Monday 20th October
We are collected early by the project vets Carlos and Mauro, project driver and logistician Josue, and social service vets Erika and Diana to drive to St Bernabe market. This lies about 60 kms as the crow flies west of Mexico City between Toluca and Ixtalhuaca. However we do not follow the route of a crow and the journey, up over forested hills in clear morning light cut by occasional bands of low morning mist, takes us 3 hours.
St Bernabe is a bustling weekly country market. Though apparently of questionable legal status, the police who are present seem to be enjoying themselves and there is a lively atmosphere of rural industry. Everyone looks their best, enjoying food, gossip and the opportunity to do business. Part of this business is a trade in live animals. While many of the animals present seem in beautiful condition, we are here specifically because a section of the livestock market deals in donkeys, mules and horses destined for slaughter. Some of these are clearly unfit to have travelled, and even those that are make a sorry sight.
Two horses lie awkwardly by trucks. Both will already have endured one journey and face another. One, a bay with a look of panic on its face but making no attempt to raise more than its head, lies on a swollen lower left hind leg. The other, a light grey, is in the process of being loaded onto a truck. It is man-handled to rise, throws itself about, then collapses onto the bed of the truck. It is pushed and pulled inside and the doors are closed. There it is lifted again and hung by ropes from the inside wall so that other horses yet to be loaded don't trample it.
The project has been coming here for around 20 years. The ultimate aim is that no animals should travel unless fit, injured or ill animals should be euthanased humanely at home, and healthy animals destined for slaughter should pass directly to a slaughter-house. However this will only be reached by a series of small steps. The project has achieved representation on the market committee in order to push through changes. Where animals used to be penned loosely in mud, or just tied together spooking each other, the project has contributed money towards the building of proper pens with water troughs and gates. Loading and unloading used to be far rougher and animals would often break legs trying to get in out of flat bed trucks with no ramps to help. Now the trucks can reverse up to the raised pen area so that animals are more on a level and such accidents are much rarer. To reduce injuries further, the project bought two ramps, but these have been stolen or taken away. We will now discuss this issue again with a view to buying more but with greater safeguards.
We have funded a one year study into where and why animals are coming here and we are now considering how best to move forward with the study's recommendations. There have also been setbacks: some national publicity, not of our making, adversely affected the relationships we were building up within the market, and we have now been refused permission to euthanase animals, supposedly on the grounds of hygiene. To overcome this problem, we have budgeted to pay for a proper slaughter-slab but problems within the market management have prevented any action on this so far.
The underlying problem is that legislation needs to be stronger, though even existing powers are not enforced - transporting an animal unable to stand by itself is already illegal. A new Animal Welfare Act is currently stalled within the legislative process. However we will continue to 'bear witness', to be present every Monday, to try new approaches, and eventually we will succeed.
We spend most of our time at St Bernabe by the main donkey pen. Most of the donkeys have deformed feet. One also has a deformed front leg, sores all over her thin body, and is in season. She is persistently pestered by the males in the group and in no state to resist their advances. Some are in reasonable good condition. A female stands quietly in a corner and accepts, then seeks, attention, gently sniffing at my face. I wonder if somewhere in her past she had a good home and what brings her to this place now. Another youngish female is tied to her daughter, a six month foal. The foal looks shocked and nervous. Towards the end of the market, someone buys the foal without the mother. They are untied and the foal is led out of the pen. The mother tries to follow, but the gate is shut between them. As the foal is led away round the back, the mother crosses hopelessly back towards it, and stands looking torn apart, a low deep repetitive vocalisation sounding from her chest.
Later in the afternoon we meet Dr Aline, a professor at UNAM (the Autonomous National University of Mexico who led the Mexico project for 20 years on a voluntary basis. She tells us whenever she goes to St Barnabe she doesn't sleep the night before and she doesn't sleep the night after.