What’s in a name?
A few days after witnessing the tragic end of the mule that plummeted into the ravine above Imlil, in the Toubkal National Park, I received a telephone call from one of the local guides with whom I have been working over the past five years: Another mule had fallen, this time down a stairwell, suffering a fractured leg in the process!
Unfortunately, I was some four hours away, conducting research work in a neighbouring valley. I was unable to attend but I was, however, able to put a call through to my friend and colleague, Professor Hassan Alyakine, who is now director of SPANA Maroc. He, in turn, was able to organise for a team to travel up from their Marrakech clinic the next day. The mule was put to sleep and spared a slow, lingering death.
This second welfare case further illustrated the lack of alternatives that the local population have available to them. I asked my host, in the Azzaden valley, how they coped with such incidents. They had experienced two the previous year. In both cases, one involving a mule, the other a donkey, they had been provided food until they eventually passed away. This had taken between six and eight weeks. Euthanasia is virtually unknown in these remote valleys.
Grappling with the enormity of some of these life stories, I have been repeatedly struck by the way in which the mule is edited out of the picture. They have no names. They are nameless ghosts, who have a job to do and who are sold on when their usefulness ebbs away.
To give these hard-working creatures a name, a character and the individuality they are so often denied is central to my work. In order to tell their stories, in order for these tales to be heard, we need to be able to identify individuals and follow them over time.
That is why I have initiated an identification programme that will see all the mules working within the Toubkal National Park identified with a microchip.
How can a simple microchip contribute to the welfare of pack mules in mountain tourism? Are they needed to reunite lost mules with their heart-broken owners? Are they essentially a research tool that helps us understand mule behaviour better?
Not at all! They have a much more important role to play.
Microchips offer us the opportunity to follow individual animals over time. This is unique for it means that their life story can be told and these nameless animals given a story, a voice and, yes, a name!
Historically, mules have been bought and sold as ‘work horses’. They are therefore viewed, and referred to, as someone’s mule. They have no names, no individuality, per se. No one knows their story, where they were born, how many times they have been bought and sold. To tell these stories we need ‘to know the mule’ as an individual. And this is where the humble microchip comes in.
My research on pack-animal welfare in mountain tourism
My current research programme is primarily concerned with the welfare of mules working within the mountain tourism industry. I am focusing my research on the Toubkal National Park, where there are approximately two hundred mules working within this thriving industry. There is, however, so much to do…
During the course of a recent interview with an owner, we learnt that he had just purchased a new mule. The old one he had sold to a trader who had come up from Marrakech. His old mule would be spending the rest of her life working in the busy streets of the Imperial city. To all intents and purposes, she had served her purpose and disappeared.
Mules serve a purpose. They are objects, ‘its’, beasts of burden in the mountains, who when sold into the towns, must learn to pull carts. Unlike cars, however, they have no unique identifying chassis number or registration plates. There is no way of knowing whether they have had ‘two careful lady drivers’ (highly unlikely) or a succession of ‘slave drivers’…
Thanks to the support of Smart Chip and the Kasbah du Toubkal, as well as a number of other partners, we are able for the first time to microchip these mules and record their details in a database. Over time, this will allow mules to tell their stories and be heard by those who are willing to listen. The microchipping has started and there is already a commitment from SPANA Maroc to start recording clinical details and logging these on a database. It is for all involved to determine what this initiative’s ultimate impact might be.
We hope and are determined that from the humble acorn (in guise of a microchip) a great oak tree might grow!