This month The Donkey Sanctuary will be attending Spain’s biggest pilgrimage festival, El Rocío.

Our rescue centre in Spain, El Refugio del Burrito, has put in place a 24 hour on the ground operation to ensure animal welfare in El Rocío, the largest pilgrimage in the Western world.

This week, more than 20,000 equines will participate in El Rocío, the largest pilgrimage in the Western world. The Donkey Sanctuary Spanish base, El Refugio del Burrito (ERB), in collaboration with Spanish authorities will put in place a 24 hour on the ground operation to ensure animal welfare during the event.

With over one million participants and close to 120 brotherhoods, El Rocío is the largest pilgrimage in the Western world. The worshippers will undertake the journey to the chapel of El Rocío (Almonte, Huelva) in carts decorated with colours and ribbons and riding horses, mules and other equines. Around 20,000 animals accompanied them.

The work of ERB in the pilgrimage of El Rocío is carried out in close coordination with the Nature Protection Service of the Civil Guard (SEPRONA). A team of more than 30 people, including veterinaries, farriers and specialists in equine behaviour and care, integrate this security and assistance operation and will be in El Rocío town from the 16-22 May 2018.

Rented animals suffer the most

Most of the equines that participate in El Rocío are fit to work and have their basics needs covered, it is the rented animals that appear to suffer the most. In 2017, we assisted close to 150 animals and rescued 9 badly mistreated equines, mostly from the illegal rental business.

According to Veronica Sanchez, Director of El Refugio del Burrito (ERB): “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. In such a poor state was some of them that we couldn’t do much except alleviating their last hours of suffering.”

Animal mistreatment in el Rocio cannot be measured only by the animals deaths, as many animal welfare NGOs argue, but also and most important it should be measured by the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.

These basic freedoms are violated in many rented animals. The average age of the rented animals are around 25 years old. Equine rented business owners buy the cheapest animals which normally are in the worst conditions, then they forced them to work day and night, with little rest, food or water. Some of the animals are starving, extremely thin, full of open wounds and exhausted.

“Our expert has been constantly evaluating the state of the rented animals and if they are fit to work with the support of SEPRONA. We have been marking those animal that were not in good shape to work and asked the owners not to rent them any more. After we have been supervising that they follow our recommendations. If they don’t and they rent the marked animals again, animals are confiscated and taken to a safe place and the owners are prosecuted for animal cruelty”, explains Veronica Sanchez.

To avoid that, the Town Hall of Almonte (Huelva), where the pilgrimage takes place, totally ban renting animals during El Rocío. There are also laws in place to protect these animals; mistreatment is a crime for both owners and people that rent them.

Without going any further, in 2016, one rented mule collapsed in the way. The animal was around 26 years old and very thin. The team of ERB tried to do everything that was in their hands to save her, but she died. The owner and the renter have been sentenced to one year and four months in prison and three years of disqualification from working with animals for the omission of care of this mule, thus causing its death. You can check our full intervention in this video.

Collaborating with authorities

Our collaboration with Almonte Town Hall and SEPRONA is perhaps the most important change towards equine welfare at the Pilgrimage. Rosa Chaparro from El Refugio del Burrito says: “The collaboration of the SEPRONA with us has been exemplary; they were there to every request and helped promptly and efficiently. We believe things can improve greatly, and our charity strives towards making a big impact through the collaboration with authorities, brotherhoods and pilgrims. Education is another important pillar. Brotherhood and pilgrims are more and more aware of animal cruelty and most of them really reject and punish any type of mistreatment towards animals.”

Advising equine owners and users

“As soon as owners see that we are here to help their animals in a practical way, they got on board pretty quickly. We are not here to end the tradition, but to advice and provide them with expert advice and care like putting gauze on the serrated nosebands so that open wounds could be protected. This year we have been approached by many pilgrims asking for help or support. Even some people that had rented animals were so disgusted by the state of the animals and they approached us to get help” says animal welfare adviser Coral Ruiz.

Despite the few upsetting scenes of animal neglect and cruelty from the rental business at the El Rocío Pilgrimage, Veronica Sanchez remains upbeat and positive. “Our next steps are to continue promoting animal welfare good practices around pilgrims and brotherhoods, punish the mistreatment of the animals that SEPRONA has confiscated and work with authorities to regulate in a near future the equine rented business to prevent the cruelty towards these animals. We’ve come away with a tremendous feeling of optimism and look forward to continue working to improve the welfare of more animals this year.”

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