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A patient at SPANA's veterinary center in Marrakech. Not only are donkeys beautiful, but they're intelligent too. For starters, they have a fantastic memory, able to recognize donkeys they've met and places they've been to for as long as 25 years! An old adage maintains that "you bribe a horse but negotiate with a donkey." Photo: SPANA.

I was crossing the street in Marrakech on a recent trip to Morocco when I saw a cart-pulling donkey get hit by a car. I heard a yelp and saw the donkey jump in the air but then luckily, he continued on his way amidst the heavy traffic, seemingly unharmed. Quite frankly, I was surprised that I hadn’t seen more and worse accidents during my week-long stay in Marrakech, a city, like many in the developing world, where “working animals” – namely donkeys, mules and horses — routinely share the roads with cars, trucks and mopeds.

A horse that successfully clambered onto a traffic island.

A particularly common sight on Marrakech’s streets, are the horse-driven calèches or carriages which ferry locals and tourists alike around the city. The concern for me was the apparent absence of, or more likely, the seeming lack of enforcement, of traffic regulations.

Cars and trucks whiz by pell mell. Stop lights are few and far between, or at least it looked that way to me! I felt like I was literally taking my life into my hands every time I crossed the street. In fact, it got so that I rarely crossed the street without my hired guide who adhered to the local custom of simply plunging into the sea of traffic and halting oncoming cars by holding out his hand.

A hot sun bearing down on a calèche.

I knew that carriage horses in New York City are routinely maimed in their daily jostle with midtown traffic, sometimes injuring drivers and pedestrians in the process, and wondered about the rate of such accidents in Marrakech.

And then there are the exhaust fumes. To people living in countries with stringent emission controls, the air quality can sometimes be difficult to bear. What must it be like for the animals who are out on the roads all day, their noses only a foot or two from belching mufflers? My visit took place during the relatively cool month of January. I cannot even imagine what it must be like, pollution-wise, in the searing summer heat there. Of equal concern was the fact that some of the animals were pulling heavy loads and looked rather weary, at least to these Western eyes.

A mule at work in Marrakech, wearing a makeshift harness. Photo: SPANA.
Another “pack mule” in Marrakech. Photo: SPANA

My intent here, however, is not to malign Marrakech. I have recently written at length about its glorious sights and rich textures which you can read about here. My interest lies in animal welfare and fortunately, I can say that this story actually has a happy ending.

After a few inquiries, I found out about a charity called SPANA — the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad. Not only does SPANA indefatigably carry out remarkable work improving the lives of working animals and consequently, of people, throughout large parts of the third world, but this 90-year old, London-based organization has intrepid, inspirational beginnings to boot.

An added virtue for visitors to Marrakech is its beautiful veterinary center there, which you won’t find listed in any guidebook, but is a must-see as far as I’m concerned. A visit to this garden oasis was a heartwarming experience and added immeasurably to my trip.

So, what does SPANA do? Conservatively speaking, there are about 200 million animals throughout the world that perform the work of trucks, tractors and taxis. Their lives are often short and brutal as hour after hour, day after day, they undertake back-breaking tasks usually under a scorching sun. Some animals have the added misfortune of being mutilated by their owners, who are not usually being deliberately cruel, but rather are carrying-out centuries old traditions born of superstition and ignorance.

Sadah was a victim of the traditional practice of “firing” in Mauritania. She had trouble breathing when her owner brought her to a local healer who had attempted to cure her by applying red hot irons to her skin. This obviously increased Sadah’s agony further. Her owner then took her to a SPANA center. There, her wounds were cleaned and she was given treatment to clear the infection in her lungs and in her firing wounds. She was then admitted to the clinic for rest and recovery. Fortunately, her owner promised to bring her to the center for future treatment rather than rely on misguided traditions. Photo: SPANA

SPANA improves the lives of the world’s working animals by doing the following: (1) administering free veterinary care, (2) providing education and training and (3) supplying aid through emergency and outreach programs. Whenever possible, SPANA also works with governments on national and municipal levels to enact laws for the protection of animals.

Veterinary Care

Free veterinary care has been SPANA’s primary objective since its launch in 1923. Originally starting with clinics in North Africa, the charity now treats close to 400,000 animals each year in numerous countries across Africa and the Middle East via a network of fixed and mobile clinics. There are a total of 19 permanent facilities and 22 mobile clinics in 7 core countries: Ethiopia, Jordan, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia.

A donkey carrying water in Mauritania. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis

The fact of the matter is that the lives of working animals and their owners are inextricably linked. The animals are often crucial to a family’s livelihood for without them, poor families would be unable to transport goods to market, carry drinking water to their homes, or plough their fields. So, by improving and in many instances, saving the lives of working animals, SPANA resurrects the livelihoods of the families dependent on them as well. It is women and children who especially benefit from having a healthy working equid (a horse, donkey or mule) at their disposal for they are usually the ones upon whose shoulders (literally) these tasks would fall otherwise.

A donkey loaded down with goods in Mauritania. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis.
A donkey in Mauritania patiently waiting for his cart to be loaded up with fishing nets. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis.
A horse in Ethiopia receiving treatment for harness sores, a common affliction due to ill-fitting harnesses and overloaded carts. Photo: SPANA.
A donkey being treated for a harness wound in Ethiopia. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis
An Ethiopian woman hired by SPANA to make padding for harnesses. Photo: SPANA/Anna Fawcus

Not surprisingly then, the demand for SPANA’s veterinary services is huge. Overall, it treats over 1,000 animals per day. And there is no end in sight as those numbers are increasing every year. Taking in around 1,500 patients each month, SPANA’s clinic in Marrakech is the charity’s largest and busiest.

The entrance to SPANA’s veterinary center in Marrakech. This clinic, located just outside the city center, is easily accessible and can be visited by appointment. To arrange a visit, call 011 212 5 24 30 31 10. Morocco has 9 SPANA clinics in all, including one in Casablanca.
The clinic’s “waiting room.” The center receives 30 – 40 walk-in patients every day. Photo: SPANA
The head veterinarian, Dr. Lamrini, took time out of his busy schedule to give me an extended tour of the Marrakech facility. With a beautiful garden and tinkling fountains, the clinic is a peaceful haven for animals and people alike. The horses, donkeys, mules, and even cats and dogs housed on the premises are compassionately and thoroughly cared for.
A verdant corner in the Marrakech center.
The garden is a re-creation of SPANA’s entry in the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show in London. Conceived by award-winning landscape designer, Chris O’Donoghue, it is based on a Moroccan courtyard and symbolizes the interdependency of plants, animals and humans.
SPANA’s garden, which won second prize (a silver medal) at the 2008 Chelsea flower show, goes a long way towards making the facility a tranquil refuge in the midst a bustling city.
Two donkeys …
… and two mules convalescing.
The center’s “hospital wing” is reserved for animals undergoing treatment. Webcams have been installed throughout the property and I find myself checking in on a regular basis.
A horse enjoying some lunch while receiving treatment for a leg wound.
Feeding time in Marrakech. Photo: SPANA
Samir, a technician, tending to a patient.
Dr. Lamrini conferring with a technician in SPANA’s examination room. A medical file is kept for each animal.
The center’s padded operating room where routine surgeries are performed. There’s also a radiology facility.
The Marrakech complex has an education center where classes for children of all ages are held every day. The children are taught about animals and about nature as, in Dr. Lamrini’s words, one cannot disassociate the two – the protection of animals goes hand in hand with the protection of the environment.
Dr. Lamrini showing me one of the interactive displays about water conservation, a persistent concern in Morocco’s arid climate.
A self-explanatory display.

There’s a cat adoption center on the premises too. The stray and abandoned cats that are brought to the facility are given a medical examination, vaccinated and spayed before they are re-homed.

The same goes for stray and abandoned dogs.
Mr. Abdenbi, a technician. All the staff hired by SPANA for its initiatives is local, contributing significantly to a venture’s sustainability.
Dr. Boubkir examining a walk-in patient.
Naima, a veterinary student, examining another walk-in. SPANA provides training to veterinary students from around the world. At the end of their apprenticeship, the students are not obligated to work for SPANA. They are free to return to their communities and put into practice what they have learned. The importance of this cannot be overestimated in the developing world where veterinary schools are few and far between. Senegal, for example, has only one veterinary school. That school services not just Senegal, but a total of no less than 15 neighboring countries in western and central Africa.
Just as animal charities in New York such as the ASPCA and the Humane Society did in their early days a century ago to improve conditions for the city’s cart horses, SPANA has installed water troughs throughout Marrakech.
A happy donkey after treatment in Morocco. Photo: SPANA.
SPANA’s veterinary team in Mauritania. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis
In Bamako, Mali, from about 2:00 AM to 10:00 AM, donkeys collect garbage and bring it to various garbage dumps dispersed throughout the city. Exhausted and starving and sometimes abused, these animals often resort to eating the rusted metal, cardboard and plastic bags lying on the ground. Needless to say, their lives have been brutal. Photo: SPANA
Donkeys rummaging for food in Bamako’s garbage dumps. Photo: SPANA

Realizing that rescuing the donkeys would be ineffective as one would just be replaced with another, SPANA has striven instead, to improve the working conditions of these animals. In partnership with the local trash collecting organizations, SPANA has set up shaded areas for the donkeys to rest in at the end of their shifts and also provides them with food, water and veterinary care. The Society even exchanges bad harnesses for good ones. Has all this had an appreciable effect on the welfare of these donkeys? You bet! Before the start of this program, the average working life span of these animals was a scant 3 – 6 months. It is now 5 years.

Donkeys in Bamako receiving shade, food, water (and some affection too)! Photo: SPANA
Dr. Amadou, SPANA’s veterinary director in Mali, is holding a two-week old donkey. Despite the dangers, the Society continues to operate in countries like Mali and Syria where there are violent upheavals. Photo: SPANA
A mobile clinic in Ethiopia. SPANA widens its veterinary reach by the use of mobile clinics which cover thousands of miles every year, traveling to remote communities providing free veterinary treatment along with equipment and owner education. These clinics are often the only source of veterinary care that these animals ever receive. Photo: SPANA.
A mobile clinic in Ethiopia. This horse has been branded according to local custom. Photo: SPANA.
L. to r.: A mobile clinic in Tunisia. Photo: SPANA/Katie Cockerill.; Andy Stringer, Ph.D., SPANA’s director of veterinary programs, working in Zimbabwe. In addition to training students, the organization also trains local veterinarians thereby improving the standard of care for working animals in their communities and also extending coverage to areas where SPANA does not have clinics. Photo: SPANA.
Dr. Erick Mutizhe is a young SPANA-funded vet at work in Zimbabwe. Photo: SPANA


Many animal owners in the developing world do realize the importance of these animals to their livelihoods. What many of them don’t have, however, is an understanding of the healthcare needs of animals and the compassion that they require as sentient beings. Oftentimes, animals are feared, considered dangerous and unclean and treated with hostility. Consequently, many children are raised to value only their economic output and have little or no empathy towards the donkeys, horses, mules, oxen and sometimes even camels in their care. SPANA realizes that the key to changing this mindset is to reach the next generation. Education has been a fundamental component of SPANA’s work since its inception and today, the charity strives to instill young children with caring and nurturing attitudes towards animals in several ways.

Children getting close to a donkey in Jordan. Photo: SPANA.
A future vet at work in Jordan. Photo: SPANA
Getting some hands on experience. Photo: SPANA
Tunisian girls enjoy cuddling a rabbit. Photo SPANA

At SPANA’s centers, children are encouraged to handle small animals in a supervised and safe environment with the goal of overcoming psychological and cultural barriers and developing a greater sense of empathy. Members of SPANA staff also go out in the field, visiting over a thousand schools every year in its seven core countries, teaching children the importance of animal welfare. Another way that the charity reaches out to children is via educational buses outfitted with interactive displays.

Young animal club members in Ethiopia. Animal clubs are organized by the schoolteachers who receive training and materials from SPANA’s Education Officer. They are paid an additional wage by SPANA to run the clubs. Photo: SPANA
Animal club members with a SPANA textbook and a SPANA version of Black Beauty. The charity also creates resources such as books and CDs for children and teachers. Photo: SPANA
Animal club members in another Ethiopian school engaged in painting and drawing. Photo: SPANA/Anna Fawcus
These animal clubs have met with a good deal of success. Children now reportedly instruct their village neighbors about animal care. Photo: SPANA/Anna Fawcus
A school bus in Ethiopia. Another aspect of SPANA’s work deserves a mention here and that is its legislative efforts. Not only does it provide free veterinary care and education in Ethiopia, but SPANA is also working with other animal organizations and the Ministry of Agriculture there to enact Ethiopia’s first animal welfare law. The Directive for Animal Welfare is expected to be passed into law shortly. Photo: SPANA
Syrian children enjoying an outing on one of SPANA’s educational buses. These buses which are in Tunisia, Syria and Morocco, travel to multiple cities and remote areas too enabling children in those hard-to-reach communities to learn about animals. They are constantly on the road, logging over 400,000 miles per year! Photo: SPANA
Diana Hulme, SPANA’s Education Director, inspecting a display aboard the Syrian educational bus. Photo: SPANA
Syrian children learning about “The Amazing World of Animals” aboard the bus. Photo: SPANA
SPANA aims to educate adults as well as children. Here, some men in Mauritania receive a lesson about animal welfare. The charity’s goal is not just one of treatment, but one of preventiontoo. Photo: Tryfon Topalidis.

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