditional essence of the seaside donkey practice. Notably, when the donkey charter, and especially the fact that donkeys have a ‘day off’, came up in the interviews it did so because of its apparent comical nature. As Luke noted, “well the donkey charter you’ve seen [laughing], so I know the rules and regulations”, and Andy commented, “people think you’re joking when you say that, but it is the proper law”. Aside from the comical scripting that this document provides, it also reinforces that the donkeys are labourers. In granting set ‘working hours’, a ‘lunch break’ and a ‘day off’, the document provides another anthropomorphic depiction of the donkeys, hence presenting them in the same light as a human workforce and, in so doing, objectifying them as a resource of tourism. This is doubly so as, unlike human labourers, they are not paid or free to decline to work. Rather, they are objects owned by tourism industry operators. This objectification fails to achieve the human obligations owed to the donkeys.

Additionally, the charter is important for viewing donkey treatment. As Betty said, it shows “that our donkeys probably have far better-working facilities then you or I”. Hence, the charter helps presents an image of positive donkey treatment. Indeed, as Libby adds, it shows “that they are actually very well looked after”. However, while promoting positive treatment that may appear beneficial for donkey wellbeing, if implemented correctly, is commendable it does not prevent their exploitation. As Francione (2008) states, displaying concern for an animals welfare only hides and facilitates exploitative practices. Thus, while the charter, arguably, may enhance the donkeys’ wellbeing, it masks their exploitative treatment as an economic resource of tourism. Furthermore, the charter is limited in that it does not recognize the sentience of donkeys. Failure to do so ensures they remain, as is common throughout the world, viewed as objects to be owned by humans in the eyes of the law. As such, they are property. While there are laws that now seek to ensure the welfare of these objects these do not recognize the rights of these animals as anything other than objects.

The donkeys’ exploitation is reinforced through symbolic imagery in tourism processes. Donkey symbols relating to Blackpool’s tourism sector are not difficult to find. For instance, they appear on tourism marketing websites (e.g. Visit Blackpool 2019; Visit Lancashire 2019). The ‘Laughing Donkey Family Bar’ has a prominent place on the main promenade, and, as Peter explained, plans exist for a new museum to have an “interactive donkey which will give you interesting donkey facts and commentary on Blackpool”. Perhaps the most prominent donkey symbol, though, is in the form of tourist souvenirs with donkeys’ depicted on fridge magnets, cuddly toys, cups, keyrings, tea towels, postcards and so forth. Notably, stakeholders place the donkeys alongside the ‘kiss me quick hat’ souvenirs, with Peter seeing “things like the donkeys and the kiss me quick hats” as representing the town’s “bit of a joke” side. Additionally, Libby added that the donkeys “kind of go hand in hand with ‘kiss me quick hats’, the naff side of Blackpool”, thus these donkey representations maintain the “essence of what Blackpool is” (Peter).

The donkeys’ appearance on a plethora of souvenirs supports their exploitation by the tourism industry. In particular, the colourful, comical and often garish depictions of the donkey identify Blackpool as a vibrant, lively, and fun experience, and help to maintain a positive appearance for the resorts’ reputation. These depictions help to reinforce that the traditional cheap and fun Blackpool experience is still available. In turn, these depictions authenticate the use of the donkeys in creating this type of experience, thus supporting their exploitative treatment. Furthermore, these representations treat the donkey instrumentally, thus ignoring the true donkey identity of a tranquil, quiet and intelligent species (Merrifield 2008; Geiger 2013).

What this section shows is how destination processes manipulate and control the donkeys’ use. Through documents such as the 1942 charter regulating the donkey work or objects like cheap souvenirs depicting donkey imagery, tourism processes construct a specific view of ‘the seaside donkey’. As Luke (2007) shows, industries produce cover stories that work to obscure the exploitation of animals for human gain. He illustrates how animals become characterized as “‘livestock’, ‘game’, ‘pets’, ‘laboratory animals’, ‘meat’, and so forth” in particular sectors, thus helping to deny their intrinsic value by “blocking our awareness that other animals have interests” (2007: 144). Yudina and Grimwood illustrate how this occurs in tourism scripts that depict polar bears as “watchable wildlife” (2016: 726). As seen in the above discussion, the construction of ‘the seaside donkey’ represents the donkey as a tourism labourer, as a cared for animal, as a comical and fun aspect of the experience, and as a traditional part of the tourism sector, but blocks their sentient nature. The representation of ‘the seaside donkey’ authenticates their exploitation for human pleasure and profit, thus ignoring human obligations and responsibilities.

4.3 Ideological Control: The Cultural Context

The construction of ‘the seaside donkey’ representation is part of the ideological control that is used to justify the donkeys’ exploitation, as it helps to rationalize and legitimize their oppressive treatment from the human perspective. Hence, ideologies help make oppressive practices acceptable, as the exploitation of certain groups in a society can appear as the natural way due to a period of ideological constructing (Nibert 2002). Further, as Tribe points out, an exploitative ideology is not explicit in its operation but can have a “deeply embedded nature and long tradition” which can “camouflage its existence” (2008: 5). The operation of the seaside donkey practice has occurred over generations, which means humans have an established understanding of the donkey in Blackpool. Therefore, the historical connection between tourism and donkeys in the town means ‘the seaside donkey’ representation is a recognized part of this seaside landscape.

To understand how this ideological control operates it is necessary to consider tourist consumption. Ideas about the performative nature of tourism make clear that practices are consumed both directly and symbolically (Edensor 2001; Haldrup and Larsen 2010). That is, each tourist, with their own cultural reference point, consumes both the destination experience and the messages constructed in tourism representations. These representations often go unchallenged, as the sector presents them as a reality to experience, thus, in turn, perpetuating the ideas embedded within them (Scarles 2014; Yudina and Grimwood 2016). For instance, when tourists see the 1942 charter they become susceptible to accepting a labourer with good working conditions, or they view garish souvenirs and do not question why a donkey has a dyed fluorescent pink mane.

The representation alone, however, is not ideological. Rather, it is part of the ideological frame along with the cultural background of the tourist (Thompson 1990). As Thompson (1990) outlines, the extent to which a representation is ideological depends on its relation to its historical and social connections. The donkey in Blackpool’s tourism sector is, certainly, a historical feature. As Olly said, “it’s [donkey rides] a historic thing that probably wouldn’t get started up now”. All stakeholders referenced the long-established tradition of the donkey in the town, such as Andy noting that people associate with them because “they were taken on them as a kid” and Libby understanding them because they are from “my era, from me being a little girl”. Indeed, memories are crucial in the use of the donkey today. As Olly stated:

“They still have a place because, erm, again going back to if people had been on the donkeys when they were a child, now they want to give those memories to their children, that’s where it comes in really.”

Therefore, ‘the seaside donkey’ representation certainly sits within a framework that also contains a historical connection between donkeys and the British seaside. Furthermore, this framework has a social element, as exemplified by the representation of the donkey appearing across a multitude of social platforms. For instance, ‘the seaside donkey’ has appeared on a prime time British television commercial (CompareTheMeerkat 2013), is available to hire for a physical party appearance (Real Donkeys 2016) or as a symbolic event prop (Event Hire 2018), they have travelled to entertain on London’s south bank (Diertz 2016), and are a reason given in the news media’s claim regarding Britain’s love for the donkey (Randall 2010). In short, not only does ‘the seaside donkey’ appear in Blackpool’s tourism sector but it also has an embedded place in British society. So in capturing the meanings and ideas in ‘the seaside donkey’ representation and in knowing it as a part of Blackpool’s tourism sector, the tourists’ become blind to the exploitation of the donkey. The exploitative treatment of the donkey is, thus, rationalized and legitimized due to its representative, historical and social position in the cultural landscape of British society.

This cultural context is one that perpetuates human supremacy over animals. For instance, each month the UK slaughters millions of animals for human food consumption (National Statistics 2018) while millions more are utilized as research instruments for human advancement (Home Office 2017). Additionally, the use of thousands of others occurs for entertainment purposes - through racing, by performing, or just simply by being gazed at - traditionally most often for human pleasure and profit. As Cudworth states, despite at times displaying love and care for some iconic species kept as pets, the dominant human view of domestic animals is “a social context of utility” (2011: 19). Thus, speciesism is an ingrained part of this society. In the continued use of the donkey at the seaside, the tourism sector enacts and maintains this speciest reality. A discussion of whether animals can or do have an empowered position within human leisure is a topic that is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this paper but initial discussions on this issue can be found in works by Carr (2014) and Wilkinson (2018).

5 Conclusion

This article has demonstrated how the tourism sector instigates and supports donkeys’ exploitative treatment at the British seaside. The presented case study explains the content of three interacting forces - economic exploitation, unequal power, and ideological control - that illustrate the tourism sector as a facilitator of animal oppression. As such, donkeys’ undervalued position and their troublesome treatment in tourism has become clearer, and the growing awareness of animal sentience makes this study an important research contribution. The paper has demonstrated how a domesticated animal is subject to the same unequal relationship with the tourism sector as wild, endangered, and iconic species. Hence, the donkey is treated as a resource in the sector and, consequently, fails to be valued as a sentient being. This should raise concern relating to how their use in tourism impacts on their interests. Through continued development of studies that uncover how the tourism sector instigates and supports exploitative practices scholarship can be in a position to help instigate change for the better regarding tourism’s animal treatment.

Further studies, therefore, should continue to research the supply-side perspective of tourism and conduct vital research on the demand-side of the sector, as both viewpoints are crucial for the continued use of animals. Scholars should continue to explore the tourism sector’s practices and justification for the use of not just donkeys but all species of domestic animal, to uncover how these species are valued in the sector. This research should also begin to instigate change based on human obligations to animals as sentient beings.

In relation to the British case, gaining access to donkey operators could provide new dimensions from which to understand this seaside donkey practice. On the demand-side, researching tourists at the pre-travel stage (Markwell 2015a) should investigate the impact of wider societal representations and cultural beliefs about established animal practices in tourism. Meanwhile, studies in destinations could consider how wider beliefs in society influence tourists’ attitudes and behaviours towards animals. Furthermore, future research could expand on this articles’ case study by investigating other destinations, both in the UK and around the world, as the donkey participates in a wide variety of tourism-related activities globally. These studies should consider the cultural landscape that these activities occur in and the influence these cultures have on the donkeys’ use and representation, as this article has shown that the seaside donkey practice infiltrates British society and is influenced by its culture.

Hence, the speciest attitudes of British society form part of the tourism sector’s seaside donkey practice, thus presenting difficult questions regarding animal use in tourism. These are especially challenging as the sector continues to increase interactive animal experiences, has created embedded cultural uses of animals, and communicates ideas across social platforms. In other words, tourism is a major industry in shaping the human-animal relationship. The sector has always been and will always be human-centred, it is after all a human construct, but in a global society where the sentience of animals is increasingly recognized it is necessary to ask how such an anthropocentric industry can stop the instrumental valuing of animals? Is it possible for their use and subsequent treatment to happen through a value of care? This care valuing, seemingly, contradicts practices that are about satisfying human desires and increasing economic gains. When an animal-related experience is what the tourist continues to desire, can an economically driven industry really be expected to change or remove animal-related activities? Given its role in facilitating animal oppression, how can the tourism sector tackle the ingrained speciesism that it enacts and maintains? Future studies that seek to prevent animal exploitation in tourism should give thought to these questions. Only in resolving these challenging issues will donkeys’ exploitative treatment in British seaside tourism, and the treatment of all animals in the global tourism sector, have a chance to improve.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography, Politics, and SociologyNewcastle UniversityNewcastleUK
  2. 2.Department of TourismUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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