WHY DOES THE WORLD PICK ON THE DONKEY?
Saturday July 24,2010
IT IS a sad irony that it’s a donkey’s ability to suffer in silence that has made it one of the world’s most abused animals. Docile and trusting, with its doleful eyes and long ears, the donkey stoically carries on in pain when injured, hiding its suffering. So its unfair destiny has historically been one of cruelty and mistreatment.
Take the latest example of abuse when a trembling mule was hoisted into the air attached to a parasail harness and made to “fly” over a beach in southern Russia. The intention was apparently to advertise beach sports to tourists but the sick stunt, which saw the terrified animal wailing in fear, rightly caused outrage worldwide.
The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon, described the stunt as “one of the most senseless cruelty cases we have seen in over 40 years”, adding: “The suffering endured by this poor animal is totally unacceptable and we hope justice is brought to the individuals responsible.”
Ann Widdecombe, the patron of SHADH, another donkey welfare charity, told The Daily Express that she was absolutely appalled. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It seems the most terrible way to treat an animal that has no means of resistance,” she said.
Authorities in Russia are now opening an animal cruelty probe but what the incident has done is to highlight the on-going plight of this gentle beast. Sadly mistreatment and lack of compassion is found in many countries and is often perpetrated by those whose livelihoods actually depend on the animal.
Back in 2007 this newspaper launched a crusade to help donkeys being grossly abused on the island of Santorini in Greece. The animals were suffering in agony when being used as “taxis” for tourists, made to clamber up the unforgiving heights and crumbling paths of the holiday isle with overweight and uncaring holiday makers on their backs.
The donkeys’ owners, focused only on receiving as many “fares” as possible, spared no thought for the overburdened animals as they carried tourists in scorching temperatures, relentlessly scrambling up and down 600 steep steps.
There was no let-up with the donkeys having to make the trek many times every day until they almost dropped from exhaustion. Sitting astride the animal made for a good photograph to take to the folks back home but its reality painted another, more brutal picture.
But this is only part of a wider picture. Donkeys are similarly being mistreated in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and at the Egyptian pyramids in Cairo, where they are made to carry weights far heavier than themselves. Quite why tourists are so eager to jump on these gentle beasts’ backs is debatable but even those who claim to care about animals at home seem to lose compassion for them abroad.
Animal charities are constantly trying to teach those for whom the donkey is important as a “tool” in their everyday lives that under standing the needs of the creature is paramount for its long service and welfare. But in many countries donkeys are considered low-status animals that can be bought cheaply and then terribly abused. They are forced to do more work than their small bodies can cope with.
In these countries lives are indeed cheap, for buying a replacement donkey is less expensive than paying for veterinary care. That means sick or injured animals are often tied to posts without food and water and simply left to die. It is a tragic end for a creature who has served a master well.
Donkeys are also used to divert attacks on goats and sheep by coyotes and to protect cows while calving. The coyote is the only natural threat to donkeys and it is why any canine fills the animal with fear.
In Egypt alone there are more than three million donkeys, many of which are used for everyday tasks. As well as carrying people they are made to transport bricks for the hundreds of kilns in the country. Each kiln has 10 to 15 donkeys on site. Most of the animals in pain are suffering from open wounds caused by poor harnessing or from foot and eye problems. They are, like donkey populations throughout the world, regularly beaten by their owners.
The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon is one of the leading animal welfare groups. As well as having UK and Northern Ireland workers, its Donkey Sanctuary Overseas Department has major welfare programmes in India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mexico as well as projects in many other countries.
In Ethiopia workers of the Donkey Sanctuary Overseas Department routinely see up to 1,000 sick and injured donkeys every day and it is a sad fact that, while donkeys can live up to 35 years, in developing countries they seldom live to more than 10. While poverty might be some excuse for ignorance there is no justification for vile cruelty in the name of “fun”.
In America “donkey basketball” is played, often as school fund- raising events. It is a variation of the normal basketball game but the players all ride donkeys.
During the game the animals can be punched, dragged and kicked by children and adults who usually have no experience of handling them. The donkeys are often weak before they even start, having been deprived of water and food to lessen the chance of “accidents” on court.
As one expert observer commented: “Donkey basketball fundraisers send kids the message that it’s OK to abuse and humiliate those who are weaker than they are. Children who are exposed to animal abuse are taught the dangerous lesson that cruelty is acceptable.”
In America donkeys are not protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act and animal protection agencies are reluctant to get involved in cases of cruelty simply because they have no experience of dealing with them.
Forcing donkeys to participate in such an alien and cruel pastime is bad enough – and their fear is understandable – but incredibly there have been successful claims by those hurt when a donkey hits back.
It is a further irony that these animals which are so routinely mistreated, are also highly sensitive and prone to suffer from a fatal condition called hyperlipaemia, a stress-related illness.
Thankfully, having “fun” at the donkey’s expense is slowly being exposed – and stopped.
Last month the Donkey Sanc tuary’s Spanish arm successfully banned donkeys being used at the annual beach festival in Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain, where they were ridden and abused by drunken revellers. The festival has both saddened and sickened animal lovers for years.
El Refugio del Burrito and three other Spanish animal welfare associations joined forces to stop the animals being used during the Feria de la Manzanilla festival, where party-goers were renting the animals illegally from unscrupulous owners and then riding the donkeys and subjecting them to cruelty and torment throughout the night.
Photographs and films were presented to a council representative for local festivals to highlight the plight of the donkeys and as ammunition to prompt a ban. The meeting achieved its goal and this year the festival went ahead without the donkeys.
“We are so pleased we have been successful in stopping what was a horrific ordeal for the 30 or so donkeys involved in this festival and that it was made possible by a united collaboration with other animal welfare associations,” said Iván Salvía, El Refugio del Burrito’s general manager.
“Now we can try and stop similar cases in Spain, helping to protect many more donkeys.”
U ntil recently the Donkey Sanctuary’s overseas priority has been to alleviate the suffering of sick and injured donkeys by offering free veterinary care and preventative treatment. But now it is also working in partnership with donkey-owning communities to educate them to supply this care themselves. Above all it is determined to “change harmful habits and practices” such as too-tight harnesses which cause the animals great pain.
Measures like this might appear insufficient in the general global welfare of the poor donkey but it is a giant step in making some aspects of their lives tolerable.
“People’s beliefs and habits cannot be changed overnight, especially when rooted in culture and tradition,” says Suzi Cretney, of the Donkey Sanctuary.
But there is still no logic in the donkey being treated as the joker of the animal pack. “The donkey is very sweet-natured and has a comical air with its big ears but it is an easy target and an easy punch-line,” she adds.
Hopefully one day the mistreated donkey will no longer be the jester of the animal world but rise to be treated instead as a gentle king.