I have recently returned from South Africa where I was responsible for running a series of lectures, workshops and community engagement activities alongside our Director of Veterinary Services, Andrew Trawford, and the University of Pretoria Veterinary Faculty. Working donkeys are commonly seen in many parts of South Africa and are an essential means of transporting goods for many resource-limited communities.
The main purpose of our events was to educate and enthuse people who are in regular contact with working donkeys and their communities and encourage them to take a holistic view of donkey healthcare, nutrition and husbandry. The holistic view is something that I am very passionate about, it encourages us to look at ‘the whole picture’. For example, if a donkey is thin it is important for the person assessing that animal to use their most important diagnostic tools – ears, eyes and hands!
Talking to owners and involving them in the process of assessing the animal is hugely important, a donkey may be thin or unwell due to a huge number of factors such as workload, behaviour, disease or housing problems as well as the commonly thought of problems; parasites or lack of good nutrition. The owner is the person responsible for the donkey on a daily basis and they will often provide valuable insights that are required before a treatment plan (if necessary) can be put together by a visiting welfare organisation.
We also stressed the importance of getting ‘hands on’ and assessing the animal as an individual looking at body condition and if appropriate its teeth, feet and other indicators that may help you make a decision on the health and welfare of a particular animal.
Our group consisted of state vets, officers from South African animal welfare organisations, vet students, vet nurses and community engagement officers all of whom brought a wealth of experience and expertise.
The workshop was a fantastic opportunity to share this information and to talk through how the holistic approach can be implemented in practice. However, although lectures are important to provide people with a good knowledgebase there is no replacement for practical experience with donkeys!
We were lucky to be working alongside the Pretoria SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) who regularly work with donkey owners in the rural areas in Gauteng province. Meshack our SPCA liaison officer had organised community meetings and clinics with donkey owners in two districts and on a sunny Saturday morning our newly enthused donkey welfare team set out to meet these owners and their donkeys.
Small groups all focussed on one owner and their donkeys (generally each owner has 6-8 donkeys) to discuss and assess the donkeys and to learn from each other. These conversations helped the teams to then decide if any veterinary treatments were required and if any discussion of improving husbandry, harnessing or workload was needed.
During the day the teams assessed nearly 150 donkeys, not all donkeys required veterinary treatment but some did have pressing needs such as infected wounds, eye problems and serious dental issues. By prioritising their needs and using the holistic approach we were able to provide tailored treatments and education programmes for the donkeys and their owners enabling us to provide the best service possible.
One of the best parts of engaging with communities and their donkeys is what I learn, after looking at a nicely healed harness wound I noticed a white powder on the skin and asked the owner what treatment he had used – his response – Colgate toothpaste! Although this may not be my first treatment of choice for wounds it was locally available and affordable for the donkey’s owners and had obviously had a positive effect!