Our vision of a world where donkeys and mules live free from suffering, and where their contribution to humanity is fully valued, depends on the efforts of hundreds of incredibly passionate and dedicated staff and partners in over 30 countries. In this new blog series, we take you behind the scenes to meet some of these donkey champions, who have devoted their lives to making a positive difference to the lives of donkeys and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
It was a bright summer day in the town of Teotlalco Puebla in south-eastern Mexico, and a 14-year-old boy stood watching staff from Donkey Sanctuary Mexico set up a clinic in his community to treat working mules and donkeys. As he observed the dedicated team engage with local equine owners and treat working mules and donkeys, something sparked within him. “I was like ‘wow!’ on seeing their work,” Mauro Madariaga Najera reminisces about that day almost 25 years ago. “I began thinking of working for them.” Six years after that fateful day, a determined Mauro enrolled in a vet school in Mexico City and began volunteering with Donkey Sanctuary Mexico every day after class, eventually being invited to join the team as Assistant Vet. Today that awestruck schoolboy is Donkey Sanctuary Mexico’s equine behaviour expert, helping change the ways in which donkeys and mules are trained and handled across the country.
“I like working with the community and with donkeys, mules and horses. I have been interested in understanding the mind of animals since I was young.” It was while working as an assistant vet that Mauro came across the troublesome manner in which donkeys and mules were handled. “The techniques used to control them were very harsh, like ear twisting. I saw that it could be changed,” he says. Mauro dedicated himself to learning about humane and empathetic handling methods and the differences in American and European techniques. He also trained under The Donkey Sanctuary’s behaviour and harness consultants Ben Hart and Chris Garrett, respectively.
Today, Mauro holds training sessions on equine behaviour and handling across Mexico, working with communities, local service providers and students. He is developing techniques that will work with different communities, because, he says, the needs of a donkey that lives in a town are different from the needs of one that lives in a village.
Mauro frequently comes up against deeply entrenched views that see the animal, not the owners’ poor or harsh handling of it, as the problem. Not surprisingly, change is a slow process. “The problem is often that people want a technique like a recipe—something quick. I want people to understand the behaviour of donkeys.” Mauro always begins by assessing how an owner communicates with his donkey, before moving on to showing them ways in which it can be improved. He makes them go slower, observe their animal’s behaviour and be more patient. Changes can take a few months and “are small but solid”. “It’s a process. They may not be perfect changes, but the process has begun. People now have a different perception because of the positive changes in an animal’s behaviour when more humane training techniques are used,” he says.
He gives the example of his intervention in training a feral donkey named Fernanda in the town of San Sebastian recently. “In San Sebastian, the arrandadores’ (owner's) usual technique for first contact with a donkey is based on force, pain and submission. We began working with them to show techniques based on patience and empathy. After a few months, the trainers’ body language is different- they have begun observing, reflecting and analysing (donkey behaviour).” That reflective learning is key to developing good communication with an animal.
Mauro follows a similar training cycle for veterinary students under the DS-UNAM project. “A lot of students still remember and practice the philosophy of working with donkeys that has been taught to them by Donkey Sanctuary Mexico, even 3 or 4 years after completing their social service. That gives me satisfaction and happiness.”
He is, after all, living his childhood dream.