As welfare advisers we are often called to situations where donkey welfare is far from ideal, but occasionally there are times when your heart just sinks with sadness. Jenny’s story was one of those occasions. Jenny was an aged mare who had spent most of her life being sold from one person to the next.
Her passport showed she was once destined for slaughter in Ireland but was later sold through a horse sale in Cheshire before ending up on a yard belonging to a horse dealer. The yard was overrun with over 100 equines, including three donkeys and a mule. We were called to the property by RSPCA Inspectors who were concerned for their welfare. Enforcement action taken by the local authority a few weeks previously had resulted in the euthanasia and removal of a number of suffering horses and ponies, but the donkeys remained on site.
On my arrival it was clear the situation was dire and far worse than anticipated. The previous year's foals had not been sold, but breeding was continuing. Many of the mares were in foal and the stallions still on site. Numbers were too high, basic provision of food and water was absent, and the living environment was nothing short of appalling. The donkeys were in poor condition, they were seriously underweight, infested with lice, and their coats matted with excrement.
Jenny was in the poorest body condition, she had muscle wastage and virtually no fat covering her bones. It is vital that owners are able to monitor their donkey’s body condition and take appropriate steps to ensure that they do not become under or over weight so to avoid health problems and prevent suffering.
I noticed that Jenny had trouble eating the biscuit I gave her, she had a lump on the left side of her face. On closer inspection this was found to be a mass of impacted forage which had accumulated within her mouth which had begun to decompose and smelt rotten. Running my hand along the side of the teeth, I could feel that they were extremely sharp. Dental disease in donkeys can have serious welfare implications.
The stoic nature of donkeys means they can often hide the pain and suffering caused by the lack of proper dental care. Often poor dental health can go unnoticed for years, but it can be easily prevented by having yearly visits by a fully qualified equine dental technician who will always give owners a dental chart explaining what work is needed to maintain a happy healthy mouth. Jenny’s hooves were overgrown, her fore hooves had started to curl upwards at the toe. She was in desperate need of proper farrier care.
After discussions with the owner and the local authority, an equine vet was called to re-assess the condition of the donkeys and as a result Jenny and her friend, Fred, were signed over to The Donkey Sanctuary along with a mule called Sally and another donkey called Snowie who had been housed elsewhere. The final donkey, Fiona, was pregnant so remained on site initially but she too came into our care at a later date.
Jenny’s story doesn’t end there, a few days after arriving into our care, she displayed subtle signs of strangles, a contagious infection which requires prompt veterinary intervention and strict isolation protocols to prevent the spread of the disease. Although the bacteria causing the infection was confirmed by tests, Jenny’s symptoms were mild in nature. It is likely that Jenny was a ‘carrier’ of the disease meaning she harboured the bacteria whilst appearing outwardly healthy till her health was compromised by her poor condition and the additional stress of moving locations. Jenny and her friends underwent a series of treatments and tests to ensure they were clear of the infection before joining a herd.
Over many months, with the support of World Horse Welfare, we worked with the owner to try and improve conditions for the remaining equines kept at the dealer's yard whilst awaiting the result of the official investigation by the local authority. Last month, their owner was successfully prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering and failing to meet the needs of horses, ponies and donkeys.
The court disqualified the owner from keeping any equine indefinitely and handed down a suspended prison sentence. County Councillor Gill Heath, communities’ leader at Staffordshire County Council said: “It is clear that the business being operated at this farm had serious issues, and resulted in serious consequences for the horses, donkeys and ponies that were being kept there. By working with voluntary organisations for animal welfare, we were able to ensure the safety of the remaining animals, and make sure the horse dealer was brought to justice.’’
Helping donkeys like Jenny and her friends, requires a lot of time, resources and in many cases, oodles of patience, compassion and empathy. Our commitment to provide these donkeys with a safe and secure future for the rest of their lives is only possible thanks to the kindnesses and generosity of our supporters without whom none of this would be possible. Thank you for helping us be there when they need us the most.