Yesterday was a sad day. I had just completed a review of the 22 mules that work for one of the best operators in the Toubkal National Park. I had chipped all their mules and listed the key welfare concerns that the management team need to be aware of in order to raise welfare standards.
I had noted that, of the 22 mules, eight were being worked with a traditional Berber bit in their mouths. These bits are particularly barbaric. They are poorly made and can easily cause injury to the mouth. In the hands of a cruel, ignorant or thoughtless rider/owner/muleteer, injuries are commonplace. This problem is particularly common where young boys are sent out to work with the family’s mule for adolescent boys have little understanding of how to control and direct their mules and show little consideration for the ‘work horse’, treating them more like cars or mopeds than living, breathing, sensitive creatures.
SPANA Maroc has been distributing quality, stainless-steel cavalry bits in Imlil for many years now but, sadly, no one is insisting that these be used. Owners continue to use the traditional bit and almost everyone in the mountain-tourism industry remains oblivious to the consequences. The sad truth is that horrific injuries lie hidden away within the mouths of these hard-working mules. The extent of the injuries I saw yesterday, however, surprised and shocked even me!
The mule in question worked occasionally for the operator. I noticed how she struggled to carry two heavy pieces of luggage up the steep trail, two tourists strolling along behind her. She was weak, emaciated, in great discomfort and struggled to keep her tongue in her mouth. Her eyes were dull, verging on lifeless. She was in pain. I saw this but the holidaying couple did not.
Earlier in the day, I had myself seen some blood in the mule’s mouth but I was unable to establish who she was working for. Once I found this out, I was able to ask the employer to tell the owner to come and see me so that I could examine his mule.
What I found demonstrates quite clearly why these bits need to be banned. The wound was just visible under the tongue. It was impacted with food material and had to be cleaned repeatedly before I was able to evaluate its full extent. A second wound was found to the right of the mouth. The area that is typically injured by these bits is hard to examine and one has to open the mouth wide in order to explore the tissues under the tongue and along the bars of the mouth. Wounds are thus easily missed if one does not know what to look for. The images of the poor mule's mouth wounds are too unpleasant to be shown here. If you would like further information, you can find out more at Kasbah Mules Facebook page.
Modern bits are freely available to all mule owners working in the Toubkal National Park yet no tour agencies working in Morocco have insisted on using them. The Kasbah du Toubkal, with whom I am working, has now committed to introducing this change for the mules they employ but we need all responsible travel agencies to do the same and ban the use of the traditional Berber bit.
Head collars can be used when leading mules and we would encourage trekkers to take out such head collars (pony size) to give to their muleteers. When ridden, mules should all, without exception, have a stainless steel cavalry bit.
Please help: If you are trekking in Morocco, insist that your trekking company respects the simple rule that mules are spared the cruelty of the Berber bit.