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.
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.
"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?"
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."