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Group helps Ethiopia's donkeys

The Donkey Health and Welfare Project tries to change the way Ethiopians view animals that are vital to their livelihoods.

By Christina M. RussoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2007

Debre Zeit, Ethiopia

For more than 20 years, Feseha Gebreab's life has revolved around one animal: the donkey. Each day, in his modestly sized office decorated with donkey illustrations and photos, he thinks about how to make their lives better. It's appropriate to his job title: Dr. Gebreab is director of The Donkey Health and Welfare Project, based at Addis Ababa University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.

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The location isn't as random as it may seem. More than 5 million donkeys live in Ethiopia – more than in any other African nation, and second in the world only to China. Drive throughout the country and donkeys – in their gray and brown hues – are a frequent sight along the arid roads. The animal is indigenous to the country and well equipped for the climate and rugged landscape. It's therefore one of the main sources of transportation. Farmers and peasants rely on donkeys to carry just about everything, including grain, fuel, dung, sandstone, and water.

Despite the reliance people have on donkeys for their livelihoods – Gebreab stresses the animal is vital to the country's economy – Ethiopians on the whole hold an exceptionally low regard for the animal. As a result, many are neglected and have health problems. Some succumb to treatable parasites. Many have back sores, the result of poor saddling and the fact that they frequently must carry up to twice their body weight. Sometimes they fall prey to hyenas, because – unlike the more-valued sheep or goat – donkeys aren't put into protective quarters at night.

Gebreab wants all this to stop. By offering free medical attention for donkeys as well as educational programs on how to take better care of them, he hopes to change Ethiopians' views of the animal.

Such a shift in thinking could bear tangible results. In countries where donkeys are well cared for, they can live on average 27 years, according to The Donkey Sanctuary, a Britain-based charity that provides partial funding to Gebreab's project. In Ethiopia, the average donkey lives between nine and 13 years. When an Ethiopian family loses a donkey, it can be a perilous moment. "For some families," Gebreab says soberly, "a donkey means life or death."

Mobile clinic hits the road

The heart of The Donkey Health and Welfare Project is its mobile clinic. Nearly every day, a small team of veterinarians drive out to rural areas, where they'll meet with local villagers and their donkeys.

Ayele Gizachew, a spirited 30-something veterinarian, heads the project's Mobile Veterinary Clinical Services. On a recent stop at a dirt cul-de-sac in the village of Tedde Dildima, he, along with three other workers, climbs out of a truck and sends a generous smile to the villagers standing in the midmorning sun.

On this day, Dr. Gizachew and his colleagues will treat about 200 donkeys. Some days, it can be more than 1,000. The vets also offer practical advice, such as encouraging farmers to use cotton harnesses instead of synthetic ones to reduce the possibility of back sores. The team also notes the general health of each animal.

Gizachew eyes one donkey in particular – a female. The animal's owner says she has been sick for more than a year and has miscarried twice in that time. She did carry one pregnancy to term, however, and as the two men speak, her foal comes to nurse. Soon, Gizachew discovers that despite the donkey's thinness, she is in the last trimester of yet another pregnancy. He asks the farmer to give the donkey a break from working. But the farmer shakes his head. He cannot, he replies, because he has no way to fetch water without the donkey's help.