A course held in November to teach basic equine psychology to owners and handlers in Africa is having a great impact on reducing abuse and beatings in working donkeys now, says international animal welfare charity The Donkey Sanctuary.
The course was held in Hawassa, one of The Donkey Sanctuary’s project sites in Ethiopia, where donkeys are a lifeline for some of the poorest communities in the world. Sadly, the mistreatment of donkeys is a common sight, which often stems from the owner’s misunderstanding of their behaviour, backed up by deep-rooted cultural misconceptions about their nature.
The course, aimed to help owners and handlers understand their donkeys better, was led by the Sanctuary’s equine behaviour expert Ben Hart who travelled out from Sidmouth. The participants included Donkey Sanctuary staff from Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt as well as donkey owners and handlers from the Hawassa community.
Ben started with classroom-based teaching about the way donkeys experience the world and how they communicate, and moved on to hands-on work. Among the key messages of the training were:
- when a donkey appears stubborn or aggressive, it may actually be expressing fear or pain
- donkeys take time to learn, they are not natural problem-solvers
- however, donkeys are intelligent and have good memories
- donkeys experience the world differently to humans
When participants looked at their own cultural conditioning relating to donkeys, they realised they had learned to perceive them as ‘beasts’ which are difficult to train and can be dangerous.
Ben Hart said: “The owners told us it was considered normal to beat donkeys, and for the donkeys to retaliate by kicking and biting, which reinforces their negative image. If the owner then left the donkey alone, it would learn that aggressive behaviour paid off.”
Ben used a practical exercise in the field to demonstrate the potential for changing this cycle of behaviour. He approached a donkey whose owner said it was so aggressive it had to be restrained by four men before he could pick up its feet.
In front of the group, Ben took under seven minutes to calm the donkey down and pick up its feet. To the owner’s amazement, he was able to do the same himself in just 10 minutes when he copied Ben’s technique. Over the next few days he changed his handling of the donkey and reported that he never beat it any more.
More recently, similar techniques have been used by the Sanctuary’s Egyptian team to handle a very nervous and aggressive donkey at a brick kiln they visit regularly. The donkey had recently kicked its handler in the eye and was seen as too dangerous to approach.
But, thanks to the behaviour training, the team recognised that people habitually approached this donkey brandishing a stick, which frightened the donkey and triggered its defence instincts. By approaching it in a calm and friendly way, with no stick, they succeeded in catching it and trimming its feet without any problems. When they explained the astonished handler how they’d achieved this change, he thanked them and said he would follow their example in future.
Ben Hart welcomes the news of how his course continues to change people’s treatment of donkeys. He said: “Donkeys all over the world are misunderstood, but once people start to see with their own eyes how learning takes place and how easy donkeys are to train if you understand them, then a transformation takes place in the attitudes of people and the behaviour of donkeys.”
The Donkey Sanctuary is now planning further courses for both donkey owners and its own staff around the world.