Earlier this year I visited The Donkey Sanctuary’s team based in New Delhi, India. My only experience of working donkeys before my trip had been seeing traditional beach donkey rides in the UK, so I was particularly keen to see the work that the charity does to help India’s hard-working animals and their owners.
The Delhi team spend a lot of time during brick-kiln season (which runs from October until July, when the monsoon rains start) working with the owners of donkeys and mules transporting bricks to be fired at the kiln. There are around 500 brick kilns in the Badli region, south west of Delhi, each with around 50-60 families working at them with 2-3 donkeys or mules each, so the team have their work cut out to keep an eye on their welfare.
At the brick kilns we visited, the team told me it is not uncommon for donkeys to be carrying as much as 23 stone (150kg) of bricks at a time. Their owners are paid 70 rupees (around £1) for an entire day’s work, and would have to carry the bricks themselves if they did not have donkeys and mules to help.
Being a bit naive of the relationship between working animals and their owners, I expected the owners to be unfeeling, pushing their animals to the limit and having no remorse. Thankfully, I was wrong about this and the more we spoke to owners and observed their interaction with the animals, the more my assumptions were proven inaccurate.
We watched a young brother and sister loading a small donkey with bricks and walking with it to the firing kiln. When they got there, we asked them what the donkey was called. They just looked at us blankly, before explaining to the team that although the donkey was their companion, it was also a working animal and therefore did not have a name.
However during the visit the donkey owners discussed potential names for the donkey and decided to name it ‘Manu’, an affectionate generic name often given to children which means something like ‘little one’. This was the first of several instances that really brought it home to me that yes, in India, donkeys are often working animals, but they are still loved. Manu’s work carrying bricks was of great help to this brother and sister and their family financially -helping them to earn a living that they simply would not be able to manage without him – but it was also clear to me that in the same way that pets in the UK are seen as part of the family, Manu was just as much a relative as a colleague.
Hot and tired though I was after a long day in dusty brick kilns in scorching 40°C heat, I felt really proud to be part of an organisation that helps animals that not only support families around the world, but are also very much part of the family.