The rain had finally eased and given way to a warm but cloudy day. Due to the distances covered in Mexico it was time to start heading back in the direction of the big city, as it was going to take a couple of days to get there.
Our destination was chosen as it was not too far off the main route back to Mexico City, but Rebeca and Arturo were concerned that the day may not be very interesting for us. However, it turned out to be very valuable and fascinating, so we were really glad that our route took us to this community.
The community is called San Juan Tepulco and is home to indigenous people who speak limited Spanish. The men migrate to Mexico City (or sometimes as far away as the USA) for jobs to send money back to the family, whilst the women stay at home and work with the help of their donkeys. The DS-UNAM programme had had limited success here, because all the vets and community officers up to this point have been men, and they have not been allowed to work with the women. However, now Rebeca has been employed as Community Programme Manager, the locals are more open to working with the programme now that a woman is leading the team.
Constantina is one of the locals who owns a mule and a donkey that she uses for agriculture and we went to meet her and her animals. The mule is a mare called Jello, who is about 30 years old. Her main job is to plough the fields. Constantina told us that Jello has no health problems, however her poor body condition coupled with the hard work that is expected of her was a cause for concern to us. The cultural and traditional beliefs here have hindered our work in the past, but Constantina explained that the work of the programme is very important and she wants it to continue. Rebeca will be working with Constantina from now on to educate her on what a healthy bodyweight is for a working animal.
Constantina’s donkey Payaso was out with her daughter collecting wood from the mountains when we visited. Payaso has already benefited from the invaluable work carried out here as he had a sarcoid (a form of skin tumour in equines) removed by one of our vets.
Donkeys are vital here to collect firewood and transport it back down the mountain. Each load can weigh in excess of 100kg. They make the four hour round trip to the mountain three times a day, three times a week. It leaves both the donkey and owner exhausted, but is an essential task for the families. Without firewood they would not be able to heat water to wash, cook or drink.
After we left Constantina and Jello, we met a family who own a donkey called Pancho who works with his owner Juana to collect wood from the mountains to support the family. Juana and her children showed us the loads of wood that Pancho had carried the day before. There were three great big stacks of wood, each stack constituted one load. Juana has owned 12 year old Pancho since he was a foal. She says that she believes he is a happy and healthy donkey, he knows his name and she talks to him often. We must say that we were in agreement with her about Pancho being happy and healthy; despite his hard workload, Pancho was in beautiful condition and was a clearly well-loved and appreciated family member.
Whilst walking up to take a look at the mountain, we witnessed for ourselves two donkeys, fully laden with wood on their return trip. As they carefully picked their way down the path, the donkey at the front stumbled and fell to the ground. It was shocking to see him lying helpless, too weary under the weight to stand back up again. We all rushed to help and arrived with the donkey at the same time as his owner, who luckily was empathetic towards his donkey's exhaustion and quietly soothed him whilst we helped to unstrap the load. With assistance and support from Mauro and Arturo, the donkey was helped back to his hooves.
The donkey was given a little recovery time whilst being given a check over by our vets, and then the wood was gently repacked. As soon as we stepped away from him he immediately set off on his own accord down the beaten track home, a path he obviously walks frequently and needs no guidance on how to find his way back.
To exist in this village both donkey and owner have to work extremely hard, but we were pleased to see the respect and gratitude that every owner had for their animals.
We found it fascinating to take a glimpse of this traditional culture, especially when a modern way of life is just around the corner.
Rebeca is now working closely with the women in this community to explore ways of reducing the pack loads and making the pack saddles more comfortable for the donkeys.