BISHOFTU, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Ethiopian farmer Fekadu Asfaw stood defiantly before an angry veterinarian, having just beaten his four severely malnourished donkeys.
“They are donkeys, aren’t they? They have to be beaten to perform commands,” Fekadu said.
Visibly furious, veterinarian Fissiha Gebre-ab turned to other farmers and their beasts of burden nearby with a harsh admonition: “Don’t you know the saying that a farmer without a donkey is a donkey, because he has to carry the burden himself?”
He continued: “You should treat them humanely. Do not beat them and overburden them. You should also feed them properly if they have to serve you for a long time.”
In a region where donkeys are essential to farmers’ livelihoods — richer countries might compare them in worth and durability to the family car — his words carry much weight.
Fissiha treats plenty of donkeys in bedraggled and pitiable condition at his clinic 50 km (30 miles) east of Addis Ababa, in what the founders say is one of only two in Africa — a centre for improving the health and welfare of donkeys.
Hundreds of donkeys suffering from open back sores, broken hooves, malnutrition and disease come every week through the clinic, which has operating theatres, recovery rooms and a laboratory.
Located inside the University of Addis Ababa’s veterinary school in Bishoftu, the Donkey Health and Welfare Project treats the animals for free and gives the farmers who bring them stern advice on how they should care for the beasts.
“Ethiopian donkeys have been abused for centuries due to ignorance, despite their valuable services in time of peace and war,” Fissiha told Reuters.
As a result, Ethiopian donkeys live an average of 9 years, while donkeys in Kenya and Mexico live an average of 14 years, according to the Web site of the U.K.-based Donkey Sanctuary charity, which founded the Ethiopian clinic in 1999.
By comparison, Fissiha said British donkeys — which typically do not face hard farm labor — live well over 30 years.
The clinic, supplemented by two mobile clinics, teaches farmers how to shoe the donkeys and also trains veterinarians on proper treatment so they can practice it countrywide.
Since many Ethiopians live at a subsistence farming level, the donkey is a critical part of their life and their main mode of transporting crops to market.
“The death of a donkey for the family is equivalent to the replacement of the family car,” the Donkey Sanctuary’s Web site says of Ethiopian donkeys.
In the capital’s grain market, some 3,000 donkeys visit daily. Encountering a caravan of donkeys carrying goods across Addis Ababa — and blocking traffic in the city of 5 million — is a daily occurrence.
The Society for Protection of Animals Abroad, another British charity, also funds a separate clinic for horses and mules which operates alongside the donkey facility.
Horses, donkeys and mules, which are the best choice for farming in the country’s mountainous and rugged terrain, have all played critical roles in Ethiopia’s military history.
Emperor Menelik II used them all to transport provisions and military equipment during his 1884 Battle of Adwa to defeat Italy’s better-equipped army.
And the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front — now the ruling party — used them to move its military hardware through northern Ethiopia’s mountains against the highly mechanized army of Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam until they overthrew him in 1991.