The townships of Johannesburg are not easy places in which to work. Migrant workers from throughout South Africa (and beyond) have been drawn to the big smoke and so a wide mix of cultures populates an area where the infrastructure doesn’t always cope. A high crime rate and significant social problems within the townships are generally considered the main priorities, with animal welfare slipping down the list. Yet for many people, having healthy donkeys is the only way of earning an income.
Highveld Horse Care Unit (HHCU) has been working in townships and rural areas across a huge part of South Africa and their work with donkeys in the townships of Brits is funded and supported by The Donkey Sanctuary. In addition to rescue and rehoming of donkeys and horses, their outreach work in townships now makes up about 60% of their work with a recently formed township team trained up in farriery, harnessing, clinical examinations and much more. After spending a few days with the inspiring, energetic and welcoming team, I can certainly appreciate the need and how their dedication is working wonders for the township donkeys.
In 2008, the team got a call from a concerned township resident about a donkey called Stevie who had been beaten horribly by his owner. The team rushed out and found Stevie with skull fractures, bleeding from his eyes and covered in haematomas. The owner was arrested, his traditional fighting stick was confiscated and Stevie was taken to the HHCU farm where he was treated. Since his recovery, Stevie, although still around 70% blind, is the babysitter for new arrivals at the farm; he teaches younger equines the ropes and keeps them out of mischief. He loves children and meets each school group with cheerful affection. Johann, the HHCU farm manager, explains to visiting children that donkeys have an ‘ear-button’ on their foreheads; when you lightly press the button, the ears swing backwards!
HHCU stresses that by working with the owners, it can improve welfare and prevent desperate problems from arising. Only the most serious cases are confiscated and HHCU staff work closely with owners to build a trust so that owners have someone to turn to who will not simply take their animals away from them; the vast majority of owners understand the importance of welfare but just need support or training to improve. It is a very challenging balance to strike. Today, we met several owners in one township who use donkeys to bring carts of scrap metal to the scrapyard to sell and who also use their carts to supply coal to households in the area. Thanks to HHCU, old harnesses have been replaced with much better designs that no longer cause wounds, painful bits have been removed, all carts that I saw had breaching (like a brake to stop the cart from bumping into the back of the donkey) and the donkeys’ feet were looking great. In an area where people themselves don’t always have the kind of welfare they should, these donkeys were looking pretty good.
However, the social problems in HHCU’s vast areas mean that the battle will be a long one. The team regularly have to deal with emergency cases of donkeys being attacked with knives or hot water, or hit by cars in addition to their daily work with owners. A lack of fresh water in one area leads to horrific cases where donkeys and other animals get stuck in the mud trying to reach water in a dam. The multi-talented and multi-lingual team at HHCU have their work cut out to improve the lives of the multi-dimensional donkeys of South Africa and I’m completely in awe of their amazing hard work and dedication, putting the donkeys first and often dropping everything to help a donkey in need.