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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sanctuary for Asses, Ethiopia's Backbone

The Mercury -- Debre Zeit: In a country where only half the population can afford or find medical treatment, a hi-tech donkey clinic with its own ambulance service may seem excessive.

But not to the Ethiopian farmers who rely on these sure-footed, stoic beasts of burden.

"My donkey is my life," says 51-year-old farmer Lema Raya.

"Without him my family cannot eat or drink. He carries our water and food - he is our provider, our car and our friend."

Lema has brought his donkey to the Donkey Sanctuary, one of a handful of hospitals in the world exclusively for donkeys and the only place in Ethiopia where donkeys can get specialised treatment.

Treatment and advice are free and the immaculate 11-year-old hospital's annual $60 000 (R379 200) budget is funded by its British-based namesake, which also runs or funds donkey hospitals in India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain and England.

The need is enormous in desperately poor Ethiopia, which has the second largest donkey population in the world.

About five million of them pick their way through the rocky, barren highlands bearing their heavy loads, according to Feseha Gebreab, Ethiopia's foremost expert on the animal.

Only China, with 12 million donkeys, has more, Feseha says.

Donkeys provide the transport that brings food and water to millions in the remotest parts of Ethiopia, where roads and communications do not exist. "Despite its importance this is an animal with a very poor image," says Feseha, who is a former dean of Ethiopia's veterinary school and now is a consultant to the sanctuary at Debre Zeit, 60km east of the capital, Addis Ababa.

While farmers like Lema extol their donkeys, they also overwork them, Feseha says.

The Ethiopian population has almost doubled from 40 million 20 years ago to 71 million today, increasing the burden on donkeys.

Exceptionally hardy, the donkey's staggering pain threshold often means it will struggle on no matter how much work it is given or how badly it is treated.

Feseha says that the result is reflected in life expectancy: just nine hard years for a donkey here, compared to around 35 years in Europe or the US.

The sanctuary's staff of 14 treats more than 1 000 donkeys a month, for parasites, crippling saddle sores and hyena bites.

Debre Zeit clinic

www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk

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