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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.