Brick kiln work is, by nature, arduous and relentless for both people and donkeys. The heat and dust, the repetitive, exhausting journeys to and from the firing ovens and the difficulty and unpleasantness in handling and carrying the rough, heavy bricks themselves are unavoidable. But in many of the kilns where we work there are avoidable causes of poor donkey welfare, including inadequate stabling and lack of food and water; badly-made, ill-fitting cart harness which causes sores and puts extra strain on the donkeys; a lack of vets or farriers (or a lack of knowledge among those who are available); badly-maintained carts (in particular, the wheels, tyres and axle bearings) and cluttered, uneven road surfaces which impede the carts’ progress. There are also many problems with the actual working practices – donkeys are beaten, forced to pull overloaded carts, and given insufficient rest, food or water. Much of this treatment stems from people’s attitudes to the donkeys, not the demands of the kiln work itself.
Thanks to an in-depth study of eight brick kilns near Cairo which we had not previously visited, we have gained a much better understanding of the work done by both people and donkeys, and the root causes of some of the avoidable donkey welfare problems. This survey, which started in March 2009, was designed to provide detailed baseline information on the condition and treatment of donkeys in each of the kilns, against which we could then measure and monitor the effects of providing each of three different service models: just veterinary care, vet care and harness training, or a combination of vet, harness and education work. A wealth of information came out of this exercise.
The project has also borne out our view that the holistic, ‘whole community’ approach to tackling donkey welfare is the right one. In order to achieve any long-term improvements to the treatment of donkeys in this extremely harsh and pressured environment, we need to understand the way the whole brick kiln community functions and what beliefs, motivations and attitudes lie behind the actions of everyone involved in its work. The study has highlighted the number of different factors contributing to what can be a relatively good working situation for a kiln donkey, or a life of terrible suffering and misery. But above all, the importance of the human element comes through – the fact that different members of the brick kiln community have different powers or responsibilities, which they may or may not be willing to exercise for the good of the donkeys. The relationships between kiln owners, foremen and workers may also be complex and all these factors can make it difficult to tackle behaviour such as beating and overloading. We are now making sure that as well as working with the young donkey cart drivers, we are also communicating with the kiln owners, stockmen and foremen who have the real influence and capability to bring about change.