Donkeys are critical to a number of Moroccans who use the animals in their work, but many lack veterinary support and resources to care for their animals.
Rabat – The dusty car park-turned-clinic is overtaken with the sound of braying mules. Busy veterinarians move in and out of vans holding tools and medical records regarding the month’s Donkey Day.
Yassin El Qamche, a veterinarian working for the American Fondouk, squats and prys open a donkey’s jaws to get a better look at its aching molars.
“When donkeys eat a lot of grains, from being domesticated, the teeth grow disproportionately and cause pain that can prevent the donkeys from being able to eat,” El Qamche explained. “If not treated this could lead to more severe problems or starvation.”
The donkey’s owner, a “hamal” (Arabic for porter), stands nearby and oversees the operation. Like others in Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, he has been making regular visits to the makeshift animal hospital since 2015. Rose Button from New Zealand and Hajiba Dahik of Morocco organized the monthly “Donkey Day” program to give essential healthcare to the animals that play a vital role in the community’s labor force.
Hundreds of winding and uneven steps connect the alleys and streets of the northern Moroccan town built on two abreast hills. Throughout history and still today, Moulay Idriss residents rely on donkeys to carry the weight of goods or supplies and support services in areas along the pathways inaccessible by cars or other vehicles.
“I started to think about how I can support the donkey owners. I started to ask about their donkeys — what happens if one gets sick or one dies? There was nothing. Nothing available,” explained Button.
The porters, whose animals provide their livelihoods, often depend on salaries that range between MAD 40 and MAD 100 ($4 to $10) per day. Donkeys and mules can cost approximately MAD 1,000 – MAD 4,000 ($100 to $400) and owners have long relied upon bottomless beliefs and innovative ideas to heal their wounded or sick animals. If a donkey dies or is unable to work, its owner and their family may struggle to make ends meet and afford basic necessities.
Donkey Day was a solution to many of the problems faced by porters who had no place to bring injured or sick animals or could not afford proper care.
Initiating Donkey Day in Moulay Idriss Zerhoune
Button and Dahik took it upon themselves to organize and fund the resources and work necessary to better sustain the livelihoods of porters and the lives of their mules.
When Button reached out to the American Fondouk to express a need for more localized and direct support to the Moulay Idriss community, they began a significant collaboration that has offered a viable solution to caring for the hardworking animals.
The American Fondouk is a non-profit organization in Fez that offers free veterinary care to donkeys, mules, and horses in Morocco. Founded in 1929, the clinic works to safeguard the livelihoods of community members who rely on animals for work.
El Qamche, with more than seven years of veterinary experience, has been working with Button and Dahik on the Moulay Idriss initiative since its founding. “Treating the donkeys in Moulay Idriss is like treating a patient in war,” he said. “We are on the ground and do what we can with the limited resources and time that we have. It’s not the same as working in the Fez hospital but it’s very good for these animals and makes a big difference.”
Despite there being over 100 working donkeys in the small town, Moulay Idriss has no resident vet or clinic for the animals. Due to the nature of their work, El Qamche says that it is inevitable for these animals to suffer from certain problems.
He lists wounds from carrying heavy loads, respiratory problems due to poor ventilation in stables and improper use of feeding masks, and gastrointestinal issues as the most frequent complications that the visiting vets in Moulay Idriss treat.
Depending on the environment and activities relevant to local work needs, donkeys are used for a variety of reasons. In more agricultural communities, donkeys are used to plow fields or pull carts. In towns like Moulay Idriss, side bags or panniers are draped over the animal for carrying goods. The animal’s toiling often correlates with any medical issues and illnesses that it suffers from.
“Most of these problems can be treated as outpatient and from the resources we carry in our truck to Donkey Day — when it’s more severe, we transport the animals back to the Fondouk in Fez for more intensive care,” said El Qamche.
Offering sustainable solutions beyond medical care
Button explained that their initiative has gone beyond medical care in an attempt to offer solutions to the more frequent problems that vets were seeing: “What we learned when we first started doing it [organizing Donkey Days] was that the way the donkeys were treated by their owners — a lot of the care given was just based on beliefs that weren’t really helpful, so we realized there needed to be an education component.”
Fondouk routinely invites Donkey owners to Fez and offers the opportunity to learn about proper nutrition and wound care, and to better understand the equipment and treatment used to care for their donkeys.
While El Qamche values the American Fondouk and the Donkey Day initiative’s efforts to educate owners about how to keep their animals healthy and in good shape, he mentioned the underlying problems that prevent animal owners from practicing more sustainable solutions.
“We do a lot to educate the owners, but a big problem is the poverty that they face — they don’t have enough money to build proper stables and provide better food for the donkeys. Many owners are unable to let their donkeys rest when we ask them to.”
“Even though they are aware of what is best and they really want to take care of their animals, they often remind us that they can’t afford to lose work or do what is necessary for the donkey.”
Since losing work due to an injured donkey, or worse when a donkey dies, can easily cripple a person’s livelihood, the American Fondouk sometimes supports donkey owners to purchase new mules after a death or offers alternative solutions while donkeys are in their care.
Rose’s inspiration and life in Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, leading up to Donkey Day
“I first came to Morocco in Christmas of 2006 and I had it set that I wanted to set up a guest house abroad. I love traveling, so I wanted to do it. When I came to Morocco then, I felt so at home here. I love the people and culture. I came back four months later and bought a house in Fez.”
Prior to 2005, non-Muslims were not allowed to own property or even stay overnight in the holy city. Moulay Idriss, famous as the site of Moulay Idris I’s tomb, is considered the birthplace of Islam in Morocco. Named after the Islamic leader, the city’s rich religious history dates back to the 700s when Islamic leadership overran Amazigh (Berber) and Judeo-Christian heritages.
In 2007, Button became the first non-Moroccan to settle in the city. “I bought the first house I saw in Moulay Idriss,” she said. Button described the small city as “pleasant and non-touristy,” noting that she was attracted to the strong sense of community and beauty present in overlooking the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis.
After spending one year making renovations, Button opened Dar Zerhoune as a guesthouse in 2009.
Understanding that donkeys and their owners played a critical role in the community, as well as her business — often bringing guests’ luggage to the door and on call whenever needed — Button saw supporting the workers as an opportunity to better integrate herself and her work into the community. She was also able to offer her guests a deeper understanding of what it means to live in a place like Moulay Idriss.
Dar Zerhoune’s role in Donkey Days
“I wanted my business to be very community focused. I want people to understand the challenges of the community.” Button added that it was important for her to provide others with more than just a place to spend the night. She explained that she wants Dar Zerhoune to be a stepping stone for people to better understand local community and culture.
The Dar Zerhoune website reads, “EVERYTHING that you sleep on and enjoy at Dar Zerhoune has been moved in by donkey.”
Rooms in the guesthouse are adorned with informational brochures and suggestions on how to support the local initiative that brings American Fondouk vets at least 65 kilometers from their hospital location to provide care. After gaining the support of local authorities and the Moulay Idriss community, word of the clinical care began to spread to nearby villages.
Button, Dahik, and the American Fondouk now organize routine Donkey Days beyond Moulay Idriss to aid villagers in the surrounding area.
While Button and Dahik have contributed a significant amount of their own money to pay for the American Fondouk’s transportation, costs of medicine or vaccines, and veterinary care, the two have also found sponsors to back the programs. People from around the world, including guests at Dar Zerhoune, contribute with donations to keep the monthly vet visits running.
“It does cost us money, but we just see the benefits of this. There’s no way we are going to stop doing this. The vets are seeing the difference and so do the donkey owners. It’s become so integrated in who we are – there is no way we will stop it.” Impassioned, Button emphasized the immeasurable successes of Donkey Days.
Since founding Donkey Day, Button has even had porters and their animals show up at the doorstep of Dar Zerhoune to treat wounds. Although owning a guesthouse and arranging the monthly vet days has not qualified her to provide medical care, she has done her best to learn basic caregiving techniques and support the owners until the next Donkey Day rolls around.
The success of Donkey Days and a call to expand animal care across the country
El Qamche noted a recent survey that they carried out to assess the impact of their work in Moulay Idriss. “Many said they never had this kind of good treatment for their animals and that we showed them how to work with their animals in better ways. They appreciate the information we give them and the care.”
To date, veterinarians involved in Donkey Day have carried out approximately 5,000 treatments on donkeys, mules, and horses in the area.
“My belief is that if we take care of our community, our community thrives. This is something I am passionate about,” said Button. “You always have to give back to the place where you’re being.” What is more, she said, “we have so much fun with the vets who work with us. They believe in the project as much as we do.”
According to El Qamche, Button is right. The vets are not only excited about the innovative and cooperative days dedicated to supporting animals beyond the reach of veterinary care, they also want to expand the idea further.
“I hope that other places like Moulay Idriss — that authorities in other places — will help us by supporting us doing Donkey Days. We need the authorization to go. I hope the authorities will lend us a hand to take care of donkeys and mules in other places,” El Qamche said, stressing the need to reach other communities that lack access to critical animal support. He said that vaccinating and caring for these animals is beneficial to the country and its citizens.