Christmas Cheer: How This Brit Couple is Saving India’s Donkeys

“Once the donkeys are injured or old, people just leave them on the road, and I go pick them up.”

4 min read

(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on Christmas day. It was first published on 23 December 2017.)

The Asswin Donkey Farm is hard to reach. There is no public transport to the location – Dhankot village in Gurugram – and for at least a kilometre, there isn’t even a proper road. But Jean Harrison, 76, and Bob Harrison, 74, manage to get there everyday in their old and rickety donkey ambulance.

In 1993, Jean travelled to India from Britain hoping to gape at some exotic sites and get a taste of its exquisite culture. It was during this trip that Jean saw much more than she had imagined. In the dingy lanes of old Delhi, a place where animal push-carts are found even today, the plight of donkeys, dogs, and horses touched a chord with Jean.

It was then that she – already an animal rights worker back home – decided to return to India, “not ready to leave the animals like that,” and dedicate her life to the cause of these much-neglected animals. A year later, Jean moved to India with her husband, Robert (Bob), then a visa official in New Delhi.

Christmas Cheer: How This Brit Couple is Saving India’s Donkeys
(Photo: Athar Rather/The Quint)

In the 23 years that followed, Jean worked with several animal welfare organisations in India, eventually setting up her own charity – the Asswin Donkey Project.

Today, Bob and Jean start and end their day at this donkey sanatorium. Here, they take care of 18 dogs, seven horses, and 90 donkeys (in addition to one donkey who mysteriously appears at their farm everyday).

Jean and Bob’s journey is an interesting one.

It all Began at a Christmas Dance

Back when Jean was 19 and Bob was 17, the two met on a blind date. He was right out of school and trying to make it as a musician; she was free and riding high on the swagger she still carries today.

A young Bob and Jean out on a date.
A young Bob and Jean out on a date.
(Photo Courtesy: Bob Harrison)

While Bob admittedly fell in love with Jean at first sight, his future wife wasn’t all that amazed. It was only later at a Christmas dance that the music somehow reminded Jean of that young bard she’d met. “Suddenly I was like, I wish I was dancing with him... and that was that!”

The couple got married soon after and have been by each other’s side for the last 50 years. So, when Jean said she wants to move to India, Bob was more than onboard with the plan.

A 17-year-old Bob with his bride, Jean. 
A 17-year-old Bob with his bride, Jean. 
(Photo Courtesy: Bob Harrison)

“When we got here, I didn’t want to be one of those wives, you know, round the pool all day, drinking,” recounts Jean. “So, I asked Bob if he could find any organisation that works with animals.”

From 1994 till 2005, Jean moved about construction sites, brick kilns, and crowded bazaars finding and rescuing injured equines on a hired truck. She’d take these donkeys and horses to the People for Animals, Jeevashram, or other animal shelters, and pay for their food and care out of her (and Bob’s) pocket.

“She’s the Boss”

After a few years, the shelters that Jean relied on couldn’t take anymore animals or had to shut shop because of lack of funds. A time came when she had no alternative but to take these animals home.

We had up to 10 donkeys living in an empty plot behind our house. But our neighbours began to complain — they said the donkeys are too loud, but they aren’t really.
Bob Harrison
Jean instructing her staff.
Jean instructing her staff.
(Photo: Athar Rather/The Quint)

When the dispute with the neighbours escalated, Jean approached the local municipal corporation for help. It was after the government intervened and granted land for the shelter in Dhankot that ‘Asswin Project’ came to be. Bob had retired from his job by then, and joined Jean full time.

“Everyone thinks I am the leader, but Jean is the boss,” says Bob. Jean doesn’t dispute the claim; in fact, she feels proud of it.

I teased her a bit by asking how many donkeys can she save. Unblinkingly the ‘bawse’ looked me in the eye and said, “I am never gonna give up. Once I start something I will see it all the way through. I do the best I can for all the animals I try to rescue and take care of.”

The donkey shelter in Dhankot, Haryana.
The donkey shelter in Dhankot, Haryana.
(Photo: Abhay Sharma/The Quint)

Send your love and wishes to Jean and Bob and The Asswin Project’s Facebook page.

Video Producer: Vivek Das
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Camerapersons: Athar Rather and Abhay Sharma

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