Shifting attitudes: donkeys are the ‘hands and feet’ farming the Holy Land

One of The Donkey Sanctuary’s partners in the Middle East is working tirelessly to turn around attitudes towards donkey welfare.


Proud owner Mahmoud puts his donkey first, second and third

With help from The Donkey Sanctuary’s generous supporters, the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS) is beginning to see the welfare of donkeys in the Holy Land being valued and protected by their owners.

One such example is that of West Bank farmer Mahmoud, who relies entirely on his donkey Hamar-hamar - literally translated as Donkey-donkey - to make a living. The land that he farms in a small pocket of dramatic, rugged terrain is inaccessible by car.

If his donkey is gone, then Mahmoud’s livelihood goes with it. So, when Hamar-hamar developed a severe case of mange - a skin disease caused by tiny parasitic mites - it was a welcome relief for Mahmoud to be put in touch with PWLS who could soothe his donkey’s painful, patchy coat.

PWLS is developing quite a name for itself across West Bank; when people see the truck pass by emblazoned with its logo, residents of all ages wave and shout the friendly Arabic greeting of ‘as-salaam alaykum’, meaning ‘peace be upon you’, as they go about their work.

For some locals, PWLS’ efforts to elevate the status of donkeys draws a raised eyebrow, even laughter and mockery. But the passion and boundless energy of the organisation’s donkey-heroes, Imad Atrash and Ibrahim Odeh, is slowly turning opinion.

For Mahmoud the farmer though, his donkey’s importance is quite clear. “She is my hands and my feet,” he tells us. “After the treatment, her hair began to grow back - I’m very happy because it is like my donkey has been reborn. She is very important to me, and when she was weak I was very sad - but now, after the treatment she is like a new donkey.”

Hamar-hamar with owner Mahmoud in Bethlehem
Hamar-hamar's hind limbs recovering from mange
Hamar-hamar showing hair regrowth following treatment for mange in Bethlehem
Hamar-hamar's previously raw mange wounds are now healing well, and are even starting to regrow hair.

Owners like Mahmoud are a real testament to the effort PWLS is putting into changing attitudes towards donkey welfare. After all, improving animal welfare is more about changing human behaviour than treating the sick and injured.

From rough handler to welfare facilitator: Kamal's transformation

On our recent visit to Bethlehem to see for ourselves the impact supporters’ donations are making to donkeys in the Holy Land, we also met Kamal - a shining example of how people can change for the better.

“I used to be very hard with the donkeys,” Kamal tells us. “Nobody told us about donkeys and how they should be treated, and yes I used to hit them.”

Thanks to training from the PWLS, Kamal has not only left behind his tough treatment of donkeys - he is now proud to be a community facilitator, spreading the word on animal welfare and giving first aid to animals in his West Bank village of Battir.

Kamal welfare facilitator in Holy Land with donkey
Kamal Palestine Wildlife Society Facilitator
Palestine Wildlife Society medical first aid kit
Through funding from The Donkey Sanctuary, Kamal gets all the required training and education, as well as a fully-stocked medical box.

Becoming a facilitator improves the status of donkey handlers in the community, with people like Kamal becoming well-known and well-respected individuals from whom farmers and owners can seek guidance.

He says: “In the beginning the people were laughing at what we are doing for donkeys, but step by step we began to change the thinking and behaviour.

“With the help of PWLS we are teaching people to understand why the donkeys need to be looked after too, and now if I see a farmer hitting his donkey I stop them and tell them I will call the police if he continues.”

Even more pleasing for the wildlife society is that Kamal’s young son is also getting involved with the community workshops, repeating the message to fellow youngsters that working agricultural donkeys need to be treated in the right way.

The wildlife society is hoping to introduce a ‘best owner’ award to incentivise best practice among the agricultural community with a view to creating an environment of improved donkey welfare in the long term.

Thanks to your support, these success stories are signaling lasting change, but more still needs to be done, as the project looks to expand to reach more of the estimated 20,000 forgotten Holy Land donkeys.