Christine Purdy, a Trustee of The Donkey Sanctuary, has been on a 12-day tour of our projects in India and Nepal with Julia Smith and Natasha Chamberlain of the International Department. In her third blog from the field, she writes about the positive impact of Donkey Sanctuary India’s work in the city of Ahmedabad.
Along with Donkey Sanctuary India and UK senior personnel, I flew from Delhi to Ahmedabad to look at Donkey Sanctuary India work there, and our first morning was once again in the mist and dust of one of the many brick kilns. We had to get to the kilns by 10am because the donkeys and their owners were just finishing for the day, having worked since 2am to take advantage of the relative cool of early morning. It was also practical for us to arrive at that time because we could still see some of the work as they were finishing off, and could then talk to the people as they ate their main meal of the day and fed and watered their animals.
Some of the stories are so much better in this location than Rajakhera because Donkey Sanctuary staff have been involved here for over five years, and many lessons have been learned. I mentioned in an earlier blog that in the Rajakhera kilns outside Agra each donkey carried 60 bricks per trip. Well here, after DS training, they make more trips but only carry 25 - and don't the donkeys know it! Once they feel the weight of that 25th brick they start walking toward the kiln even without the encouragement of their owner. Also, the DS team has for some time provided training to the owners on hoof care and made available an especially DS designed hoof pick that costs them only 25 rupees (about 25p). It is based on the common UK hoof pick that costs up to £8, well beyond the pocket of a donkey owner, but is actually a common screwdriver bought on the local market, then bent and flattened to the same UK hoof pick shape - an amazing bit of appropriate technology. Also, the women are taught how to make improved harnesses and saddle packs, and our Community Development Officer works with the children to teach them about better donkey management practices so they understand the value of animal welfare and no longer beat the donkeys. Believe me, it is quite an eye-opener to see what can be done over time, and to be witness to real and lasting improvements in animal welfare.
Donkey work in the city is quite a different story again from either the brick kilns or the construction sites. Ahmedabad may seem a bustling, modern metropolis, which indeed it is, but it also has an old city where streets are too narrow for cars, so guess who gets to deliver the groceries or, more likely, construction sand? Why yes, the donkey. Donkey carts fight their way through noisy crowds of people, motor bikes, dogs and just about anything brave enough to be on these narrow streets. So our teams are out there with them, treating, educating, helping.
Then, finally, the oasis, the only part of the Donkey Sanctuary India that actually includes a sanctuary where animals are kept. The sanctuary aspect began with donkeys that were inherited with an endowment and which we will look after for the rest of their lives. However, there is also a clinic for other sick or injured donkeys that are kept and attended to while they get well. In addition, house and clinic serve as a Training Centre for others, ranging from donkey owners to vets, who come to learn about various aspects of donkey welfare: health, harness, feeding, treatment of injuries, etc. The trainees obviously come from within our own organisation, but this now-international training hub has welcomed people from different organisations throughout India and also Nepal and Sri Lanka. Even people from Bangladesh have been here, all improving their skills in donkey care and welfare.
Finally, there is a most interesting scheme here for badly injured and abandoned donkeys that have recovered but who have no owners: once these donkeys are well again, they are microchipped and "fostered" out to approved animal owners (usually widows and the poorest of the poor) who have lost their own donkeys. For as long as these owners treat our donkeys well (something we monitor) they can keep the animals and work with them free of charge. This is a highly imaginative way of bringing donkeys back into a healthy and productive cycle, while at the same time helping impoverished people earn a livelihood.
So as I leave, what do I think of the future for donkeys in India? It's an interesting fact that for as long as there is a need for bricks, there will be a need for working donkeys. And for as long as there will be construction sites, there will be a need for donkeys. And the same is true for ancient city streets. Why? Because only donkeys can carry loads where machinery cannot or where it is not cost-effective to do so.
A quick explanation: when you dig the earth to make bricks, essentially you are digging a hole which can be up to 3 meters in depth, and only a donkey is strong (and cost-effective) enough to take the bricks up and over the edges. New digging areas are constantly being created as useful soil is exploited so donkey labour is more adaptable than vehicles. On construction sites, only donkeys can get those first loads of bricks up the stairs. And only donkeys can carry large loads through narrow city streets.
So remember the donkey's invisible but immense contribution to India's construction boom. When you see a new apartment, an office block or shopping mall, think of the small donkey and his poor owner earning Rs 100-150 rupees a day. Let us acknowledge that joint contribution and help them learn how to live long, healthy and productive lives together.