Donkeys, Doves, Horses and a guide dog!

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There is a saying ‘never work with children or animals.’ But if you have ever seen a Passion Play, you know children of all ages and animals are always welcome – both in the audience and in the plays themselves. The most popular animals you will see are donkeys, doves, horses and even guide dogs. Find out which animals take centre stage in a Passion Play and advice on health and safety.


Roles for animals in Passion Plays


Jesus speaks to a female disciple while riding a donkey in a scene from the Brighton Passion Play.



Donkeys are the first animal that comes to mind when you think of staging a Passion Play. Just like the donkey that carried Mary in the Nativity story, the donkey has an important role in the Easter story: Jesus famously enters Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Though he rides a lowly donkey, the crowd recognizes Jesus as a King and they celebrate his entry into Jerusalem by shouting praises and waving palm leaves.








Larger animals such as horses are associated with Roman soldiers in the Easter story. As occupying force, they rode magnificent horses and carried weapons to keep order among the occupied population.

The Passion Play performed by the Wintershall Players in Trafalgar Square has horses ridden by Roman soldiers in full armour. If you see the Wintershall Life of Christ play traditionally performed in the summer on the Wintershall Estate, you will also see horses thundering across the field in scenes such as the Massacre of the Innocents. As well as whole herds of sheep, a donkey ridden by the pregnant Virgin May and a large cast of children.





A dove is mentioned in the Gospel story when Jesus is baptized – a dove rests on him as a voice from heaven says ‘This is my beloved son.’ Although doves are not necessarily associated with the Passion story, the Worcester Passion Play featured beautiful white doves that were released during the Last Supper. In 2023 one of the white doves hovered over Jesus for a long time and the special moment was captured by one of the photographers.

Unfortunately, some doves were eaten by sparrow hawks in 2024. It is well-known that the main prey of Sparrowhawks is songbirds, though larger birds such as doves and pigeons can also be taken, as was the cast this year.




Guide dogs

Guide dogs are welcomed at all Passion Plays and are vital for people with visual impairment. A guide dog even made an appearance in a Passion Play in South Woodham Ferrars, that is, a puppy who was being trained as a guide dog. He was there in the scene with blind Bartimaeus and performed his role very well indeed!






Jesus on a bicycle with his hand raised in front of the tall shopfront for Waterstones. He is surrounded by a crowd of his followers and all are in contemporary. costume.

Not all Passion Plays include animals. Some of the more modern productions use the humble bicycle in place of a donkey and in Hornchurch in Essex Jesus entered Jerusalem on a Harley Davidson!




Health and Safety

We all know that animals (and children) can be unpredictable, especially when they are afraid or overwhelmed. There is always a danger of bites and scratches which can lead to infection or allergic reaction, so make sure you have guidelines in place to protect the animal and everyone involved!

Some general guidelines could include:

  • do not touch without permission,
  • do not feed without permission,
  • have a designated safe space for the animal
  • have an approved list of who is approved to take care of the animal.

Remember the stress an animal might face in unfamiliar locations and unusual sights and sounds. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 places a duty of care on owners and handlers of animals to protect all aspects of their health and welfare.

A risk assessment is important because it describes the risks the animal poses to others, welfare requirements for the animal, containment required, first aid arrangements required in event of bite / sting, etc. It should also cover how to safeguard the welfare of the animal, including the time it is on display or handled, and access to food / water.

Pay attention to hygiene, especially where contact with the animal or its’ droppings / urine presents risks associated with viral or bacterial infection. Any droppings or other materials must be thoroughly cleaned up as soon as possible!