The Donkey Sanctuary’s white mini-bus, a kind of magical medical travelling minstrel show, takes off next day for the city’s northernmost reaches, just beyond its limits, in the state of Mexico, which wraps itself around Mexico City—Distrito Federal, or DF—like an enormous horseshoe. Predictably, in a metropolis bursting to the seams with 22 million denizens, we snail along in endless gridlock. Once we’re up and moving and away from the “centre”—if that concept really exists in DF—we rattle around through crumbling urban infrastructure and along potholed freeways lined with auto-repair stores and scrap-metal dealers, and chain malls and family-run bodegas. After about an hour, the imagery turns more Mad Max, like the world after the bomb has dropped and what’s left is but a desperate dust bowl of devastation.
We’ve arrived at a vast wasteland full of refuse: Coacalco rubbish dump. Its rotten stench quickly fills your nostrils. Puny little donkeys are everywhere, clip-clopping along stoically, heads bent, pulling rusty carts laden with bags of trash piled up high, sometimes bulging over the sides. They come by the dozen, in rapid succession, and donkey owners dispatch their sacks of detritus into a deep crater in the earth, administered by a fat man wearing a sombrero and a white vest. He surveys the action from a stool in a wooden shack, a sort of semi-dilapidated bus shelter propped up on one side by two poles. The carts come and go each weekday, off-loading 20 tons of trash a day, thanks to some 350 donkeys and as many horses who act as an ad-hoc refuse collection service, a stand-in for the formal one the municipality doesn’t have. (The project is partially funded by World Horse Welfare to enable the team to treat the horses they also have presented to them.)
Residents in surrounding neighbourhoods leave the family garbage in sacks and plastic bags outside their front doors and before long donkeys pass by to whisk them away. For their services, donkey proprietors receive a tip of several pesos and when the carts are full—or over-full, as is often the case—they deposit their loads at the town dump. A lot of these men were once farmers who worked the land, frequently their own land; yet now there’s no rural left, nothing green that hasn’t been devoured by inexorable grey metropolitan expansion, by speculative development, and even the Coacalco dump is being mooted for a new housing complex.
“Incomes come exclusively from tips,” Horacio tells me. “The more refuse they collect, and the quicker they do it, the more tips they receive.” Needless to say, this fragile existence is predicated on pushing their donkeys to the limit, and sometimes beyond, tugging mighty loads with little respite, travelling along hard, hot and rough roads with zero greenery or shade. “That spells lots of hoof problems,” Horacio says, “as well as considerable wear and tear on these creatures who’re all malnourished.”
So every Tuesday Donkey Sanctuary vets step in at Coacalco to repair the damage, to dress the war wounded, and to keep daily human and animal life afloat. Each donkey is meticulously noted, and records of sex, age, condition and treatment are stored on Sanctuary databases in Mexico City. Two casualties enter the fray: a pair of little donkeys tied together, one chocolate, the other grubby white, standing patiently next to an empty cart. Omar Prado Ortiz, a tall vet in his early 30s, busies himself with their harness and saddle abrasions, and dresses raw, open sores around the neck and back, products of constant rubbing and chafing. He uses an iodine-based wash to cleanse each wound and then applies a blue fly-repellent spray. Afterwards, I caress each of their frizzy fronts, warm and soft despite the caked in grime; for an instant they seem surprised by my tenderness. Soon all three of us are content to bask in the noonday spring sun, happy to pat and be patted under the watchful gaze of a posse of stray dogs, who sniff about languidly, searching for a free lunch and a bit of company.
Then another donkey appears, dragging a creaking cart in which lies his wounded little sister. She’s got a nasty leg fracture just below the knee. Horacio examines her teeth; this animal is less than one-year-old, he says, good news because had she been older, more worn down by the passage of time, the injury would’ve surely spelt curtains. But for this chocolate-coloured infant, for this budding refuse collector of the future, there’s hope, and before long impromptu surgery unfolds. A small, curious crowd gathers as Horacio cleans the wound. The owner wraps his arms around the beast’s trembling head, trying to prevent her from wriggling, from fleeing the pain and fear.
It takes an owner plus several vets to keep this tiny trooper pinned down. A thick white paste is applied over the puffed up gash and then a compress that’s held in place by a bandage. Horacio finds a piece of plastic piping, the sort you use for drains, slicing it into two hemispheres with his penknife and tailoring its length. The makeshift splint is put each side of the donkey’s spindly little leg and lots of blue and red tape bandage is wrapped around to ensure it stays stationary. Omar gives the animal an anti-inflammatory shot and the patient is ready to be discharged. Horacio reminds the owner that this donkey must rest, must be given proper, nourishing food. And the dressing needs to be changed next week, so, says Horacio, don’t forget to come back. Thereupon the rusty cart trundles off into the Mad Max void, with the bandaged cripple all curled up inside.
“Very few donkey owners are intentionally cruel,” Horacio tells me. “They value their animal’s labour and know they can’t mistreat them too much, even if they rarely show any affection.” The superstitious among them frequently put a thin red lace collar around their donkeys’ necks, to ward off evils spirits, the “evil eye”—mal de ojo—demons that may possess the soul of their hairy lifelines, jinx them, make them weak and deathly. But to make ends meet, poor owners must push their beasts, must make them work and work. There’s no choice but to keep their donkeys keeping on so that they and their families can keep on keeping on. It’s a never-ending saga of clip-clopping martyrdom.
Related articles by Andy Merrifield