Tessa Cornell is a recent graduate of Edinburgh Vet School and a recipient of The Donkey Sanctuary’s overseas travel grant, as part of which she is spending a month with our partner in Egypt, ESPWWA. During this time, Tessa will be learning about ESPWWA’s veterinary outreach and community education programmes, helping produce educational material on eye problems, and investigating the causes of eye disease in the donkey population. This is her first blog from the field.
The importance of implementing sustainable donkey-welfare interventions cannot be overstated. Sustainability enables communities to take charge of projects without a permanent reliance on outside resources for technical and financial assistance.
It was with this in mind that I visited the brick kilns of El Saf in Giza, Egypt. The process of making bricks, from the initial mixing of raw materials to the final finished product, is performed through hard labour by people, machinery and of course, donkeys. The narrow entrances to the kilns present a challenge to large vehicles so they are replaced by these agile animals, whose small stature has proved them to be a vital cog in the production chain.
The Egyptian Society for the Protection and Welfare of Working Animals (ESPWWA) has introduced a community project in El Saf to address the seemingly inevitable welfare issues affecting donkeys in these harsh conditions. With animals often working up to seven hours each day during the brick-making season and for fifteen years on average, the ESPWWA team are committed to implementing a sustainable programme to help relieve donkey suffering whilst building a long-term partnership between local animal care assistants and brick kiln staff.
ESPWWA animal health assistants Hamed and Moharam demonstrated how they were teaching three local apprentices, Ahmed, Hussein and Ibrahim, to trim overgrown hooves. The programme is structured into practical sessions on donkey anatomy and behaviour, foot trimming, and how to address specific causes of lameness prevalent in the brick kilns. In contrast to the cases I had observed during my studies in Scotland, the donkeys of El Saf presented with a very different set of pathologies. A case of flexural deformity caught my attention, which can be best described as the donkey walking on its ‘toes’ with the hooves curved backwards into a severely abnormal position. We were soon applauding the impressive trimming handiwork of Hamed and one of his apprentices, as the hooves were returned to a more normal conformation and the donkey adjusted to his much improved feet.
Above all, the team are striving to implement a sustainable service. By providing local apprentices with the skill set and understanding to continue foot trimming unaided, ESPWWA hope to reduce visits in the future with the ultimate aim of leaving behind a strong, aware community and an independent foot-trimming service for donkeys. Meanwhile, the team provide continual support to their trainees to achieve realistic targets in competency level, and to ensure that donkeys are receiving the best possible standard of care.
Financial sustainability is another challenge faced by community programmes that provide a free or subsidized animal healthcare service. It is not customary for brick kiln owners to pay for farriery work; therefore, a change in their attitude towards the value of donkey welfare was required first and foremost. Hamed explained that initially, kiln staff did not understand the importance of ESPWWA interventions, which were viewed as an unnecessary expense. The team introduced educational talks and open discussions to convince them of the benefits to both donkey and human welfare, and to understand the concerns of the kiln owners themselves. As a result, there has been a greater acceptance of the associated costs, improved communication between the two parties, and increased respect for trained local animal care assistants. Hamed showed me the back of his car, a ‘mobile clinic turned into mobile training centre’, which always contains educational material for brick kiln staff as well as trimming equipment and veterinary supplies.
I agreed with Dr Shaaban, ESPWWA’s Programme Development Manager, that there was a strong sense of “harmony between team members”. This is harmony not just between the ESPWWA employees but also with and between local animal health care apprentices, brick kiln staff and stockmen, and the owners themselves. It was clear during my visit that this is a progressive and proactive programme with a supportive ethos, where team members reflect on their strengths and weaknesses to build the foundations of a strong local partnership. This is indeed a harsh and challenging environment but through the implementation of such a positive programme, sustainable targets to reduce lameness can be made, with the ultimate aim of improving donkey welfare.