This month's blog is written by Kaz, one of our vets, who found herself in India recently after a planned trip to Nepal was diverted due to the ongoing fuel blockade and political and economic instability in the country. Whilst in India she took a day to meet with the staff at Donkey Sanctuary India and see their work.
Covered in a haze of pollution, Delhi is a city of chaos; grey, noisy and congested. However travel to the outskirts and the land suddenly becomes a riot of colour, green and yellow as the fields with their crops of mustard come into view.
Continue on and the land changes again, becoming brown and dusty, flat as far as the eye can see, interspersed at regular intervals with the tall silhouettes of the brick kiln chimneys belching out their trademark smoke plumes.
It was one of these kilns we had come to visit today, with vet Dr Nath and animal health assistant Ajoy. We had driven for over an hour to reach a kiln not previously visited before.
Turning up we were met by one of the owners of the kiln (there are 4 in total; owning a kiln is a costly business), who graciously gave us permission to look around as he had heard of the good work done by the Donkey Sanctuary India team in surrounding areas.
This kiln had some differences to other kilns I had previously visited in Nepal, most notably the mechanised production of bricks going on in one area of the kiln. However in the other half, production is still done in the traditional way and six mules and horses are utilised to pull the carts transporting the sun baked bricks to the kilns to be stacked ready for firing. Each brick weighs between 2.5-2.8kg.
When asked how many bricks per cart load the answer came back as 600-700, however a quick scan of the carts revealed the actual count to be nearer 1,200-1,300, an approximate weight of 3,000-3,500kg per cart load and nearly twice the number the workers wanted us to think they had.
One cart was so heavy we saw the mule's front legs involuntarily lifted off the ground when it stopped pulling. The calm way it coped with this, helplessly hanging there waiting for men to come and lean on the cart shafts to bring it back to earth made me think this must be a regular occurrence.
These animals will do up to 16 trips a day we were told, pulling the carts along the sandy tracks from the areas where the bricks are made. It is a tough life for the humans too as, with two workers per cart they labour as hard as the animals, moving all the bricks by hand, first onto the cart, then off again at the kiln end. It is a constantly repeating cycle for each dusty, hot day of the six months the brick making season lasts.
Waiting for the workers to finish we were invited down to look around the equine feed and watering areas near the workers’ houses. The women and children here seemed much less accepting than the workers, suspicion written across their faces, probably wondering what the strangers had come to interfere with now.
Thankfully on the rest of our holiday we had been doing some volunteer children's work (I was travelling with a social worker friend) and she had put spare balloons and face paints into her bag for just this purpose. The children could not fail to be entranced by the balloons and gradually the rest of the kiln families all gathered around; wanting to know what was going on.
The breakthrough came when the woman in charge who had originally been the most hostile couldn't resist any longer and handed her baby to my friend to hold so I could paint a flower on her hand. By the time the men had finished working and started to bring their animals down for us to look at there was a general party atmosphere and a feeling we had been accepted.
This is the way The Donkey Sanctuary often works because where you are accepted people are a lot more willing to listen and think about implementing changes you are proposing. Dr Nath asked for the rest of the face paints for children's education workshops and these were happily donated.
Examining the animals, Dr Nath was now surrounded by all the men, all wanting to listen and hear what he had to say. Two of the mules were lame and needed corrective farriery so before he left he organised a date for the owners to bring the mules down the road to where the farrier has his workshop.
He will meet them there on that date to liaise with the farrier about the best treatment, as the mules will probably need 2-3 treatments before the hoof can be returned to a normal shape. He took the opportunity to discuss vaccination of the equines and common problems that may occur, leaving them with colourful posters of things to watch out for and his phone number so he can be contacted quickly at any time in the event of problems with the animals.
They took these and passed them around, seeming grateful there was someone approachable who promised to come back, and to be available for free help and advice. We left followed by smiles and waves and with a feeling of satisfaction that more animals had been reached by The Donkey Sanctuary and would be well cared for.
Travelling back watching the red-orange orb of the sun drop below the horizon I contemplated the day. To a casual observer standing back it would seem that not a lot had been achieved apart from a lot of chai (tea) being drunk, however scratch beneath the surface and you can see the foundations of a new relationship have been laid down, one built on mutual trust and respect.
A relationship that will work in favour of the beautiful animals we had just spent the day with, slowly but surely changing their working conditions for the better. But here, as in so many places around the world, slow change is the only change that has a chance of sticking and lasting into the future, and the work Dr Nath has done today will last a long time, all for the benefit of the animals, and therefore their owners and their families too.
Seeing this work going on I couldn't help but feel proud to be part of a charity that is changing so many lives, both four and two legged, around the world.