I had dozed off in the middle of an evening news program and woke up to find it was still on and watched part of a report on a growing number of neglected and suffering donkeys that had been rescued and were being cared for in sanctuaries set up by animal welfare groups (such as the ones in UK and New Zealand). It would appear there are hundreds of thousands of donkeys and mules throughout the world, abandoned by their rural owners because they are no longer useful in areas undergoing modernization.
These animals have lived side by side with human beings for thousands of years, engaging in agricultural work or transporting heavy loads to ease the burden of their keepers. Although economic development has been slow to reach villages in developing countries, even remote rural areas are now experiencing the gradual introduction of new technology, such as tractors and motorized vehicles. Apparently, this slow wave of mechanization is making more donkeys redundant. Many are also reported to be in poor health after years of neglect and the harsh exigency of being made to carry heavy loads, putting them at high risk of being abandoned, as their owners are unable to provide them with proper care. I find it sad to see them end their lives this way after years of hard work.
This news story brought back a memory of more than 25 years earlier concerning donkeys. A few years before, I had joined UN’s specialized agency in Geneva handling labor matters and had just transferred to a branch responsible for population and employment issues. One day the secretariat of the Director General (DG) forwarded a letter it had received to someone more senior than I was who was working on rural employment issues, asking him to draft a response on behalf of the DG.
The letter, from a group engaged in the protection of working donkeys, stated that the health of millions of donkeys throughout the world was deteriorating because they were subjected to harsh working conditions without adequate food and rest. It said that since the livelihood of millions of rural people depended on the work of these animals, maintaining them in healthy conditions was of the utmost importance for those concerned. It concluded by asking for a financial contribution from our organization so that it could conduct research on the reality of working donkeys.
I do not know how the official drafted the reply, but it must have been a negative response, given the fact that our organization had never been a funding agency. Additionally, he would probably have confirmed the mandate of our organization, which was to promote social justice in the human world of work, not covering working animals. He would have feared that once we made even a tiny contribution to such a group, there would soon be similar requests from those who were concerned with other working animals (like elephants, horses, bulls, etc.) and there would be no end to it.
Before sitting down to draft the reply, I do recall him uttering mischievously that there were enough “asses” to worry about in our own house, and that our limited funds would not go far enough to reach donkeys out there. I did not know what he meant by “asses” or what people he was referring to. As there were too many working human beings requiring protection under international labor standards, it was understandable that the organization had to concentrate on their issues.
Still, almost all of us become both workers and employers at different stages in life. If we expect justice and compassion as workers, we should also be humane and kind to others, and this includes working animals, especially if they have worked faithfully in making our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. Those who have benefited from the work and contribution of such animals should at least have a bigger heart and see to it that they have a decent end.