It isn’t always easy to for us to give a thorough assessment of a donkey’s welfare status, especially when we’re working internationally and sometimes need to make a rapid assessment of a large group. What kind of things should you look for? The ‘five freedoms’ is a useful way of checking whether a population is ‘free from’ things like hunger, thirst, distress and pain, and are ‘free to’ express natural behaviour. While this can work for farm animals where all the conditions are controlled and known, it becomes a lot more challenging to look for an absence of hunger, distress, etc. when assessing working donkeys, feral donkeys or groups waiting at a well when you only have a snapshot of information about their lives.
The Donkey Sanctuary has developed a very simple framework to not only rapidly assess welfare in a meaningful, constructive way, but also to easily teach others about donkey needs and how to monitor their welfare – it’s called ‘Hands-on Donkey Welfare’ or just ‘the Hand’ for short’.
The palm of the Hand reminds us to ask the owner question about the life and working practices of the donkey. How old is it? Where did it come from? How many hours does the donkey work, and what kind of work? What happens to it at the end of its life? As well as this essential information, each finger of the Hand reminds us to look at behaviour and communication (the thumb), body condition (first finger), wounds (second finger), lameness and movement (third finger) and other signs of injury or disease (little finger). All of this relates to the ‘five freedoms’ but in a way that is easy to assess by looking at the donkey.
Over the last few days, I have been working together with two of The Donkey Sanctuary’s longstanding collaborators, Arusha Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPA) and Meru Animal Welfare Organisation (MAWO), in northern Tanzania. Visiting some of their welfare hotspots, we practiced assessing welfare using the Hand. As July is just after the rainy season, there is plentiful water and food in the area and the donkeys tend to be rested from their normal duties of ploughing, taking goods to market and bringing water from long distances. Because of that, welfare was generally very good but with some notable exceptions.
From the photos here, you’ll see some examples of poorer welfare for each finger, ranging from a dull, unresponsive donkey (behaviour, or the thumb) to lumpy skin disease (recorded on the little finger). When we saw a donkey with poor welfare, we spoke with the owner to find out more and in some cases, Ezekiel (and animal health technician from the MAWO team) gave antibiotics or therapeutic de-wormer to treat individuals in need.
It was a really valuable experience to spend time with the teams from the two organisations to support them in being able to assess welfare so that they can improve how they prioritise where to work and how to work so that as many donkeys as possible get the care, attention and value they deserve. After all, with 50 million donkeys in the world, we ultimately want to be able to reach them all.