The complexity of South African society makes community partnership particularly challenging. Donkeys in this part of the Rainbow Nation are the victims of undervalued status, misunderstandings between their owners and other members of society, extreme poverty and high levels of crime in the areas where they live and work. Competing with cows, goats and other animals for grazing land, donkeys often wander out of crowded townships in search of food and are sometimes attacked by dogs and people with horrific results.
Working at the coal-face of donkey welfare in the Eastern Cape are Megan Hope (inspector and manager) and her team at East Cape Horse Care Unit (ECHCU). The area around Port Elizabeth is a predominantly Xhosa-speaking area (the ‘Xh’ is pronounced as a soft click) which was Nelson Mandela’s home language. As well as horses, the ECHCU works with significant numbers of donkeys and mules in the rural lands and townships across a vast area.
Megan and her team told me that to be able to help the animals, they ‘work with the stream, not against it’. This means supporting the owners to find solutions and building relationships with the right people. ECHCU have built a strong understanding with the local police and in one case, have established a parasite-control service with a local police station. Last Friday, a young foal was attacked by youths in a township which led to it needing to be euthanized and the Unit’s strong links means that action can be taken quickly to bring the perpetrators to justice and act as a voice for the donkeys, mules and horses.
In terms of community relationships, ECHCU are very careful not to be seen as ‘stock-thieves’; whenever they take a donkey away from an owner for treatment or care, they always return it. When the owner has no money to pay for the service, the team insist that they must ‘pay’ for the unit’s services in the form of time to learn about welfare, treat problems at home where possible and ask for advice when needed. This is a lifeline for the community members who rely on their donkeys but have nowhere else to turn. Donkeys in some areas have ECHCU ‘passports’ to record what happens to them and the owners are pleased to be able to play their part in ensuring their donkeys (which are their livelihoods, after all) are valued and helped. The relationships they have built now mean that owners will ask the Unit to neuter their donkeys, take them into temporary care to deal with serious wounds and even give their pregnant donkeys a short-term home so that foals are not attacked by dogs in the townships. Today I met with little Charlie – a confident and delightful little chap who may not have had a chance in his township.
As well as visiting townships in Grahamstown to see how the Unit works, I went to visit a foster home where eight donkeys and one horse now reside with Sam, their foster mum who also volunteers for ECHCU. Full of character and energy, a one-year-old chap named Blackie (who was still shedding his first winter coat so was actually a shaggy, tufty brown) took quite a shine to his British visitor; he came up to me for a scratch and within a few minutes, put his head across my shoulder for a proper, full cuddle for quite some time. Having spent a couple of days learning about the lives of donkeys in the Eastern Cape and about the phenomenal energy of ECHCU, the unconditional love and affection shown by Blackie was even more poignant and touching. Similarly, the unconditional dedication shown by the ECHCHU team in the face of huge challenges is amazing; true unsung heroes of the Eastern Cape.