Sometimes in our busy lives it’s easy to carry on trying to reach a destination without stopping to appreciate the journey that you have already been on. There is always a new goal or target and it’s often these new and exciting adventures and projects in our lives that grab our attention. Working with donkeys is no different! I have been ‘on a journey of enlightenment’ with donkeys and mules for many years. Having always loved long ears I found myself in my dream job here at The Donkey Sanctuary nearly nine years ago. I oversee The Donkey Sanctuary’s many research projects, these non-invasive studies aim to improve our knowledge of donkeys and mules in sickness and health. Through greater understanding we can improve the respect for, care and welfare of donkeys and mules around the world.
The Sanctuary is a forward-looking organisation that is always seeking to improve the care of donkeys and to raise their status. There are few sources of funding for scientists wishing to work with donkeys that the Sanctuary views this as a key area of its work. Many £m’s are spent every year to improve the understanding of horses, cattle, sheep and other domestic animals and as a consequence the care and welfare of these animals has improved significantly over the last 50 years. Donkeys have not always been so lucky, donkeys are not involved in the sports of kings – racing and endurance riding; they are frequently owned by some of the poorest communities in the world and such owners cannot afford to donate funds towards research to improve the welfare of their animals. Through the vision of our Founder, Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, The Donkey Sanctuary decided that this was an issue that should be tackled.
Science is often a ‘slow burner’ and it takes time for research findings to impact on real life, time spent on research is an investment in the future. With donkey science it has also taken considerable time to get professionals to take the donkey and its unique nature and needs seriously. When I began working for the sanctuary research in to the donkey was in its infancy and I regularly attended meetings where people thought donkeys should not be on the agenda and were not worthy of the funds spent on them. I’m delighted to say that things are rapidly changing! With commitment from the sanctuary donkeys now feature in many journals, books, websites and meetings and are gradually receiving the attention and respect that they so deeply deserve. From humble beginnings (as befits the donkey) we are now seeing other funding bodies and institutions ensuring that donkeys are ‘on the agenda’.
However, research is wasted unless it leads to real change! We are passionate that every project that we support or fund should have practical applications for donkeys in need around the world.
Recently I paused on my ‘journey’ whilst on holiday, a busman’s holiday as I was enjoying a walk accompanied by my own special long ears! I reflected on how the vision of The Donkey Sanctuary in funding research has made a real difference to many donkeys around the world, here are just a few highlights:
- Parasites in working donkeys – through years of research in Ethiopia, Kenya and Mexico we are understanding the role that parasites play in the lives of working donkeys and how best to treat these animals. What has been significant is the realisation that perhaps parasites are not as important as was once thought and that they should be considered only alongside other issues such as nutrition and workload.
- Gastric ulcers – we have decreased the number of donkeys under our care suffering from painful gastric ulcers by over 80% through research and consequently improved management and care.
- Colic – we have decreased the number of donkeys under our care that are euthanased due to impaction colic by 70% through research and consequently improved management and care.
- Parasites in Europe– we have identified and responded to the emergence of drug resistance in important donkey parasites and continue to work closely with collaborating scientists to ensure that we preserve the usefulness of drugs for many years to come whilst also looking at alternative ways of tackling these parasites.
- Nutrition – we now understand the fundamentals of feeding donkeys and mules. Using the scientific findings from years of work we can confidently advise donkey owners how best to feed their donkeys to improve their health. We have also seen the launch of two donkey specific feed products on to the European market.
- Behaviour – we have carried out work that shows that donkeys and mules are anything but stubborn or stupid. In fact they are the Einstein’s of the equine world! Through understanding the behaviour of donkeys and mules we have improved the assessment of disease, bonding and overall welfare.
- Awareness and education – in the last 10 years we have published 55 journal articles, presented 80 papers at conferences, included donkeys in 3 textbooks and engaged with researchers and students all over the world. Every time that donkeys are ‘on the agenda’ is another opportunity for us to tell the world about this undervalued and poorly understood species. Through this network of information and enthusiasts a whisper will soon become a shout.
There have been so many stopovers on this journey of enlightenment, there are too many to tell you about. Suffice it to say that the research work funded by The Donkey Sanctuary has led to real change in the lives of many donkeys around the world. This is a never ending journey though... there are still so many things to discover! We are about to embark on new projects, widening our research portfolio to include work to more fully understand our donkey assisted therapy work and the importance of donkeys to resource limited communities around the world. Where there is a question we will continue to seek the answer if it will improve understanding of the donkey and its welfare.
Finally, just a word about the people that have joined us on this journey for it really is a team effort; the research teams in numerous universities and institutions around the world, the veterinary team, the donkey care teams throughout Europe, the welfare team, the international team, the research and laboratory team and finally.... you, our supporters - thank you! Without the dedication of this global team we could not continue this vital work, we are looking to the future and hope to see that the 21st Century is the one in which the donkey is understood and respected for the unique and wonderful species that it is. The journey continues...
If you would like to find out more about the research work that we do there are more details here: