Driving donkeys to death

ABUSED BEAST: An ill donkey is let free to leave their wards and walk in a field at a donkey health facility in Bishoftu, 50km from Addis Ababa. Pic. Guy Calaf. 02/08/07. © Reuters.
ABUSED BEAST: An ill donkey is let free to leave their wards and walk in a field at a donkey health facility in Bishoftu, 50km from Addis Ababa. Pic. Guy Calaf. 02/08/07. © Reuters.

Tsegaye Tadesse

Tsegaye Tadesse

BISHOFTU - Ethiopian farmer Fekadu Asfaw stood defiantly before an angry veterinarian, having just beaten his four severely malnourished donkeys.

"They are donkeys, aren't they? They have to be beaten to perform commands," Fekadu said.

Visibly furious, veterinarian Fissiha Gebre-ab turned to other farmers and their beasts of burden nearby with a harsh admonition: "Don't you know the saying that a farmer without a donkey is a donkey, because he has to carry the burden himself?"

He continued: "You should treat them humanely. Do not beat them and overburden them. You should also feed them properly if they have to serve you for a long time."

In a region where donkeys are essential to farmers' livelihoods - richer countries might compare them in worth and durability to the family car - his words carry much weight.

Fissiha treats plenty of donkeys in bedraggled and pitiable condition at his clinic 50km east of Addis Ababa, in what the founders say is one of only two in Africa - a centre for improving the health and welfare of donkeys.

Hundreds of donkeys suffering from open back sores, broken hooves, malnutrition and disease come every week through the clinic, that has operating theatres, recovery rooms and a laboratory.

Located inside the University of Addis Ababa's veterinary school in Bishoftu, the Donkey Health and Welfare Project treats the animals for free and offers their owners stern advice on how they should care for the beasts.

"Ethiopian donkeys have been abused for centuries due to ignorance despite their valuable services in times of peace and war," Fissiha said.

As a result, Ethiopian donkeys live an average of nine years, while donkeys in Kenya and Mexico live an average of 14 years, according to the website of the British-based Donkey Sanctuary charity, which founded the Ethiopian clinic in 1999.

By comparison, Fissiha said British donkeys - which typically do not face hard farm labour - live well over 30 years.

The clinic, supplemented by two mobile clinics, teaches farmers how to shoe the donkeys and also trains veterinarians on proper treatment so they can practise their profession countrywide.

Since many Ethiopians live at a subsistence farming level, the donkey is a critical part of their life and their main mode of transporting crops to markets.

"The death of a donkey for the family is equivalent to replacing the family car," the Donkey Sanctuary's website says of Ethiopian donkeys.

In the capital's grain market, about 3000 donkeys visit daily.

Encountering a caravan of donkeys carrying goods across Addis Ababa - and blocking traffic in the city of 5million - is a daily occurrence.

The Society for Protection of Animals Abroad, another British charity, also funds a separate clinic for horses and mules which operates alongside the donkey facility.

Horses, donkeys and mules are most suitable for farming in the country's mountainous and rugged terrain, and these animals have played critical roles in Ethiopia's military history.

Emperor Menelik II used them to transport provisions and military equipment during his 1884 Battle of Adwa to defeat Italy's army that was better equipped.

And the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front - now the ruling party - used them to move its military hardware through northern Ethiopia's mountains against the highly mechanised army of Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam until they overthrew him in 1991. - Reuters