I woke up this morning to a sensory feast; the soothing sound of rain on the thatched roof, the light wood-smoke smell of breakfast cooking and the distant sound of young men singing traditional songs in the Pedi language. In the Waterberg mountains of Limpopo province in South Africa, these lovely soft rains are a real blessing and the vibrant green against the ancient, red mountains gives the place a magical feel. The rains are not, however, particularly conducive to an easy day with donkeys or their owners so over breakfast, Morgane, Matome and Wendy from the National Council of SPCAs (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and I reviewed our plans for the day.
The economic draw of the big cities mean that smaller, rural communities like Skrikfontein have a polarised population with many children and elderly people but with very few in between. Accepting that the chances of the older generations braving the drizzle were slim-to-none, today’s focus was on the Donkey Club. The club, a wonderful example of the NSPCA’s ingenuity, is part of their wider donkey work funded and supported by The Donkey Sanctuary.
When the NSPCA team first started coming to this community and spoke with the elders, it became clear that the biggest welfare issues of harness wounds, communication wounds (including bits) and poor behaviour were particularly prevalent in the donkeys owned by certain young boys. Whilst parents were not around much, the boys were getting away with treating the animals badly and having very little compassion for their donkeys. The NSPCA worked with the community to start the Donkey Club, focussing on the boys with the most challenging behaviour. But this isn’t just an education project for the boys; the support, compassion, friendship and respect that has been built has gone much further than simple skills. Morgane, Matome and Wendy have spent time with the boys to recognise their problems and frustrations, help them to deal with them and find positive outlets for their energies.
This morning, the boys brought their 40 donkeys and the fun began. The boys helped each other apply tick grease to the donkeys (ticks are a particular problem here and cause terrible abscesses in the ears and under the tails) and they treated any minor wounds, scratches or nips. Donkeys that had painful bits or uncomfortable bridles were assessed, measured up and had new, custom-made bridles (in a cheerful shade of purple) stitched up and fitted. The boys were encouraged to grab a brush and groom their donkeys, picking out any grizzly burrs which had got caught up in the manes. To keep energy up, a jigsaw, a bat and ball and some marbles were on hand to promote working together and to make sure that all 21 pairs of hands were always occupied with something positive to do. Unbelievably, five hours flew by and everyone had a whale of a time in the charming company of the donkeys.
The NSPCA team have become real role models to the boys; they know them all individually and have mentored them, played with them, taught them and supported them over the past year. When I chatted with the boys, two of the older ones told me that they had wanted to be taxi drivers or bus drivers when they grew up but now wanted to work with animals for one of the SPCAs. One boy who used to take pot-shots with a catapult at unsuspecting birds recently found an injured pigeon and used some of the dressings he had for his donkey to bandage its wing. He helped it recover beautifully, demonstrating a significantly more sensitive and compassionate understanding of an animal’s point of view. The boys are dealing with each other much better too; compassion towards animals seems to be reflected in compassion towards each other.
After saying goodbye to the Donkey Club (and having celebrated their achievements with a pre-Christmas snack!), we spent the afternoon visiting some neighbouring communities to scope the welfare and to meet some of the donkey owners and community members. In one area, we met a group of six mules, which are very uncommon in this area. It was great to learn from Morgane, Matome and Wendy’s approach with the mules as they sorted out teeth, an eye wound and a couple of harness wounds with the owner, helping to teach him to wash the mule’s eye and avoid future dental problems. It is always a treat to meet a lovely group of mules!
The NSCPA’s success with the Donkey Club and the rest of the community in this area has been remarkable and, fuelled by their desire to genuinely be there for the donkeys, community and club members, they have seen a significantly deeper level of compassion and understanding of welfare permeate through the village. Through The Donkey Sanctuary’s support, the NSPCA are currently working in 24 communities in Limpopo and North West provinces and as we left the mules and watched today’s sunset glow orange and red across the Waterberg’s sandstone cliffs, I felt so privileged to have seen the powerful work they are doing. Every compassionate person, young and old, that switches on to the needs and feelings of donkeys and mules is a light coming on for animal welfare.