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El Rocio 2017

Treating one of the many mules at El Rocio Festival

This month The Donkey Sanctuary has attended Spain’s biggest pilgrimage festival, El Rocío, for a third consecutive year to ensure the welfare of the mules and donkeys involved in the event were protected.

The El Rocío pilgrimage is the most famous in the region, attracting nearly a million people and 20,000 equines from across the country. The Sanctuary’s attendance is crucial due to the huge amount of animals attending for private use or for rental.

The majority of the injuries seen each year are caused by ill-fitting harnesses and by a traditional noseband called a serreta.

Dehydration and exhaustion are also illnesses that can be fatal in situations like this which is why expert care is provided around the clock.

Welcome to El Rocio

The Donkey Sanctuary has pulled together a team of welfare organisations for the last three years to work with owners to ensure the care of the animals is being upheld.

Veronica Sanchez, country manager at El Refugio del Burrito (The Donkey Sanctuary in Spain), said: "The general feeling of The Donkey Sanctuary team attending El Rocío in previous years is that the welfare of the animals is improving. In 2016, the teams attended a total of 96 welfare incidents involving 162 animals where only two cases were classified as extreme.

"This year’s main objectives were to promote animal welfare, prevent cases of mistreatment and provide veterinary care to victims of mistreatment or abuse. The team consists of a wide range of animal welfare experts and veterinarians who have been working with the Town Hall authorities and Seprona (the environmental arm of the Spanish police) in El Rocío."

What are we doing?

The Donkey Sanctuary attends El Rocío with the aim of creating equine welfare awareness and behaviour change in owners. Each year the Sanctuary is making progress with the Seprona and the Town Hall to enforce EU welfare laws in transport and welfare standards.

Not all the animals at El Rocio are abused, and there is some incredible horsemanship on display, but it is the rented animals that appear to suffer the most. Most of these animals are old, tired, undernourished, full of open wounds and rented non-stop.

This year we have assisted close to 150 animals and rescued nine badly mistreated equines, mostly from the illegal rental business. Our presence is to ensure the welfare of mules, donkeys, horses and ponies that participate to the pilgrimage and to minimize their suffering.

A team from El Refugio del Burrito of 20 people, including veterinarians, farriers and specialists in equine behaviour and care were in attendance at the festival from 31 May - 6 June this year.

How it went

During the pilgrimage this year, we have:

  • Offered veterinary assistance and safety to those animals found in distress due to mistreatment, abandonment or omission of care, through itinerant veterinary devices and a field hospital.
  • Counselled owners and users of equines, to ensure the welfare of the animals and prevent the use of inappropriate harnesses.
  • Patrolled the access ways and the village of El Rocío to identify and prevent cases of animal cruelty and report to the competent authorities.

Veronica added: “Our team has found few cases in which privately owned animals were in bad condition, it was mostly animals for rent that got it worse. They were rented out illegally, sometimes even to minors, and then terribly abused by those renting them due to the lack of equine knowledge, irresponsibility or lack of empathy. Our team treated 141 equines in urgent need of vet treatments in situ."

Treating one of the many mules at El Rocio Festival