Babloo, a mule owner who works in the brick kilns of Jaunpur district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India, seemed concerned. Donkeys and mules working in the kiln where he worked suffered regularly from colic, especially in the winter months, with many equines dying from the condition.
On the first day of the Barabanki fair, where he had come to purchase two new mules, he and a group of other equine owners from his village approached one of The Donkey Sanctuary India’s welfare assistants to request a session on colic prevention and treatment.
With the hot autumn sun shining overhead, Sushil Srivastava, Community Partnership and Education Officer for The Donkey Sanctuary India, sat with the group in a clearing next to where the men’s animals were tethered.
Using large, easy to understand posters and diagrams, he took them over the basics of equine digestion and nutrition as well as the importance of giving them ample water through the day, even in the winter months. “You must see that the donkeys and mules don’t drink water if it is cold, just like we don’t like to drink cold water in winter.
Lack of water leads to colic,” Sushil tells them, explaining that they must give their equines warm water from a hand pump, not a storage tank, as donkeys and mules tend to avoid the cold water from the latter.
Babloo listened intently as Sushil gave the example of the team’s work in the brick kilns of Rajakhera, where, since hand pumps were installed, the occurrence of colic has reduced to almost zero in the cold months. After the session, we found him discussing what he has learnt with his friends animatedly.
“Sushil has told me a very useful thing,” he said. “I could see there was a problem but it never struck me why my animals were not drinking water in winter or why they were getting stomach ache. The session was very helpful.” Babloo added that he and his co-workers intended to talk to their kiln owner and get him to install a hand pump or other source of warm water in time for the winter season.
Community education sessions such as these are a vital part of The Donkey Sanctuary’s work internationally. At the Barabanki or Dewa Mela, one of northern India’s largest annual equine fairs, they help spread good welfare messages to a large number of people (and thus reach equines) even in areas where we don’t have a direct presence.
Every morning, Community Partnership and Education Coordinator Aditya Sahoo, Sushil and the Donkey Welfare Assistants would go out into the three-square-kilometre field every day to conduct welfare assessments and identify problems specific to groups of animals from a particular region, which were then addressed through sessions with the owners.
According to Sushil, “Certain messages tend to get through to owners easily, like giving lots of water to avoid colic or not giving hard straw, so even if they don’t get all the points at once, they remember the main ones.
That is why the group from Jaunpur directly made the connection between cold water and colic. So when we tell them that they should install hand pumps instead, they will take that back with them and that will make a difference to the animals in their kiln.”
Community sessions aren’t restricted to group discussions. At Barabanki, The Donkey Sanctuary India’s team of vets, paravets and education officers took every opportunity to convert interactions with equine owners both within the treatment camp and outside in the fair ground into an occasion for teaching basic animal care.
Owners who came to the tent seeking treatment for their animals were given tips on better handling, nutrition and wound or illness management. Donkey Welfare Assistant Sanjay Parihar would give out extended welfare messages through a portable PA system.
In the course of a week, our team conducted 69 education sessions, mostly on prevention and treatment of commonly occurring wounds and diseases such as colic, trypanosomiasis, rabies and tetanus.
For equine owners from the state of Uttarakhand, they held sessions on treating fungal infections with medicine instead of their usual practice of jhaunk, or firing.
“This time, we have tried to give out more leaflets too, as the things owners have understood during the sessions are reinforced in their minds when they go through the leaflets. We have also emphasised The Donkey Sanctuary India’s phone number that they can call for help, so even if we are not around we can give advice over phone,” Sushil explains.
The team’s hard work at Barabanki over the last five years has started yielding positive results, with larger numbers of owners from India and Nepal approaching them this year to request education sessions. We were also told by fair organisers that there was a lot of positive discussion about our stall among owners.
All of this underscores why community engagement will continue to be vital to our aim of achieving sustainable, long-term change in donkey welfare in the future, both at equine fairs such as Barabanki and at other projects worldwide.
As The Donkey Sanctuary’s CEO Mike Baker, who visited the fair this year, says: “It’s not enough for us just to treat the animal. If the animal then goes it just gets the same wounds, the same treatment that it’s had before; it’s only going to come back and prolong the suffering, if anything. What we need to do is change the life of that animal for good. We can only do that by changing the behaviour of the people, and that means engaging with the communities.”