Daily welfare struggle of Mexico’s working equines laid bare

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A donkey charged with collecting water in Xochimilco village, Mexico.
A donkey charged with collecting water in Xochimilco village, Mexico. © The Donkey Sanctuary

The working conditions and health issues faced by working equines in three Mexican states are under the spotlight of an international animal welfare charity.

Research by The Donkey Sanctuary and Britain’s University of Portsmouth showed that working donkeys, mules and horses play a crucial role in supporting rural and impoverished communities across Mexico where they are often a family’s key source of income.

Mexico is classified by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income country and has an estimated 12.9 million working equids. These working animals are key to farming and rural livelihoods and are often working in the less prosperous regions of the country.

There is a heavy reliance on non-commercial, family farming and in the hills of central Mexico, 90% of households rely on draught animals for agricultural production and more than 50% of rural households keep a donkey.

The study on working equines in the rural, lower and middle-income communities in the states of Puebla, Queretaro and Veracruz has been published in the Equine Veterinary Journal. It found that more than 100 of the 120 equids assessed presented some type of skin alteration, comprising open wounds, scarring and swellings. Others showed visual signs of lameness and overgrown or cracked hooves.

The animals were often labouring in harsh and challenging climates to provide a crucial, stable income for their owners. Donkeys had poorer welfare than horses, and equids used for packing had poorer welfare than those used for riding and agroforestry.

More than 60% of the equids assessed were used as riding or pack animals, while a small proportion were involved with agroforestry, which combines farming and forestry.

Overall, the equids were found to suffer from welfare problems associated with the local economic and climatic conditions. Mules worked the longest hours and the most days compared to other equids – up to nine hours per day and sometimes seven days a week. Most of those assessed had limited access to shade or water during work periods in both dry and humid conditions.

UN Climate Change Conference will hear how working equines play an essential role in building resilience to climate change in lower to middle-income countries and provide critical support after disasters.
A mule at work grinding piñas during the production of mezcal. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Welfare varied by region and community. Poorer overall body condition was found in equines working in Puebla, for example, in comparison to Quertetaro and Veracruz, with little difference between welfare in the latter two states.

Across the study, donkeys tended to be used mostly for domestic tasks helping women and less frequently for income generation. This seems to reduce their value compared to mules and horses, which may in turn result in lower levels of care for donkeys.

Dr Faith Burden, the charity’s Executive Director of Equine Operations, and one of the authors of the study, said the research helped the team to understand the welfare problems faced by working equids in this part of the world. “Results such as those gathered in this study help us to identify some of the equid-care practices within local communities, so that we can deliver education to change human attitudes and behaviours to improve equid welfare.”

Donkeys carrying water panniers in Mexico. Yet, during the work period studied by the team more than half of the equids had no access to water.
Donkeys carrying water panniers in Mexico. Yet, during the work period studied by the team more than half of the equids had no access to water. © The Donkey Sanctuary

She said it was important that donkey owners can spot signs of injury, fatigue and other problems to ensure their animals’ welfare needs are met, so they can continue to work. Reasons for poor welfare may be linked to community animal care, knowledge and practice as well as socio-economic constraints and climatic factors.

“Overall the study has highlighted that Puebla, in particular, could benefit from targeted welfare improvement interventions.”

The study team comprised Burdon and Zoe Raw, from The Donkey Sanctuary, Emily Haddy and Leanne Proops from the University of Portsmouth, and Omar Prado-Ortiz and Humberto Zappi from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It was funded by an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership bursary awarded to Haddy and a Donkey Sanctuary research grant for overseas fieldwork awarded to Haddy and Proops.

Comparison of working equid welfare across three regions of Mexico.  Equine Veterinary Journal, (Sept 2020). Emily Haddy, Faith Burden, Omar Prado-Ortiz, Humberto Zappi, Zoe Raw, Leanne Proops.
https://doi.org/10.1111/evj.13349

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