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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.

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"I will try to convince him that it is not only this donkey who will die, but the foal, too. So he will lose two donkeys." Gizachew says, "In our project, we can't supply other donkeys; we only can offer treatment and educational services." He pauses. "It's heartbreaking – but what are the farmer's options?"

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If this donkey does die, it will cost the man roughly $58 – about four months of work – to buy another one. That is why Gebreab and his colleagues emphasize to the villagers that taking better care of their animals now will benefit their financial and practical lives in the long term.

While the villagers socialize, the donkeys remain quiet. Occasionally, they nuzzle or lay their heads on one another's backs. Gizachew notes this behavior and explains that donkeys are "highly manageable … highly intelligent.… They are very gentle creatures."

Educating future owners

Their agreeable nature makes donkeys especially useful to women, who are often charged with household chores. Children also work with the animals. Because of this, the project has implemented an educational program in local schools, hoping to get its message out to the next generation of donkey owners. In a classroom in the nearby village of Tullu Rea, third-graders wearing forest-green uniforms listen to a project worker explain how much weight a donkey should carry.

"A donkey weighing 210 kilograms [463 pounds] should load 70 kilograms," or about 154 pounds, the teacher explains, "because you divide 210 by three. A donkey should carry no more than one-third of its body weight."

Improving the life of the donkey in Ethiopia has always been particularly challenging, notes Elisabeth Svendsen, founder of The Donkey Sanctuary, which partnered with Gebreab in 1986.

"From the beginning, the donkeys in Ethiopia were the worst of any we'd looked at in the world," she says. "They are very small animals, and yet they were worked very, very hard. The number of wounds was extraordinary "

But Dr. Svendsen says that the situation has changed for the better since the project began.

"We've helped treat over 500,000 donkeys. That is definite progress. And the donkeys are beginning to live longer – up to five years longer," she says.

This year, The Donkey Sanctuary will give more than $900,000 to Gebreab's project – nearly double its usual amount – to build a veterinary clinic in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

"Dr. Gebreab is a very special man – always looking forward, and very dedicated to his work," Svendsen says.

Back at the project's main office in Debre Zeit, which houses an immaculate lab, surgical facility, and clinic, Gebreab still agonizes over the lowly status of the animal to which he has dedicated his career. "They are really important. The donkey is mentioned 80 times in the Bible, and yet the image of it is poor. This is what we are searching for – we are trying to understand why."

He acknowledges that it does take some convincing that his work is relevant. "It is difficult," Gebreab says. "This country has a lot of human problems.… Donkeys are not a glamorous species. First you are ridiculed, but then the discussion starts. Animal welfare is a difficult subject, but I think we are making some progress."