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.
Growing up in Ireland, the image conjured when someone says ‘donkey’ is, like the majority of the population, that of a sweet, soggy donkey in a field of luscious grass, who has evidently enjoyed one-too-many carrots in their time. Here, the donkeys I met were lean, with hard feet and no real abscess problem to speak of. It struck me that the more arid conditions of southern Spain are much more suited to donkeys, who have evolved to cope with the weather in Africa. The vets and grooms at The Donkey Sanctuary based in Devon work hard to keep the weight off the donkeys, with strip grazing and regular weigh-ins. Here, the “fat” donkeys (or Team Gordo as they are affectionately known) are, interestingly, predominantly the older donkeys who struggle with eating the normal straw diet and have a more nutritious diet of extra food. This, coupled with an intense love of siestas, makes them a bit “more cuddly” than their younger, straw-based diet counterparts.
Medically, I was fascinated to learn that sarcoids are a very rare condition here. In Devon, I was fortunate enough to see different treatments for sarcoids (cytotoxic cream and laser surgery) which, unfortunately, means that the condition is common enough to facilitate me seeing many procedures, and difficult enough to treat that many different options exist. I was informed that there haven’t been more than one or two cases for the past few years. This is particularly interesting in light of the possible aetiology of sarcoid spread and flies.
The similarities between the two sanctuaries are undeniable. Firstly, both sanctuaries have immensely dedicated grooms. I was amazed in Devon by how well the staff know their donkeys; grooms knew their animals so well that they could tell when one was even mildly flat – cue veterinary investigations into colic and hyperlipaemia. Here is no different; the yard staff know each donkey by name, age, whether they are the extrovert or introvert of the field, and who their friends are. An understanding and love of donkeys is definitely not unique to the equid enthusiasts of the UK. Every day we would clean the paddocks, feed the donkeys, perform daily treatments (while I was there this constituted treating an eye ulcer, flushing an eye socket, washing a prolapsed penis, cleaning an infected vulva and flushing the mouths of the elderly donkeys with dental issues), and giving extra feeds to those who need it. It was a wonderful opportunity to further my husbandry skills and meet some new donkey personalities.
Encountering new donkeys and different conditions has been a brilliant experience for a donkey enthusiast and veterinary student such as myself, and I look forward to more wonderful experiences in Dona Rosa and Portugal.