Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Welfare of Working Donkeys in Mali

by Amy McLean,
Dr. Camie Heleski,
Dr. Mel Yokoyama,
Michigan State University, Department of Animal Science, East Lansing, Mich.

This past summer I had a very unique opportunity to travel to Mali (West Africa) with my two professors from Michigan State, Dr. Camie Heleski and Dr. Mel Yokoyama, to conduct research on methods to improve the conditions and longevity of working donkeys. Mali is one of the most resource-poor countries in the world, and the lives of many Malians rely solely on the work of the donkey. Donkeys in Mali are still used as beast of burdens. You will see donkeys carrying everything from garbage, water, construction supplies, people and agriculture commodities to and from the market. The donkey is their main source of transportation, similar to the tractor-trailer in our own country. Unfortunately, very little research, time, money, or concern is directed towards the well being of the donkey with the exception of a charity that provides free veterinary care to these animals called SPANA (the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad).

One of the major problems with donkeys in Mali is poor harnessing and driving techniques. The donkeys may be subjected to carrying loads up to five times their weight and often receive little food and water, but the harness seems to be the main problem. The harness is often made of abrasive materials and rubs them raw on their withers and shoulders. Also, the donkeys are often guided with a stick, which then becomes overused and causes severe lacerations on the donkey’s rib cage, croup and rump. SPANA spends much of their time doctoring lesions caused from the poor harness and overuse of the stick.

The objective of the trip was to assist SPANA in their goal of treating donkeys by exploring alternative/proactive methods that may improve the longevity of working donkeys in Mali by exploring the effects of good and bad harnesses, training methods and provide outreach courses on donkey management among paraprofessionals. One study we conducted focused on using a donkey motivator (a stick with a plastic bag tied to the end) to encourage the donkey to move forward or away from the pressure (right or left) as an alternative to beating the donkey with the stick. We measured the donkey’s heart rate while driving the donkey with the donkey motivator and without the motivator and just a halter. We found that a lot of donkey drivers would use a combination of both a stick and a halter.

We also tested the difference in pressure with a good harness, bad harness, with a load and without a load and with a poorly designed cart by using pressure film. The bad harness was a harness whose padding was made of abrasive material and the bad cart was a front heavy cart. The study’s preliminary findings suggest that a bad harness with a load and a bad harness and cart may increase the heart rate of the donkey as well as increase the pressure on the donkey’s withers.

Donkey motivators were handed out to the drivers who used sticks during this study. Also, each driver was shown the pressure film after they completed the test time. The pressure film was placed under the pad on the withers of the donkey and when pressure was applied the film would turn pink. The use of the pressure film served as a good visual aid in sharing the importance of good harness with the drivers. The information was also shared with the donkey owners.

In the city of Bamako, an individual typically owned the donkeys and then the individual would hire drivers. So, it was important to share such information about good harness and driving techniques with both the owner of the donkeys as well as the person driving the donkey on a daily basis.

We were also interested in helping SPANA educate students at technical schools and colleges about donkey management. We felt that reaching these students who will one day work in some capacity of agriculture in Mali, really needed to know more about how to properly care for, harness, and train a donkey to drive. Prior to our trip, we had prepared a basic husbandry manual and had it translated to French to give to the students as a guide on donkey management.

During our 17 days in Mali, we conducted two educational workshops for veterinary technician students and agricultural students. In total, 70 students attended these workshops. We tested each group of students on basic donkey management, and then taught a course on donkey management and husbandry including hands on demonstration with a donkey. After the seminar and donkey demonstration we retested the students to evaluate if they had increased their knowledge after participating in the donkey management course. In both cases the test scores increased after attending the donkey management workshop. Many of the students had very intriguing questions about donkeys. I think they truly enjoyed learning more about them. Hopefully, these paraprofessionals will be interacting with donkey owners in the future and will continue to pass along this information.

It’s amazing how often studies in equine and equitation science only focus on the magnificent, athletic horses used in high level competitive equestrian sports…and forget that an estimated 80% of the equids in the world are actually used for work in (primarily) developing parts of the world. The focus of our research used minimal inputs and hopefully had an impact on the donkey owners/drivers and paraprofessionals. The big picture many folks miss is when the welfare of working equids can be enhanced, they can work harder and stay healthy for longer; this in turn helps the well-being of the families they assist. If you would like to learn more about how to contribute to helping donkeys, mules or horses in developing countries go to

There were many people involved with making this research possible. Dr. David Pugh of Fort Dodge Animal Health donated 200 doses of vaccines for the donkeys of Mali and 400 doses of Quest wormer. CrossRoads’ Donkey Rescue, Clare, Mich., this past April conducted a pilot study on training donkeys to drive with and without a donkey motivator. CrossRoad’s is offering a nice selection of standard donkeys for adoption and many are now started to drive, check out their website for more information: Also, this research could not have been conducted without the help and support of SPANA and Dr. Amadou Doumbia and his team in Bamako, Mali. We hope this research will help enhance the lives of the donkeys in Mali and provide proactive treatments so SPANA can treat less lesions caused from bad harness and poor driving methods. For more information on how to improve the lives of working donkeys, mules and hinnies around the world check out their website at Thank you to those who supported this program as well as Dr. Tex Taylor of Bryan, Texas, for teaching me one Sunday afternoon a crash course in donkey ground work!

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