We’ve been to the brick kilns of Nepal to monitor the working and living conditions of mules and donkeys, and to assess the impact of the ongoing welfare work of our charity partner, Animal Nepal.
As you drive out of Kathmandu — its potholed streets bustling with street vendors, stray dogs and wandering cattle — the roads become dusty tracks approaching the forgotten world of the brick kilns. Often hidden in mountain valleys, their smoking chimneys and makeshift community settlements scar the beautiful landscape.
We’re here to monitor the working and living conditions of mules and donkeys, and to assess the impact of the ongoing welfare work of our charity partner, Animal Nepal. Today, we’re meeting Arman Ali Kasgar, the 2018 winner of Animal Nepal’s annual Best Equine Owner Awards, a scheme introduced to incentivise good animal welfare practices. As we shall see from this and other visits, there’s clearly a stark contrast between those kilns where welfare training and advocacy work are making a sustainable difference, and those kilns where new workers have not yet benefitted from the guidance of vets and education officers.
Arman is a 50-year-old equine owner who has been travelling from the largely-deprived sub-metropolis of Nepalgunj to the kilns every season for the last 35 years. His surname, Kasgar, is shared by many kiln workers as it denotes those in the caste system assigned to working with equines and mud or clay.
The cross-country journey takes over 20 hours by trucks due to the rudimentary road system, and he brings his family and extended family of around 10 equine handlers, 15 mules and a few horses.
Arman now has a comfortable house back in Nepalgunj but his family shelter at the kilns is as basic as those of the handlers and animals, made as they all are of discarded bricks supporting low, corrugated iron roofs.
Like many owners at Nepal’s kilns, Arman prefers to work male mules to donkeys or horses because they have better sell-on value at the end of the season in June. Hardy, sure-footed mules are in demand as pack animals among the people of the Himalaya where their lives — exposed to the extreme elements and navigating treacherous, mountain paths — are arguably tougher even than at the kilns. But that’s another story.
Arman’s prize for winning of Animal Nepal’s annual Best Equine Owner Awards was food and feeding bucket for his animals, a basic first aid kit and 7,000 Nepalese rupees (£50).
The award holder proudly shows The Donkey Sanctuary’s programme manager Kate Ferguson and Animal Nepal vet Dr Atish Kumar Yadev around his equines’ living quarters before we visit them at work.
The night shelter is clean compared to the disease-threatening squalor of shelters we will soon be witnessing. Two horse mares with foals stay at home, their maternal presence apparently having a calming influence on the male mules on their return after the working day.
The handlers attend to the animals’ domestic needs. Each lunchtime and evening, they replenish water troughs and prepare an energy-giving feed mix of grain, corn, bran, molasses and green grass — before they tuck in to their own platters of rice and curry. It’s hungry work for both man and beast and their shared stoicism under such pressures is impressive.
Work begins at 7am and ends around 5pm with a lunch break of an hour and a half. At the unbaked ‘green’ brick site, the mules are loaded with about 40 bricks, 20 on each side of harness pouches made of jute sack. The handlers then walk behind them along the route to the kiln, and this trip is repeated up to 40 times in a day.
Saturday is rest day when the animals can graze in the fields near their shelter, and the handlers head off to the local market.
Dr Atish confirms the animals look well fed and are free of beating wounds or long-term harness sores. “Part of our work involves educating owners to relinquish the use of sticks to guide the animals,” he says. “They respond well to ‘noise’ directions — the clicking of the tongue or the shaking of a rattle made of stones in a plastic water bottle.”
Arman says he is happy with his award and values Animal Nepal’s “health camp” which provides tetanus and rabies jabs for his animals at the beginning of the season.
“Every time I call, Animal Nepal comes and treats my animals,” he says. “And if any animal is sick, I will not work them until they have recovered.”
The charity’s small team of vets, vet technicians and education officer are over-stretched as they respond to often-harrowing calls at some 40 kilns around the region. Based at Working Equine Outreach Programme offices in the hills rather than at the Kathmandu headquarters, they use the 4x4 vehicle and five motorbikes that we have funded to quickly reach animals in need. They carry first aid kits of disinfectant, ointments, antibiotics and painkillers as well anaesthetics and surgical equipment for more serious procedures.
While they provide this immediate relief for the animals, they use every treatment as a learning opportunity for owners. Regular training workshops also educate owners about hoof care, wound prevention and management, and encourage ongoing good practice. It’s clear our partners have built strong relationships with owners, and there’s mutual respect.
We are shown a properly constructed animal shelter and water trough that we have helped to finance. Light, airy and sturdy, it demonstrates the need to replace more of the makeshift, low-slung shelters which, as we shall see, have been known to collapse and cause injuries.
As we visit a veterinary outpost, the sign at the entrance acknowledges our support with The Donkey Sanctuary’s love-heart logo. Like Coca-Cola or Nike, the brand is reaching out even to the ‘top of the world’, the term sometimes given to this stunning, mountainous country. The sign also lists the Five Freedoms as aspects of welfare for animals: freedom from thirst and hunger, discomfort, fear, pain and, last but not least, freedom to show natural behaviour.
At the end of the arduous day, the equines are allowed to graze in the fields, and some demonstrate their natural behaviour by having a therapeutic roll on the ground, a trait demonstrated by the rescued donkeys found in the paddocks of our sanctuaries in the UK.
As the sun sets on this kiln community, we bid our farewells (Namaste) to prepare for the next day’s visit to a kiln where donkeys and mules have far fewer freedoms.