Many of our supporters know a lot about our work overseas, but may be not quite so much about some of our projects and partnerships in European countries, and how these help the donkeys.
The Donkey Sanctuary recently hosted a four day event here in Devon to bring together partner organisations that provide healthcare for the “hidden” equine in some parts of Europe.
In Europe the situation is variable and rapidly changing: we may come across some donkeys in need of sanctuary, but many are still being worked in remnants of agricultural communities which are in transition to a more mechanised and urban lifestyle; donkeys may also be used for milk farming which is a growing sector, and be transported and used as meat animals. These donkeys and mules have a valuable role in the rural economy especially in semi substance farming; for example in Romania 80% of equines are involved in transport of people and goods, or in agriculture and forestry.
One major concern for these equines is lack of access to services as farriers, vets, equine dental technicians, etc. find it unattractive to work with these animals in remote locations. In many cases there is no service provision; in others numerous small charities are doing their best to provide health care to these donkeys and mules. The Donkey Sanctuary has provided grants to some of these organisations since 2009, which have so far visited 898 villages and provided treatments to 6894 animals, we also aim to have reached more animals than this by our education work and training.
The aim of this meeting organised by Andrew Judge (European Operations Manager) and Alex Thiemann (Veterinary Surgeon) was to bring together some of these organisation to learn and share from each other, and to plan the future direction of this work.
The teams came from Romania - where we work with Save the Dogs Trust, Portugal - with AEPGA (Associacao para Estuda e Proteccao do Gado Asinino), Greece - with Greek Animal Welfare Fund (GAWF), Crete - with Crete Animal Welfare, and Cyprus - where The Donkey Sanctuary has a base. The teams attending were not all veterinary and comprised a mixture of vets, farriers, an equine dentist, and volunteers.
What was immediately striking was the similarities of issues faced by the teams, to name a few challenges they encounter: obesity due to reduced workload, poor foot care, poor harnessing and saddle fit, hobbling and tethering injuries, lack of end of life care, and often ignorance of a donkey’s physiological and behavioural needs. In many areas the demographics of donkey ownership has changed and they are now in the care of elderly men and women, who are linked to their past heritage and culture by the donkeys and mules that remain in the villages.
There are no easy answers to solving the problems so the week drew on the skills of many in The Donkey Sanctuary, with the overall emphasis being on how interventions impact on welfare. On our first afternoon Kevin Brown (International Department Vet) explained a straightforward welfare assessment tool - The Hand - that can be used to monitor groups and individual animals. This tool enables observers to rapidly detail on a scale of 1-5, important welfare indicators including lameness, wounds, condition score, behaviour and illness/disease, while also incorporating information about the animal’s life circumstances and owners. The group experimented with using the tool to assess a small group of donkeys and were gratified to find out that we could reliably and easily note behavioural changes linked to underlying foot pain in one case.
Day two was focused on the skills of farriery and dentistry, using The Donkey sanctuary’s hospital and pathology unit to provide examples of real life cases and problems. The group discussed and practised farriery with Matt Shearing (Farrier), and had presentation and practical training from our Equine Dental Technicians, Lee Gosden and Gemma Lilly. We were aiming to share teaching materials available and assess what level of support the teams might require in the future. Karen Rickard (Principal Vet) explained the complex pathways involved in the pathogenesis of obesity and endocrine related laminitis and available management and treatment options.
Day three began with Alex Mayers (International Department), demonstrating the role of community participation in solving equine welfare problems. Although Alex works primarily in countries outside Europe, his skills in bringing groups together to collectively improve welfare and collaboration were highly valued. This was followed by Carl Wholey (National Schools Co-Ordinator) who shared his experiences of trying to engage primary school children in the UK in animal welfare generally and then bringing them gradually to appreciate donkey welfare specifically. Carl has developed some fantastic resources to share and download. All the partner organisations are currently working in some way or other with groups of children as they are the future guardians of the equines, so this part of the day was considered extremely useful.
The afternoon was devoted to harnessing, correct fit of pack saddles and the relevance of this to donkey welfare and work efficiency. Chris Garret the trainer works extensively with donkeys internationally and has built a reputation for straightforward easy to achieve solutions using local materials and people. The teams agree that this was an area where more input would be hugely beneficial in future.
The last morning addressed the difficult issue of Quality of Life Assessment in individual animals; this is often a major concern to us as a charity. The stoic nature of donkeys means many chronically painful conditions could go unnoticed which could lead to poor end of life welfare.
As an example of real world problems Animal Action Greece went on to talk about their experiences of changing mind sets and providing alternatives to tight hobbling that takes place on some Greek Islands. In many cases this small example brought together all the areas we had worked on during the week- community participation, educating children, tether design, the impact on lower limb and hoof function, welfare assessments and medicine use in remote village donkeys
The summing up concludes that such sharing of information was valuable and should be repeated - preferably at a location where Outreach projects are in action and that we all need to communicate effectively and work through the problems together. In the near future planned welfare assessments will be used to audit the effectiveness of interventions, the location of future programmes, and importantly when a community is providing such good care to its equines that charity intervention is no longer required.
What we all agreed on was that these invisible equines are as deserving of care as any other equine and are rewarding and challenging to deal with.