Rachael McKinney is this year’s Donkey Sanctuary British Veterinary Association Overseas Travel Grant vet student. She will be spending three weeks in Europe at two sanctuaries in Spain and one in Portugal learning about The Donkey Sanctuary’s European approach to donkey welfare and the differences in issues that they see compared to the United Kingdom.
The Association for the Study and Protection of Donkeys, translated from Associação para o Estudo e Protecção do Gado Asinino (AEPGA), is an independent Portuguese donkey charity which receives funding from The Donkey Sanctuary to support their community programme and donkey rescue centre.
The association’s main initiatives funded by The Donkey Sanctuary are:
- Community medicine outreach to improve the welfare and health of donkeys in the area.
- Providing a sanctuary for retired or abandoned donkeys.
The association’s other main initiative not funded by The Donkey Sanctuary is:
- Promoting and protecting the native donkeys of Miranda.
I was fortunate enough to spend five days here, working at the Sanctuary which houses elderly and abandoned donkeys, and engaging in the community outreach work. As I have discussed the sanctuary work of the Spanish sanctuaries, I will focus on the community outreach work I experienced in North Portugal.
I was very excited to observe and assist the community outreach work done by the AEPGA. This crucial aspect of animal welfare is so inextricably linked to helping the communities which depend upon these stoic animals, and I was keen to learn about the rewards and difficulties of this work.
Firstly, let us discuss the owners. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people I met in Miranda; I was offered copious amounts of bread, wine and cheese, despite being a stranger to them, purely by merit of association with the AEPGA. This, in and of itself, was very heartening; it showed the profound respect which people had for the efforts of the organisation. Many of the owners we met had great knowledge of and concern for their animals; one elderly couple who owned two donkeys were very distressed by one of their donkeys having a wound which had become infected by a parasite, and were quick to call the vets for help. Another owner was happy to forego traditional methods of treating eye issues (applying the white part of the faeces of a local lizard), instead, embracing the advice of the AEPGA vets to treat ulcers in a more medically-substantiated way. At this point, I must address the attitude of the vets, with whom I had the privilege of working. Despite the intense heat, they worked tirelessly, and with communication skills which enabled them to convince owners of the benefits of their suggested methods; they were able to educate, not castigate, owners, and work towards a happier, healthier future for the animals. In my experience, owners were receptive to the advice of the vets; I believe that this is due to the mutual decision making and considerate discussion afforded by the veterinarians. I learnt a lot during my experience here, but perhaps most crucially of all, I learnt how vital it is to communicate concepts of health and welfare in an effective and well-received manner.
Often when discussing the work of The Donkey Sanctuary and working equid charities, people brandish words such as the “ignorance” in reference to owners. I find that such an attitude teeters dangerously close to moral and cultural imperialism; owners should not be expected to have veterinary medical degrees, nor to be aware of all new pioneering treatments available for their animals. Such language is seldom, if ever, used in discussion about the British horse owner population; one should not chastise a British horse owner for not knowing the intricacies of Cushing’s disease, nor should one chastise the owner of a working mule owner for not knowing that their teeth, unlike ours, need to be regularly rasped. Education is the role of the vet; for the work of the AEPGA, conveying that traditional methods of medicine now have more successful contemporaries is of vital importance. If I have learned anything here, it is that instilling a passion for animal welfare is the most important message which equine charities can convey to owners; details of what to treat their animals for will then follow.
One way in which AEPGA encouraged a passion for animal welfare was by public engagement in a fun way. The Donkey Sanctuary works ceaselessly to increase the status of the donkey worldwide. However, a novel approach to this which I experienced at the AEPGA was in promoting the endangered breed, the autochthonous and adorable Miranda donkeys. It is hard not to instantly be distracted by the incredibly fluffy, blue-eyed foals trotting in the fields of the AEPGA, however, one must look to the core importance behind these breeding initiatives; to increase the status of the humble donkey. Here, they have a phrase: “Burros há muitos, mas estes estão extinção”; “there are many donkeys, but these ones are going extinct”; one of the vets informed me this was to remind the people in the community that whilst there are many donkeys in the world, this rare breed would have disappeared, were it not for interventions of the AEPGA. Similarly to the Poitou, the Miranda donkey has long, dark brown hair with lighter aspects ventrally, a thick neck and a broad head. They have very large canon bones in the lower limb, and are much larger than the donkeys I met in Sidmouth; to me, they are the maxi-cobs of the donkey world! The AEPGA engages in a number of community-based activities to increase the status of the donkey, marrying traditional roles with contemporary concern for the animal’s well-being. One such activity is a walk between villages with the donkeys, and local skilled musicians playing the bagpipes. These fun events engage the public with these gentle giants, as well as encouraging interest in their significance as a cultural cornerstone in Miranda. The success of the breeding programme is tangible in the increase in numbers of the Miranda donkey; however, the intangible benefits of respect for and interest in these beautiful animals holds huge significance.
I will now share with you my experiences of the medical conditions I saw in Portugal. I have a keen interest in dentistry hence why I was delighted to find that this was a shared love with one of the vets. When performing health and welfare assessments, along with assessments of breed quality for the Miranda donkeys, the vets routinely checked teeth. I saw many dental problems which were more severe than I’d witnessed in practice before. Every case was carefully and attentively examined and treated, and the importance of routine dental work conveyed to the owners. Another pivotal aspect of routine health care in donkeys is feet; personally, I have never seen such over-grown feet in some of these working donkeys. As the lengths approached what I would classify as “slippers”, I was truly shocked that these animals were capable of agricultural work. However, the vets once more conveyed the importance of routine farriery, and were reassured by owners that this would be addressed. These routine treatments highlighted the developments in this region, whereby owners can recognise compromised health and welfare in their animals, as many were in wonderful health.
To conclude, my experiences at the AEGPA were wholly positive. I was privileged to see the skill of vets here applied both in medicine and communication. I was able to engage with novel medical cases, as well as community work. Finally, I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand the efforts to preserve a beautiful breed and increase the status of these “beasts of burden”. On my return to England, checking up on the events of Facebook at the airport, I was disheartened to see pictures of 2 people I know, fully grown adults, riding a little mule in the Italian sunshine, up a hill. The Donkey Sanctuary has made immense improvements to the welfare of so many animals globally. However, it is evident that its work is not done; animals in tourism, agriculture and domestic pets continue to suffer, and I am honoured to have played a small part in the profound impact which this charity achieves.