The sun is shining gloriously but at this early hour the high-altitude air is chilly. In the distance the Nevado de Toluca looms, an enormous volcanic mass, Mexico’s fourth-tallest mountain, about the size of Mont Blanc, and in the crystal light it seems to float in a timeless unreality. Trucks, trailers and beat-up vans, bulging with livestock, pass by and whip up dust and roadside flotsam and the debris swirls around amid an odour of fried chicken and animal dung. Cowboys yell against a din of mooing cows, bleating sheep, and braying donkeys; people hover around stalls selling saddles and stirrups, sombreros and Stetsons, ponchos and potatoes, and tiny indigenous women wrinkled by aridity and age peddle tamales and tortillas. It’s a scene out of the Wild West, a Wild West Mexican-style, 60 miles west of Mexico City, at San Bernabe market in Ixtlahuaca, at a dizzying 9,500 feet above sea level, and here I’m the only gringo in sight.
“This is the biggest and most notorious market for trading livestock in the Mexico City region,” Doctor Horacio Chavira Sevilla tells me, Project Leader of The Donkey Sanctuary Mexico, an overseas outpost of the British charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, based in Sidmouth. Horacio is a stocky, serious man in his mid-forties, a vet specialising in equines—in horses, donkeys and mules—who frequently likes to cite a more ancient animal lover, Saint Francis of Assisi. “The problem,” Horacio says, “is that these animals are transported in appalling circumstances, packed into trucks that journey for hours and hours without either food or water.” The healthiest and strongest beasts, like big mules—crosses between male donkeys and female horses—sell for handsome sums at San Bernabe, for 20,000 pesos or more (£1000). Dealers come to buy as cheap as they can and then sell in outlying villages at a higher price, to farmers and families whose sole recourse is often to donkey- or mule-power, whose sole means of survival has just four skinny legs and two big floppy ears.
The market that most concerns Horacio, though, is for damaged and wounded animals, for creatures with terrible injuries who’re left to suffer alone, crippled without any medical attention, rotting in their private pain. I can see one now, tied to a fence post near a bustling pen, a small gray donkey, a ragged fellow with an awful lower leg fracture; his shin bone is gapping through bloody flesh like a jagged broken stick and the swollen wound resembles a dirty red balloon. “Meat,” Horacio remarks, matter-of-factly. Indeed, one of the biggest growth markets at San Bernabe is the market for meat—for legal horse meat as well as for illegal donkey meat; and that gray donkey who looks so tranquil within himself, masking the misery of his lower leg fracture, will likely end up as a sausage on somebody’s plate, somewhere in Mexico, perhaps even in the United States because, insists Horacio, there’s also a lucrative export market for donkey carcasses.
Another donkey limps by, dragged on a rope towards an apparently incorrigible fate. His ankle tendon is kaput and as he shuffles along pathetically, somehow knowingly, his injured lower leg flops about like it’s made of rubber. A farrier hasn’t trimmed those feet of his for a long while, either. Against this context, the Donkey Sanctuary wants such suffering to end here and now, wants these damaged animals to be put to sleep immediately, humanely rather than crudely at some later date. “However, because we’re a charity,” Horacio laments, “we can’t do anything other than exert pressure on the state of Mexico, and I’m regularly in the capital Toluca to lobby for regulation at San Bernabe.” “Donkeys don’t fare well in this country,” Horacio says. “The Mexican government associates these animals with backwardness and sees them as ‘unproductive.’ Few vets in Mexico have experience with donkeys, and no grant or break or anything is forthcoming for defending their cause, nor for even recognising their toil, which everywhere goes unacknowledged.”
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