Thought you’d seen it all? Meet Toto, the inflatable donkey who has recently joined The Donkey Sanctuary Kenya (DSK) team as an exceptionally obedient harness training model. Wounds caused by ill-fitting or badly made harnesses are all too common in some parts of Kenya. When a harness causes a donkey pain, donkey-users can sometimes misunderstand their behaviour and, believing the animal to be stubborn or lazy, resort to beating it to try to speed it up. In recognition of DSK's hard work in changing local attitudes and approaches to harnessing, the team are increasingly being asked to speak to and train others at universities, symposiums and local government units, as well as with donkey owners and users in communities where harness-related welfare problems are seen.
But this posed a challenge. How can you effectively demonstrate harnesses without bringing a live donkey into an auditorium or classroom? You guessed it, this is where Toto comes in – a superb brainwave on the part of Harness Officer Amos and the harness-making team in DSK. Their request for help in sourcing a small inflatable donkey did raise some eyebrows in the International Department in Sidmouth but after a few weeks of trials, Toto is now on track to bounce along with the team to all sorts of events and training opportunities. He may not be anatomically perfect (I assure you, the label said ‘donkey’!) but he provides a very engaging next-best thing.
With the support of The Donkey Sanctuary’s harness expert Chris Garrett and myself, the DSK harness team trialled their training work today on Charles, a vet student from the University of Nairobi who has just started an eight-week attachment with DSK. As well as experimenting with Toto’s tricks and abilities, we spent some time exploring how they can maximise the impact of their training and testing out possible activities to integrate into demonstrations to show how harnesses affect donkey welfare.
Bearing in mind that he is essentially a giant balloon, his mini wooden cart is particularly impressive as Toto demonstrates how a well-balanced cart creates no weight on the donkey’s harness at all (otherwise, his flimsy legs would give way in seconds). Like all unusual and creative ideas, Toto is set to become quite a hit. A puncture-repair kit is on standby though, just in case the harness-stitching needles get a little too close for comfort!