By Amy Yee
(NPR) — Ethiopia’s government doesn’t want Ethiopia to be thought of as a donkey country.
Donkeys have a reputation there as the lowliest of animals and of being unclean to boot.
Yet Ethiopia has the world’s largest population of donkeys. It has 7 million of the animals — outstripping the No. 2 donkey country, China, by about a million.
And life can be pretty tough for a hard-working Ethiopian donkey.
On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I saw one donkey straining mightily while pulling a cart. Overloaded with rows of water jugs and people, the cart weighed hundreds of pounds. The animal’s head was bowed. His thin, shaking legs looked ready to break as he fought for footing on the muddy, rutted road.
In Ethiopia, it’s common to see donkeys laboriously hauling loads as drivers, many of them children, crack whips or switches across their backs and faces. People depend on these animals to transport water, wood for cooking, food and other goods, as well as people. About 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 93 million depend on donkeys in some way, according to The Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K. nonprofit.
In spite of their importance in Ethiopia, these beasts of burden are overworked, neglected, abused and stigmatized. They suffer from harness sores, maggot wounds, infections and colic from poor food, among other ailments. Because people don’t think much of donkeys, they usually do not take them to the veterinarian if their animal gets sick or is injured. Until recently, veterinary colleges didn’t even train students to treat them. If donkeys were sick or too old to work, they were abandoned or left to hyenas — a painful death.
But that is changing through the work of The Donkey Sanctuary, which operates in countries with large donkey populations like Egypt, India, Mexico and Kenya. Since 1994, The Donkey Sanctuary has educated Ethiopians about proper care for donkeys, raised awareness about animal welfare with farmers and schoolchildren, and strengthened government livestock and animal welfare policies and training at veterinary colleges.
In 2015, veterinarians treated 185,000 donkeys; since 1995, The Donkey Sanctuary has treated more than 2 million total.
It also runs several free veterinary clinics, like one in the capital Addis Ababa, at Merkato, one of the largest outdoor markets in Africa. Some 3,000 donkeys work at the market, mostly carrying grain from mills. One Saturday morning, three gray donkeys plodded into The Donkey Sanctuary’s Merkato clinic, where “patients” are examined in corrals.
Owner Gosaye Assef, 28, brought the trio to drink from the clinic’s water troughs. Assef earns a few dollars a day by using his donkeys to transport grain from Merkato’s mills to markets. “I use donkeys to feed myself and my family. Using donkeys is my life,” he says.
Before he was trained by The Donkey Sanctuary’s staff in Merkato, Assef didn’t give his donkeys water. Now he lets them drink several times a day. He gives them animal feed rather than letting them forage through trash. And he seeks treatment when the donkeys suffer from hoof problems, step on nails, eat stones or bite each other. The Donkey Sanctuary also showed him how to make better pack saddles and harnesses using heavy fabric and rope to prevent sores.
“My attitude toward donkeys is completely changed. Before, I simply used them. I used to let them go without food,” says Assef, who has an eighth grade education. “Before, I don’t care for the donkeys. When they have a wound on their eye or wound on their body, I simply let them work. Now I use treatment for wounds or when there is a big problem I bring them here to the clinic.”
Because many donkey owners have low literacy and can’t necessarily read brochures and fliers, The Donkey Sanctuary gives demonstrations of improved pack saddles and holds awareness-building workshops with communities. It has also started animal welfare clubs in schools to change attitudes at a young age.
In the noisy, bustling lanes of Merkato, donkeys silently wait as mill workers strap 150-plus-pound sacks of hot grain onto their backs.
Since 2009, The Donkey Sanctuary has focused less on treating sick donkeys and more on educating people about proper care, such as improved pack saddles, avoiding overloading and animal welfare. Zerihun Assefa, a Donkey Sanctuary veterinarian, says that in rural areas, a third of donkeys treated by The Donkey Sanctuary in Debre Zeit, outside of Addis Ababa, had back sores and open wounds from poorly fitting saddles. Four years later that figure has dropped to 5 percent. “Previously people didn’t treat them when they were sick,” says Assefa. “Now farmers see them as equal to other animals.”
“Donkeys are taken for granted as beasts of burden. They are invisible but reliable resources for communities,” says Dr. Bojia Duguma, country director of The Donkey Sanctuary, based in Addis Ababa. “Their socioeconomic value is not properly validated or researched. If they are valued, the community will take care of them.”
One sign that they may be valued more is the going price of a donkey. A donkey now sells for $90 to $150, up from $13 to $22 a decade ago.
The Donkey Sanctuary works in four areas of Ethiopia and helps about 223,000 donkeys each year. That’s just a drop in the bucket in a country with millions of donkeys. Yet efforts are helping some donkeys and their owners.
“Previously, the community had no habit to take care of donkey if they were injured or sick. Rather, they [left them for] the hyena to enjoy. The community had a belief that the first choice to treat the donkey was the hyena,” said Dr. Berihu Gebrekidan, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mekelle University in Ethiopia. But in areas where The Donkey Sanctuary works, “the thinking and attitude has completely changed and farmers are taking care of the donkeys as much as possible.”
In Merkato, owner Getachew Mokonin, 35, sits as his donkeys munch from sacks of grain. These animals are solidly built, have shiny coats and don’t shy away when people approach. “All these things [showing] social interaction with owner is good,” says veterinarian Assefa.
Mokonin says that with better pack saddles, the donkeys “feel comfortable. There’s no injury and wounds due to poor harnessing.” He adds, “To increase performance of donkeys we need to care for them properly. That is why I’m feeding my donkey.”His donkeys don’t mind being stroked on their muzzles. And for a moment, they lift their heads to eagerly eat a special treat of fresh carrots.