Chief Executive Geoffrey Dennis reflects on his first trip on behalf of SPANA and the importance of working animals to the poorest communities.
Driving along the dusty roads of Bamako, Mali, the great mass of the capital’s rubbish dumps loomed above the low, corrugated metal roofs of the surrounding shacks. I could make out the shapes of men, women and children scrambling across the piles of refuse, leading their little donkeys as they collected scrap. This community depends on their resilient little donkeys to help them eke a living, making barely enough to support themselves and their families. Existence is difficult for both owner and animal alike. This was my first trip as Chief Executive of SPANA and an introduction to the life-changing work that SPANA does.
My career in international development has taken me all over the world, working in some of the most challenging and often unstable places in an effort to improve the lives of communities. This wasn’t the first time seeing the tough working conditions in the developing world but it certainly helped to reinforce a belief I’ve long held: that the wealth and wellbeing of working animals is vital not just for the animals themselves, but for the communities they support.
From Ethiopia to Myanmar, donkeys, mules, horses, camels and elephants pull heavy loads, transport food and water, carry children to school, and help farmers till their soil. They are the powerhouses of the local economies – the silent drivers of global production chains that we in the West directly benefit from. Too often, these animals suffer needlessly, not from intentional abuse but from lack of access to veterinary care, food, and welfare education for their owners. So many of the injuries and illnesses that our team sees are easily preventable. But for owners struggling to feed their families, working animals can often seem a lower priority.
I firmly believe that the international community must put the working animal at the heart of development and emergency response. Without animals, communities might survive a natural disaster or war but will have very little to turn back to once the conflict has ended. It’s so important that we recognise that the welfare of the working animal is central to sustainable development.
Communities that can support themselves are stronger and wealthier, which in turn allows them to take even better care of their working animals. Encouraging people to make the connection between the wellbeing of their working animal and the wellbeing of their communities, families, and themselves is absolutely critical. With more than one billion people relying on 200 million working animals around the world, better care for animals means better economic stability and a reduction in urban drift and international migration.
While it was incredibly difficult to see donkeys struggling under heavy loads in searing heat, battling exhaustion and sickness, I had to remind myself that without our presence, there would be no hope of improvement. I am delighted to be carrying on the great work done during Jeremy Hulme’s 28 years in post. SPANA’s decades of support in countries all over the world means that we are an established organisation that has earned the trust of working animal owners. We are changing the way that people see working animals – not as machines but as sentient creatures to be cared for and valued. It is imperative, not only for the future of animal welfare but for the future of vulnerable communities the world over.