Each year in October, about a week before the full moon lights up the night sky, the town of Dewa Sharif in eastern Uttar Pradesh comes alive with the sights and sounds of one of north India’s largest equine fairs.
The Barabanki Fair, or the Dewa Mela as it’s also known, has been taking place annually for over a century to commemorate the Sufi saint Haji Waris Ali Shah. Hundreds of traders and thousands of donkeys, mules and horses descend upon the fair grounds for a week of hectic trading, and an entire local economy springs up around them.
The braying of mules and donkeys mixes with the honks of vehicles weaving their way around animals, cries of hawkers selling street food, chai or equine accessories, the piercing music of snake charmers, young children selling bales of fresh green fodder and the local mosque’s call to prayer in the evenings.
We are at the Barabanki equine fair, where The Donkey Sanctuary India team has been working each year since 2011. This year, representatives from The Donkey Sanctuary UK and Ireland, including CEO Mike Baker, were present too, along with our partners from Animal Nepal. As well as working directly to address immediate health needs of ill and injured equines, our 20-strong multinational team of vets, paravets and community education officers conducted field research and welfare assessments, held educational sessions with owners and networked with fair organisers and local government officials to improve conditions for animals.
Our large tent was prominently located just down the road from the main entrance, on a busy street intersecting a three-square-kilometre ground, where 1,000 traders and owners from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh as well as across the border from Nepal had gathered with over 4,000 equines.
Many of the animals had travelled hundreds of kilometres in groups of 25-30 in trucks legally required to hold no more than six, without access to food or water during the journey. Others had walked the distance over several days. While the owners pitched makeshift tarpaulin tents to stay out of the heat (daytime temperatures touched 35°c), all animals except the more valuable horses were kept tethered to the ground without any shade.
After years of hard work here, the general welfare of most equines this year seemed good, and there was a ready availability of fresh water through several hand pumps and both green and concentrated fodder. But other pressing issues were immediately apparent to our team.
There were no concrete ramps for loading and unloading the animals off trucks, only two temporary mud ramps piled high with dirty straw. This led to some owners trying to offload their animals directly from the vehicle to the ground, risking severe injury.
A quick scope of the grounds showed that many animals were exhibiting signs of respiratory disease, but there was no isolation unit in place to quarantine them, despite a government veterinary hospital located within the fair grounds. Facilities for proper carcass disposal were poor too.
From 9am to 6pm every day, the team vets attended to scores of animals—by the end of the fair, the total number treated touched 461. Many came with wounds caused by hobbling or transportation, while others had hoof, eye or lameness issues. Interestingly, despite knowing that there is free treatment available, many owners chose not to bring their animals to our camp.
This year, the India team's Donkey Welfare Assistants implemented a simple but ingenious ‘Pass’ system designed by vet Dr Surajit Nath; if the DWAs saw a suffering animal during their daily welfare assessment and data collection rounds, they would stop and issue the owner a treatment ‘pass’—an official-looking Post-It note with the date, treatment required, name of owner and name of issuer scribbled with a pen - which they were encouraged to give to the vet in exchange for treatment.
The benefits of this were three-fold – our team used the opportunity to interact with owners and explain to them why their donkey or mule needed treatment, and owners were found to be more likely to bring their animal to our stall (as Donkey Sanctuary India's vet Dr Ashutosh Jadaun says: “The owners feel excited, it’s almost like they are getting a movie pass.”)
Most importantly, once at our stall, the vets and community education officers engaged owners in a discussion about disease or injury prevention and treatment, good handling and better communication with their animals.
“Community engagement is becoming a much more important part of our work now and that’s because it’s not enough for us just to treat the animal,” says The Donkey Sanctuary’s CEO Mike Baker. “What we need to do is change the life of that animal for good, and we can only do that by changing the behaviour of the people.”
So while solutions for the other problems will take more time and dedicated effort, our team is optimistic that through an emphasis on education, advocacy and networking, they will be able to achieve sustainable welfare improvements for the animals at this fair and others around the country.
The first important hurdle in reaching out to communities and local officials at the Barabanki fair has already been cleared. As Veterinary Coordinator for the India team Dr Ramesh Kumar Perumal says: “[In the last few years] we have achieved the trust of the owners and the goodwill of the fair administrators, which is a very important first step. They recognise us now.”
As for the remaining hurdles, he likes to use the Zen metaphor of water trying to find its way through a hard rock: “We are working with rocks, and we are like water trying to get to the other side but only able to flow around the rocks right now. But one day, we will be able to get through the middle of the rock to the other side.”
We certainly won’t stop until we do.