Last week I found myself standing in the centre of a bull ring on the outskirts of Alicante, unusual you may think for a DWA to be associated here but I can assure you it was all for a good reason!
I had the opportunity to take part in a welfare exchange with Nicky Cohen who is based as a DWA in Malaga in Spain. Nicky had devised for me what she described as a ‘trip within a trip!’ taking in welfare cases and visits to donkeys along the south east coast of Spain. And so I hit the ground running literally as soon as my flight landed in Malaga we began a 5+ hour drive to Benidorm where we were responding to a follow up visit regarding donkeys on the outskirts of the town. The donkeys were located on a sparse acre of land next to a car park. Here the donkeys were company to some chickens and a pig. Cornelio the male donkey proved to be very friendly while the more hesitant ‘Mariana’ remained in his shadow.
An equine livery yard kindly agreed to oversee the temporary care of the two donkeys supported by regular advice and visits by The Donkey Sanctuary. An old un-used bull ring on their property was identified as the donkey’s new temporary base. The ring had a suitable soft sandy surface that would help support Cornelio’s painful hooves whilst encouraging the donkeys to walk, promoting exercise and gradual weight loss. Nicky, the livery owners and myself stayed with the donkeys until they had settled into their new surroundings. It was rewarding to see them give a little playful buck as they investigated the perimeter of the bull ring. I whispered good luck into Cornelio and Mariana’s ears before leaving and have been advised by Nicky that the vet has since been out to assess the donkeys and both are doing well.
Heading further south to an area near Lorca we responded to a complaint call where two donkeys were reported as being on waste ground with very little to eat and one notably lying down a lot. Nicky made a call to the ‘Seprona’ the environmental arm of the Guardia Civil who are responsible for actioning suspected animal welfare cruelty cases. The case was logged but unfortunately they could not send someone to attend alongside us. Nicky and myself did a ‘drive by’ and viewed two donkeys discreetly. She was somewhat concerned that there might be a criminal connection judging by some rather ‘suspect’ characters close by.
There were nine donkeys on site plus one stallion horse. Whilst the donkeys were in good body condition, two were noted as lame and in pain while one had cuts across its chest and weeping infected eyes. All were mares and I was advised of the larger ‘Andaluscian’ strain. There was no forage for the donkeys and they were in fact feeding off what can only be described as a large mountain of tomatoes!! The smell of tomatoes was extremely strong with flies constantly buzzing around the donkey’s tomato dripping muzzles – this is certainly a memory that I will not forget in a hurry. The owner soon arrived and explained that he had heart/health problems and could no longer work and was currently living on health benefits. His lack of income meant that he could not afford veterinary treatment for the donkeys. He believed that the tomatoes were very beneficial for the donkey’s digestive system! Nicky very diplomatically explained in Spanish a more suitable diet for the donkeys. It transpired he was also feeding them a large amount of oat grain. It was agreed that The Donkey Sanctuary would arrange for a vet to call and assess the lame donkeys and treat the donkey with the chest wound and infected eyes. I have been in contact with Nicky and believe that the prognosis for the lame donkeys following radiographs is not positive however the donkey with the chest and eye concerns is responding well to treatment.
Following on from this case we travelled unto the village of ‘Mijas’ in Malaga where The Donkey Sanctuary has been diligently working over the last few years to improve the conditions of donkeys used to carry tourists around the town. Nicky allowed me access to her ‘Mijas’ file where the number of complaints in regard to the ‘Mijas’ donkeys is quite staggering. I was also shown video evidence of previous abuse cases to the working donkeys which was upsetting and shocking. Whist viewing the donkeys in their holding stalls Nicky had explained that there was a plethora of management problems in relation to the donkeys - from their unsuitable stabling, to the fact that they are often tethered inappropriately allowing them no expression of physical/normal behaviour, to the handlers complacency and failure to not know how to manage these donkeys (all stallions – which they are reluctant to castrate) appropriately and understand their needs (rest/water/shelter/veterinary treatment etc).
As we viewed the donkeys an elderly English lady and supporter of the Donkey Sanctuary asked us to intervene for a donkey that she believed was lame. She was very upset and anxious about the donkey. Nicky very diplomatically expressed her concerns to the group of donkey handlers whilst allaying the fears of the supporter. The donkey was led forward and was clearly lame and tender on its front left hoof. It was agreed that the donkey would not be worked that day and would be assessed by a vet. Quite a few of the donkeys had seedy toe over which shoes had been fitted. This would also be assessed by the vet.
Later that afternoon we travelled to Malaga town hall where we had a meeting with a council representative to discuss current welfare concerns and to see what progress was being made in relation to providing the donkeys with a new stabling facility. Change is slow, budgets are squeezed, legalities complicated and council formalities drawn out but it is important that this engagement with Malaga council is maintained. On leaving the town hall Nicky showed me a large bronze donkey statue erected in tribute to the Spanish donkey and its importance to Malaga’s history. It struck me then the similarity between the donkey as an emblematic national symbol in both Spain and Ireland, juxtaposed with the welfare concerns faced by donkeys in both countries.
During the welfare exchange I also had the opportunity to deliver a Donkey Care Course to a very enthusiastic British couple who were very keen to rehome two donkeys.
I hope by now that ‘Jan’ and her husband have fulfilled their dream of rehoming two donkeys from The Donkey Sanctuary. I also visited an established guardian home in the remote Spanish countryside where we met a very colourful character called Pedro who not only cared for two guardian donkeys but also did charitable work with caring for dogs. My whirlwind visit also included visiting two donkeys rehomed to the Parc de Paloma Benalmadena where we were able to give management advice to the park workers responsible for looking after the donkeys on site. I also had the opportunity to visit El Refugio Del Burrito where I was able to roll up my sleeves (in the lovely Spanish November sun!) and helped out with the daily mucking out duties around the farm. A local school visited the centre to visit their adopted donkey ‘Leon’ and I had the chance to mingle and chat with two of the regular volunteers – ‘Oliver’ from Germany and ‘Sam’ from London.
The exchange provided me with a wonderful insight into the welfare work being dealt with in Spain. I gained an understanding of Spanish culture and tradition as well as welfare legislation and judicial procedures that impact so much on our work. I have a huge amount of respect for Nicky and the Spanish Donkey Sanctuary team for their professionalism and dedication often in the face of wanton cruelty and neglect.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Noel Carton, Michael Crane, Veronica Sanchez and Nicky Cohen for facilitating the exchange. I look forward to welcoming Nicky to Ireland in early 2017 to experience our work on this side of the water.