At a small grain mill in Mekelle, four donkeys quietly plod out of their concrete shelter into the front yard. Bells around their necks tinkle.
Mill owner Roman Muluggeta uses donkeys to carry heavy sacks of grain to markets. But five years ago, she started to use padding and better harnesses, and saw a big difference.
She says hot flour was burning their backs. There was loss of skin and sores. They were uncomfortable when they were loaded. Now they are comfortable.
Better food, better donkeys
Muluggeta made the change after she attended a workshop by Donkey Sanctuary, a British nonprofit that works in Ethiopia and other countries with large donkey populations such as Kenya, Egypt, Mexico and India.
She used to feed them food leftovers from the mill that hurt the stomachs of the animals.
“Some were dying from eating stones and sand. Now I give wheat bran and improved feed,” she says. “Before, I didn't bring donkeys to the clinic. Now I take them to vet clinics and get donkeys checked for their health.” Muluggeta has encouraged dozens of other mill owners to do the same.
Ethiopia has an estimated seven million donkeys used for transporting water, wood, building materials and people. But oxen, sheep and cows are seen as more valuable. Traditionally, if donkeys were sick, people would abandon them or leave them to be eaten by hyenas.
Helping donkeys since 1995
Dr. Bodjia Duma, country director of Donkey Sanctuary, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, says such treatment is not only bad for the animals, but for the residents as well.
“Donkeys are vital for the livelihood of the rural community,” he says. “They are transporting commodities in rural and urban settings, becoming income-generating assets for multitudes of people in Ethiopia. However, they are not getting the care they deserve because of ingrained general negative attitude of general public.”
Donkey Sanctuary has been working in Ethiopia since 1995 and today works in four regions around the cities of Mekelle, Bahir Dar, Hawassa and Debre Zeit near Addis Ababa. It runs free veterinary clinics. In 2015, Donkey Sanctuary treated 185,000 donkeys.
Dr. Hagos Yhideo has been a Donkey Sanctuary veterinarian based in Mekelle for 10 years. "Nobody dared to touch a maggot wound, a serious wound for a donkey," he says. "They observed us dealing with that very extensive foul-smelling wound. They were impressed how we were not neglecting that. They believe donkeys are treatable."
He explains how they work with communities.
“We go to schools. We also use newspaper and radio. We also celebrate World Animal Day every year in different parts of our working area. These are interventions in the community. We also have animal welfare committee in the village, organized from donkey owners, religious leaders, administrators from schools, from agriculture office, from different disciplines and they are working to bring a change in the community in handling of donkeys.”
Change in attitude
Before people were mocked for taking their donkeys to a doctor, but that is changing slowly, he says.
And Donkey Sanctuary has successfully lobbied for inclusion of donkeys in government agricultural development programs and in the curricula of Ethiopia's veterinary colleges.
With millions of donkeys in the country, there is always more to be done.