‘Quick! The air from the donkey is going out!’ cried the Maasai security guard with genuine concern, pointing towards our training area with his long stick. Slightly panicked about what kind of hyperventilating mess of a donkey I was going to find, I dashed towards the venue. When I got there, on the table lay a somewhat saggy inflatable mini donkey that had fallen victim to a sharp, spiky fruit from one of the casuarina trees (also called ‘whistling pines’ due to the lovely noise they make on a windy day) which dotted the beach where we were working just south of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Sighing slightly, I reached for the puncture repair kit and wondered whether ‘punctures’ should be added to our regular donkey welfare assessment tool for moments like these.
This week, we have gathered 21 people together from across eastern and southern Africa to expose some newer project staff to the essentials of good harness work and to improve the practical skills of our more experienced friends in more complex elements of harness such as correct fitting and use of welfare-friendly cart harness. Five organisations from Tanzania, one from Zambia and one from South Africa were benefiting from the experience of Amos Supeet and Nicholas Mungiria, harness officers at Donkey Sanctuary Kenya as well as Chris Garrett, The Donkey Sanctuary’s international harness consultant.
Poor harness doesn’t just cause wounds; other welfare signs such as behaviour, poor body condition, lameness, and certain diseases such as tetanus can also be related to poor harness use, materials, fitting or maintenance. To keep the whole donkey in view, we started the course with a recap on assessing welfare using the Hand which is a fundamental part of all of our work, giving us a clear, consistent and holistic picture of welfare and reminding us, in the words of Dr S, to put donkeys first, second and third. The team then looked at the purpose, functions and concept of harness and how pack and cart harness can be both efficient and welfare friendly. Participants also learnt how to make pack saddles from locally available materials that protect the spine of a donkey and many made mini saddles for their new harness-demonstration friend, Toto, the inflatable donkey.
Dar es Salaam’s zoo uses two-shaft, two-wheeled carts to give visitors a little donkey-ride around the block and we were kindly invited to take the course to the zoo for one of the days. The carts provided a great demonstration for the importance of good balance for two-wheeled carts (one was much better balanced than the other by design) and by shuffling forwards and backward on the cart, people could experience how difficult it was for a donkey to move a cart that is either too heavy or too light.
As this is the first harness workshop on Tanzanian soil, our co-hosts at TAWESO (Tanzanian Animal Welfare Society) managed to get the national TV news as well as several newspapers to come along to report to their viewers, many of whom rely on donkeys for their livelihoods. Even the inflatable donkey had his 15 minutes of fame!