Blog/ The Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia


Everything starts with behaviour

Everything starts with behaviour

So often when I work with behaviour it is such a brief connection in the life of an animal or person and then I hear no more. It might be an email enquiry about a kicking donkey from the USA, a phone call about a nervous donkey in France, advice to a member of The Donkey Sanctuary welfare team or a visit to one of our farms to help with a problem, or may be spending time with a participant on a behaviour course

who has a problem with their donkey. I always presume no news is good news, but I often don’t know how things turned out or if I made a difference.

To utilise a well worn phrase, it feels like I am always planting seeds, but seldom have chance to nurture them or see them grow.

Planting a seed was exactly what it felt like I had done with the behaviour training in Kenya and Ethiopia, so I was excited to learn what the harness teams have been doing with this seedling since the training in 2011 and 2012. However, I also wanted to make sure that I knew what the teams needed from me during the training and asking them what problems they have, what they needed to learn, and the questions they wanted answered so I could make sure I could use my limited time with them most efficiently. So finding out what the teams had been doing would agonisingly have to wait until Tuesday morning.

“Where were you 4 years ago?” was my first question of Tuesday morning. “What were you doing before we did the training?" The curse of knowledge means that it is very difficult to remember what it was like before your learnt something and how you behaved before you gained a new skill or attitude. The different groups, however, described working without knowing about the behaviour of donkeys, stories of having to physically restrain almost every donkey and misunderstanding the intent of donkeys' behaviour were bravely and honestly laid on the table. The content of the teams' training to schools, vets and communities was about restraint, control and direct treatment. Don’t get me wrong, they cared for the donkeys back then but there was something missing in the understanding of donkeys and mules.

“Ok, so where are you now?”. Well it was like opening flood gate. The tiny seed had well and truly grown into a forest and I have to confess to not only being speechless but also to welling up with emotion and being truly proud of the work of these amazing people.

The responses from the groups included comments like “we include behaviour in everything we do”, “we teach behaviour to schools, vets, animal health students, and communities” and “everything starts with behaviour”.

What seems to have happened is that the understanding of the reasons donkeys behave the way they do has meant that everyone is starting to relate to the donkey in a more empathetic way. The connection with donkeys is growing, through this understanding that donkeys have reasons for what they do and are not the aggressive stubborn creatures they were once considered.

One group reported renaming a training course they ran for the State veterinarians from restraint to behaviour and communication, and changing the content to reflect the new understanding of the donkeys’ behaviour. The result is that now the vets aren’t afraid of donkeys and are willing to treat them, where previously they avoided them, so more donkeys have access to veterinary care.

Another project in a college is running a course on donkeys, as part of their curriculum for up to 600 animal health students and the course starts with understanding behaviour. Before the course the way to restrain donkeys was either to tie them to a tree or to knock them on to their side and treat them lying down and yet this team had now managed to convince all concerned that gentle handling, using a head collar and understanding the donkey's behaviour, was more effective and the old methods were disappearing. Of course they met resistance from older more set in their way professionals but the team persevered and the students love the new way to work with donkeys.

There were individual stories like the man who was known locally as donkey biter, because of his habit of jumping off his cart, if the donkey was not going fast enough, and biting the donkey’s ear. The work of the teams in his community meant he had stopped biting his donkey and now not only did he treat his donkeys well, but he had become an advocate of correct handling and training, helping to train others in the community. These were just a few examples of the work that had been done over the last few years.

The enthusiasm with which everyone had embraced behaviour was inspirational. Have all the problems been solved everywhere? No of course not, but the combination of harnessing and behaviour, community work is making more of a difference than I had ever imagined. Changes are happening. These teams feel they are making a difference and the opportunity to stop and share some successes has been very empowering for us all.

Much like the shoes sales men from part one I feel inspired to know the locals don’t yet know about behaviour but when they do change begins to happen. Of course the real changers of behaviour, the catalysts for change, are the donkeys themselves because every time they are brave enough to change their behaviour, to overcome their fears and respond to the approaches of the teams across the world, they sell the process and benefits of understanding behaviour to everyone who sees it. In a strange way the donkeys are helping themselves and all the other donkeys.

We often do know the effects of the seeds we plant on a daily basis in other people’s lives, some good and perhaps sometimes bad. Because of that perhaps we should all be more responsible for the seeds of truth and knowledge we scatter around us. When it comes to working with behaviour I have learnt from the parable of the birds from the bible.

A farmer is sowing seeds for a new crop, some will fall on stony infertile ground and will not grow, for me these are the people who are most resistant to change and cling to beliefs of stubborn aggressive donkeys. The farmer continues to sow, but the birds come and peck up the seed so it does not grow. For me the birds are the people who criticise other peoples’ attempts to learn and grow, the people who shout loudest and are most negative and cause the dreams and aspirations of other to wilt and die. But as the farmer continues to sow some seed falls on fertile soil and begins to grow but the weather is dry and there is no water so the seedlings die. For me these are the people who start trying to learn but because of other pressures, perceived and real neglect to nurture their new knowledge about behaviour and so they revert to their old ways.

Finally, the farmer sows enough seed that some falls on fertile soil and is nurtured and grows into a magnificent crop. The Donkey Sanctuary has been sowing seeds for more than 40 years and it is always hard to accept that some seed falls on hard ground, the birds get some and some dies, but all that disappointment is worth it when you see some of the amazing differences that are made in the lives of donkeys and mules when the seeds fall on fertile soil and are nurtured and cared for by the amazing people who work for The Donkey Sanctuary both here in the UK and all around the word.

What did I learn from my trip? Lots of things, but most importantly just to keep sowing seeds because we can make a difference when we share the load.

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