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