On 19th February 2013 our rescue centre in Italy, Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli (IRDA), worked on a joint rescue with the Italian authorities, Italian Horse Protection and the National Board for Animal Protection where 104 animals were rescued from Colleferro near Rome.
The equines were all on the property of an elderly man who may have been illegally selling them for meat. Bones of animals who had not survived the neglect were found on the scene, indicating that this may have been going on for several years. There was not a water drinker in sight, and all of the animals were in poor condition with low body condition scores. All of the animals that could be saved were taken in to care by the charities involved in helping. Unfortunately it is thought that there could potentially be more animals owned by the same man, and The Donkey Sanctuary will continue to monitor and investigate this. IRDA took a total of 23 animals, 16 donkeys, 2 ponies and 5 mules.
The ponies have already found a foster home with a vet, so they have fallen on their hooves and will be cared for, for the rest of their lives. The other 21 animals are doing well; they are gaining weight and settling in to life at IRDA.
Luckily all of the donkeys are relatively behaviourally sound. There are 2 stallions who will soon be gelded when they are fit enough, and at least 6 of the mares are in foal, with one of them, named Gelsomina, due any day now.
The mules are somewhat less behaviourally sound than the donkeys though, and appear to have had little to no human contact. When they arrived at IRDA they didn’t understand what a bucket of water was, and it took them several days to get the hang of the automatic water drinker.
As the staff at IRDA have no experience with such difficult mules they asked for a behaviourist to be sent to help them. My manager asked me if I would be able to go over and help and I jumped at the chance of this fantastic opportunity. I have 22 years’ experience with horses including bringing on and training difficult and unhandled youngsters as well as four years working with difficult mules at Town Barton Farm. I also have a BSc (hons) degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare specialising in equine behaviour, but this opportunity in Italy will be the biggest and most challenging of my career so far.
When working with the horses at home or the mules at Town Baton there is not such a pressing time limit to achieve results, but I only have 4 full working days in Italy. Mules do not react well under pressure, nothing can be rushed. So despite my small window of time I must keep this knowledge at the forefront of my mind. In the UK I also work alongside experienced people and we can discuss ways forward and training methods for difficult animals, but in Italy very few of the staff speak English and my Italian is non-existent, so the communication is much harder with the team. Luckily communicating with animals uses the same language whichever country you are in. The team at IRDA are fantastic, all so patient, quiet and kind and understanding towards the animals, and we manage to communicate quite well through hand signals.
Whilst I am in Italy I will try and update you daily with the progress we are making here.
I was picked up from Turin airport yesterday, the evening of Easter Sunday, by the farm manager Denis. He told me that 2 of the mules had shown interest in the staff and were progressing and could already be handled to a small extent. He said he doubted that the other three had ever had human contact though as they are so wild. Yesterday evening when I reached the B&B I prepared some risk assessment forms and my personal protection equipment and got an early night ready to start assessing the mules the next morning.
When I arrived at the farm this morning, the isolation area was not quite as I expected. The staff worked tirelessly to get it finished in time for the arrival of the new rescues, but with the rain, snow and bad weather, the mules’ field has turned to a bog. This wasn’t helped by the automatic water drinker getting jammed and leaking this morning too. Obviously working with wild mules in one acre of bog is impossible, so I had to try and herd them in to the stable, which also turned out to be impossible. All they wanted to do was gallop around the field instead of going in to the stable and it is difficult to keep up with them when they have four-wheel drive and I only have two-wheel drive.
I spent a lot of my morning just in the field with them so they could get used to me being around.
The stallion in the group (the other four are mares) immediately approached me, so at least I knew one of them was friendly. The mares however, wanted nothing to do with me.
I coaxed the stallion, named Biclo, in to the stable with some bits of apple and carrot and he eventually allowed me to put his head-collar on.
I spent a while working with him, putting the head-collar on and off until he was completely comfortable having it fitted. I then assessed his comfort zone by stroking him and working my way down his legs and back until he showed me where his limits where. I used the ‘hand on a stick’ (a stuffed glove on the end of a padded stick) to go down his back legs initially so if he kicked I would be at a safe distance. He did really well and allowed his legs, belly and back to be touched. When I moved on to using my own hand he was less keen and was kicking when his back legs were touched and biting when his front legs were touched, he seems to like having a person reassuring him at the head end. So this week we will focus on getting him comfortable with lifting his feet, which will eventually allow the farrier to come and trim them.
Throughout the day I continued to go back and do short training sessions with him, and by the end of the day he was my shadow. I was able to approach and catch him in the field, lead him forwards and he even let me check his teeth, ears and eyes with no fuss. We started to work on ‘stand’ and ‘back up’ whilst on the lead rein and I even introduced a brush and he stood for a little groom – he loves his ears being scratched.
The smallest mare is named Margherita; it took three of us to separate her in to the stable. She was wildly galloping around the field with her foal and she would not come near any of us. Once in the stable, to my surprise she came around to me really quickly. I was able to put her name collar on and then she allowed me to put on her head-collar. By the end of the day, and with lots of short training sessions, I was able to catch her in the field and lead her to the stable, groom her, check her teeth, eyes and ears and stroke down all four of her legs to her hooves. She even allowed me to groom her tail and cut out the matted bits. You could tell by the state of her tail and her initial behaviour that she had obviously suffered a long spell of neglect, yet she trusted me so quickly. She was a dream to work with and superstar of the day.
Unfortunately the other 3 mules are much further behind and I too doubt that they have had any human contact at all. I did manage to usher the foal in to the stable, and after an hour of me standing quietly in the stable with her she finally reached out and sniffed my outstretched hand. It may only seem like a tiny thing, but it was a little victory and a small step of progress.
The other two mares are around 15-16hh and are very closely bonded to each other. They cannot safely be worked with as a pair as they spook each other and bolt. So we separated them and put one of them on the donkeys’ concrete yard area whilst the other was put in the stable so they could have individual attention. However, they could not stand to be separated and they would not settle. I decided to go back to the drawing board and put them back in together again, but as I was opening the door between them the mare on the yard suddenly jumped the five-bar gate back to her field. The mare in the stable, seeing her friend now back in the paddock, then jumped the stable door to be with her. I really do have my work cut out with these two, unfortunately there is no quick fix and it may take months, if not years for them to fully trust humans, as previously all they have known is a life of neglect. It is heart-breaking at this stage, but at least they are in a safe haven now, surrounded by loving grooms and a plentiful supply of food.
Positive energy and emotional moments - Day 4
Baby steps in the right direction - Day 3
Shaping behaviour - Day 2
A little victory and a small step of progress - Day 1
Colleferro donkeys safely home at last
Il Rifugio degli Asinelli