Castelbuono’s Equus Asinus

February 6, 2014 / Local Interest
Castelbuono, Sicily

Many things don’t function properly here, as in quite a few other places in Italy. One of them is the garbage collection/recycling service.

All too often arriving on the outskirts of town you are greeted by an unsightly mess of communal rubbish bins spilling their contents out over the sides. Many are the explanations to this disservice. Garbage collectors on strike (no money in the Municipal coffers to pay them) or mysterious problems between local authorities and shady characters who operate the land fills. Probably better not to go down that road here.


Instead, in the town of Castelbuono in the foothills of the Madonie range of mountains, they have come up with a novel way of cutting down on costs and regularly collecting and recycling refuse from the town centre.


Until not long ago donkeys were an integral part of life in Sicilian villages. They were used for transportation into the countryside and were stabled on the ground floor of the houses where they acted as a natural central heating system. Their body heat rose up through the house heating the next floor which was usually the sleeping area. Then because of new health and safety regulations it was forbidden to keep donkeys stabled in the town centre and they had to be put out to grass.

In 2006 the mayor of the town, extremely sensitive to ecological issues, decided to bring one of the retired donkeys back into active service and experimented by strapping panniers to its haunches and taking it round the narrow streets of the old town picking up the garbage bags. After some initial perplexity the idea was accepted and the pilot scheme went ahead.

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Since then Valentina, Cosima, Concetta and Teresa have been clip clopping through town doing their job, keeping it clean and saving the Municipal office around €7000 a year on overheads: no more petrol, insurance, road tax or vehicle maintenance and no pollution.

Each collector is responsible for the well-being and personal care of the animal and everyone now appreciates the donkey’s worth as the hard working, intelligent animal that it always has been.

Castelbuono donkeys

by Marian Watson-Virga

Marian has lived in Sicily for longer than she can remember. British by birth, Sicilian by marriage she loves all things Sicilian, even pani ca’ meusa!   For the past few years she has been collaborating with Carmelina Ricciardello of, developing responsible tourism and discovering Sicily on walking and car tours. Marian’s blog page is here.

20 Responses to “Castelbuono’s Equus Asinus”

  1. cathy piccolo

    so sad…….poor animal not worthy to sleep with a roof over its head,,,,but is perfect to accomplish this trashy job.

    • No Cathy, I can assure you they are not ‘sad’ donkeys. Contrary to popular belief, donkeys really love having something to do with their lives. They love carrying children on their backs up and down beaches. They love climbing up and down mountains carrying bundles on their backs and they love walking through the streets of Castelbuono up and down the steep steps, where no garbage truck can get to. They get sad when they are put in a field to munch just grass. So don’t worry, this way they are well looked after, well fed and believe it or not they actually live longer.

  2. GB

    Love it! Just brilliant, bravo to the mayor. Italian ingenuity at its best, and no exhaust and noise from large garbage trucks as well! Also, I’m guessing the donkeys are happy about the attention they’re getting, compared to being abandoned in a field.
    Thanks Marian!

  3. Rosemary

    Simply Brilliant! My Sicilian ancestors who lived in the Madonie Mountains would be so proud! Do you think they could make this work in Naples????

  4. Colleen Simpson

    A big Bravo to the mayor for coming up with something so wonderful! I agree with GB that all are happier, the village saving money, the ecological affect and the busy donkeys being so useful. I sure wish I could bring the donkeys to Piegaro…..we have a wonderful recycling record, the best in Umbria….but I would sure prefer the clop of the donkey through my cobbled streets in the morning collecting all. Absolutely love this Note!!! Grazie mille, Marian!!

    • Yes, Colleen. It should be an example to a lot of these villages with tiny streets that no vehicle can get down and I can assure you that they get stroked and fussed over more than even our own domestic pets

  5. Marie Giacalone

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Your photographs make me want to visit!

  6. Both of my parents were from hillside towns in Sicily Calatafimi / Racalmuto. Donkeys were an integral part of their lives. Thank you for the article. It brought back wonderful memories of my trips there and of their stories. We plan to visit again this summer. Tanti Auguri. BTW There is an exhibition of Phil Stern’s photography (opens tonight) in Catania (Sister City of Phoenix, AZ) LMK if you attend. Ciao!!!

  7. Sandra Spector

    This article is charming & the idea is smart. Instead, too often it is our government leaders who are the donkeys…

  8. marjorie lee

    We visted Castelbuono about 10 years ago, in January, at the suggestion of our “landlord” in Gibilrossa. There we saw a fabulous art gallery in an ancient building, and when we came back outside it was getting dark, However, many people were outside, with tables, selling their Lemoncello and their Panetone. We bought some of each and enjoyed the company near the “bonfires” built in metal barrels. This article is one of my favorites, and makes me want to return to Sicily. I agree with Sandra, the donkeys are a smart idea….and probably do have more sense than most politicians

  9. Absolutely BRILLANT!!! My Sicilian ancestors are clapping and shouting BRAVO! Wish that something like that would be available in the states. Wonderful article.

  10. I have been many times to Italy, but this year, in July, we are visiting Sicily with friends who are Sicilian. I do hope we get to go to Castelbuono! What a lovely story! Are we able to stroke the donkeys? They look so lovable! Grazie, Marian! Sei molto fortunata abitare a Castelbuono!

    • I live in Cefalù Cathy, which is near Castelbuono. If you are lucky you might be able to get to see the donkeys and stroke them. I did on one occasion

  11. Kathi L.

    Love this concept. But, one question – donkeys may leave their own kind of “pollution” behind… Are the municipal workers carrying “pooper-scoopers”?


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