From: Anthony Mitchell, Associated Press
Published June 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Sanctuary for Donkeys, the Backbone of Ethiopia

DEBRE ZEIT, Ethiopia — In a country where only half the population can afford or find medical treatment, a high-tech donkey clinic with its very own ambulance service may seem excessive.

But not to the Ethiopian farmers who rely on these sure-footed, stoic beasts of burden.

"My donkey is my life," says 51-year-old farmer Lema Raya. "Without him my family cannot eat or drink. He carries our water and food -- he is our provider, our car and our friend."

Lema has brought his donkey to the Donkey Sanctuary, one of a handful of hospitals in the world exclusively for donkeys and the only place in Ethiopia where donkeys can get specialized treatment. Treatment and advice are free and the immaculate 11-year-old hospital's annual US$60,000 budget is funded by its British-based namesake, which also runs or funds donkey hospitals in India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain and England.

The need is enormous in desperately poor Ethiopia.


Ethiopia has the second largest donkey population in the world. Some 5 million of them pick their way through the rocky, barren highlands bearing their heavy loads, according to Feseha Gebreab, Ethiopia's foremost expert on the animal. Only China with 12 million donkeys has more, Feseha said.

Donkeys provide the transport that brings food and water to millions in the remotest parts of Ethiopia, where roads and communications do not exist.

"Despite its importance this is an animal with a very poor image," said Feseha, who is a former dean of Ethiopia's veterinary school and now is a consultant to the sanctuary at Debre Zeit, 60 kilometers east of the capital, Addis Ababa.

While farmers like Lema extoll their donkeys, they also overwork them, Feseha said. The Ethiopian population has almost doubled from 40 million 20 years ago to 71 million today, increasing the burden on donkeys.

Exceptionally hardy, the donkey's staggering pain threshold often means it will struggle on no matter how much work it is given or how badly it is treated.

Feseha said the result is reflected in life expectancy: just nine hard years for a donkey here, compared to around 35 years in Europe or the U.S., where a donkey is more likely to be a pet than a laborer.

"Their workload has increased and with it so too have their injuries," Feseha said.

The sanctuary's staff of 14 now treats more than 1,000 donkeys a month, for parasites, crippling saddle sores and hyena bites. When it first started, the clinic would treat just several hundred donkeys a month.

"We have animals brought in here with huge chunks from their sides missing because of hyena bites or gaping, bleeding sores from poor saddles and strapping," said the 63-year-old professor. "Any other animal would collapse but donkeys carry on working. They are giants."

Lema and his wife Lema Shewaye walked 17 kilometers (10 miles) from their village to the sanctuary to get treatment for their donkey.

Families in rural Ethiopia are generally seen as better off if they have a donkey. In a country where average annual wages are just US$100, the US$2 a day earned by renting out the animal is a fortune.

"He carries the water for me," Lema Shewaye says of the daily backbreaking task left to women and children and one often involving walking 10 kilometers (six miles).

Vets show the Lemas how plastic strapping to hold water buckets had cut into the animal, leaving weeping sores. They teach them how to make proper strapping from natural fibers to prevent more wounds.

A small, portly man, Feseha estimates he has treated around 400,000 donkeys in his 19 years dedicated to helping the animal. He says his mission now is prevention rather than cure.

Books based on animal classics like the children's favorite Black Beauty by 19th century author Anna Sewell are being translated and handed out to schools to encourage better treatment of animals. The British-based Donkey Sanctuary also supplied copies of a book for children written by its founder Dr. Elizabeth Svendsen and translated into the local language Amharic. It tells the story of Dusty the Donkey and his adventures in Ethiopia.

Farmers are encouraged to change their attitude.

"The farmers often give names to their horses," Feseha said. "We are trying to get them to do the same with their donkeys, to identify with them."

And in a country where religious beliefs are widespread, Feseha often delivers a well-rehearsed sermon to farmers gathered at the sanctuary.

"The donkey is mentioned 80 times in the Bible," he says as if plucking the fact out of the air. "No other animal is mentioned in the Bible so much. Jesus rode a donkey."

He turns and mutters with a sigh, "But all over the world this animal is neglected. And particularly here."

Source: Associated Press

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