The Working Donkeys of Egypt

Egypt’s past and future jostle against one another when traveling down the side streets of Cairo. Taxis, mopeds, and old pickup trucks share undivided roads with camels that rest under the shade of tall red brick buildings and donkeys loaded with goods or people that bump along hard packed dirt roads. When these two sides of Egypt meet, mopeds veer off onto sidewalks, trucks honk and brake, tall camels pull up their long necks and flutter their eyelashes and donkeys lower their heads, stare at the ground, and trod along in stubborn disregard to the strange machines that now live beside them.

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A boy stands in the empty lot that Brooke Hospital chose for its donkey competition.

It is a blazing hot July day in Giza and from the shade of a bent tree in an otherwise empty dirt lot, I squint at a strange scene taking place in front of me: a beauty and fitness contest for donkeys. I am in Egypt following Dr. Mohammed Abd-Elhay, a veterinarian who works at Brooke Hospital for Animals in Cairo as a community mobile clinic team leader, and today, Brooke is hosting a public event to encourage locals to care for their donkeys. Dr. Mohammed is a jovial and witty man in his early 30s who speaks perfect English down to bad puns and corny jokes and who has always had a passion for taking caring of animals. With a grin on his face, Dr. Mohammed explains to me, “Usually people who slip into vet school here in Egypt have no idea what it even is because they are just there because they missed medical or pharmacy school by a few marks, which is what they were actually aiming for. So, some veterinarians here in Egypt are quite disappointed and dislike the work… But… I was one of those rare fools who was actually aiming for veterinarian school because I really wanted to treat animals.”

And treat them he does. “The worst part of my job is when I try my best but the animal dies anyway or when I see an animal that is just so sick or injured that I have to put it down,” he says. “But the best part of working in Egypt is that I have seen everything. And I mean everything.”

I do not ask for details.

Dr. Mohammed and his co-workers arrived early at this dusty and empty lot by a main thoroughfare to set up a large tent and hang several signs announcing Brooke’s event. We are here now putting up the final touches and waiting for donkey contestants. Don’t let the empty lot fool you. This donkey competition thing is a big deal. Cash and other glittering prizes wait on the table for the winning donkeys. A camera crew and representatives from Brooke’s headquarters in Europe are even here to watch, and even from my vantage point under the tree, I can tell the donkeys are nervous. There is none of the ordinary braying or foot stamping going on and both donkeys and donkey owners all seem to be trying to show off their very best behavior.

Near the tent, Brooke Hospital’s mobile vet clinic sits waiting as patients and spectators gather to watch the proceedings, and perhaps to even bet on which donkey might be crowned the best of them all. I ask Dr. Mohammed early on if he would let me in on which donkey he thinks would win or if there are any donkey bribes going on under the table to influence the outcome, but his lips are sealed. “Don’t make an ass of me,” he warns with a smile.

As morning turns to midday and the sun rises to bake the lot as only the Egyptian sun can do, more and more Egyptians arrive with their donkeys. They gather under the tent and look at each other’s animals and exchange stories and jokes and talk about the latest gossip from their villages. The spectators gather in the shade beside me and choose their favorites. Meanwhile, Dr. Mohammed and his colleagues carefully examine each contestant with deliberate slowness, if only perhaps to increase the palpable suspense in the air.

I know little to nothing about donkeys, but even to my untrained eye, some of the animals at this competition are truly beautiful. Their coats come in all colors with some shining pure black and others speckled grey and white or spotted like a Dalmatian turned equine. The donkeys’ demeanors are interesting as well. They strike me as strangely accepting of their lot in life, whatever that may be (though perhaps, like us, they secretly dream of greener pastures). Some of the donkeys are clearly loved while others bear horrifying signs of abuse or neglect, but for the most part, all of them are silent. They look up at us all from to time as if to nod and say, “I understand, and I forgive you.”

Like many developing countries, Egypt struggles with animal abuse of all kinds. In a society marked by extremes of poverty and despair, the compassionate treatment of animals is unfortunately an often distant priority for much of the country’s population. It is in this context that veterinarians like Dr. Mohammed and organizations like Brooke Hospital work. Indeed, it is a constant struggle for Dr. Mohammed and his co-workers to maintain an optimistic outlook with all they see in any given day and given the knowledge that individually, there is very little that they can do to stem the tide of rampant animal abuse and neglect across a country of about ninety million people and 3.3 million donkeys. This animal abuse certainly extends beyond donkeys and encompasses the dogs and cats that roam Egyptian cities and that are subject to random acts of cruelty as well as government efforts to control their population through the use of poison baits and other inhumane tactics. However, even taking this into account, the abuse of donkeys stands apart because these animals are not merely strays or neglected pets but instead creatures that are actively working for people throughout and during their abuse. I see Brooke and organizations like it as working to leverage our uniquely human ability to continue at a worthwhile task even when our own individual contribution alone may never be enough to turn the tide turned and bring about widespread change. One of the key innovations of our species is that while we may know that each of us contributes very little to any particular cause, we simultaneously have the capacity to disregard our own smallness and take into account that many other people may well do the same as us. And if each of us can keep going and working at something together, tasks that once seemed insurmountable can suddenly be made possible. This is how Egypt built one of humanity’s first civilizations and it is how, since that time, humans then managed to cover the entire world. And just maybe, this will be how the daily abuse these donkeys endure just one day might end.

During the course of this competition, I watch as the donkeys line up for the vets and wait patiently under the blazing sun to submit themselves with quiet dignity to examination. Indeed, as Dr. Mohammed has explained to me, “The best ass can not be judged by mere looks alone. We have a strict checklist. All of these donkeys will be measured against a variety of tests and indicators so that we can truly determine which of these donkeys is the best of the lot.”

Outside of the competition, I see a similar quiet acceptance on the faces of the working donkeys all around me in the streets of Giza and Cairo. Whereas in one moment camels may passively stare at you with their strangely human expressions, but then yell or (as Dr. Mohammed says) act like babies the next, the donkeys seem to have long ago resigned themselves to doing humanity’s work. Some are treated with kindness while others are hit, poked, cut, and abused or scorned in ways that I can barely imagine, yet all around me, they continue to carry our goods, to transport people, and to work relentlessly in myriad ways for our needs as they have for thousands of years. This thought is particularly meaningful to me as I watch the donkeys carry goods and pull carts here in Egypt, home to one of humanity’s oldest continuous civilizations. Through the millennia, many donkeys have lived and died here, toiling for us.

But in all that time, how many donkey competitions have there been? Maybe even here in Egypt, Brooke has been the first.

“I hope many people arrive today!” Dr. Mohammed exclaims during one of his visits to my shade spot during the competition. I am sitting under the meager shade of this lone bent tree because I have been kindly asked to refrain from entering the tent while the competition is ongoing. Apparently, tourists milling around and gawking at donkeys would not look appropriate in the film crew’s documentary of this event. Dr. Mohammed is optimistic about the event but also a little anxious because the competition is being held in the middle of Ramadan. His worry is that donkey competitions in the Egyptian heat may not sound very appealing to fasting farmers even with the prize money and boasting rights at stake.

Brooke Hospital for Animals is the largest equine charity in the world. It was founded in the 1930s by a British national named Dorothy Brooke who became involved with animal welfare when her husband was stationed in Egypt with the British Cavalry. After witnessing the conditions of many equines in Egypt, she returned to the UK and began a fundraising campaign to support welfare for working animals in Egypt. Her campaign soon expanded to a formal charity offering a free veterinary clinic in Cairo. It has continued to grow ever since. Today, Brooke has operations in twelve countries with a staff of 900 and an ability to reach over 1.8 million working equines. Although Brooke most visibly provides free veterinary care for equines through its hospitals and mobile clinics, the organization aspires to produce lasting change in the communities in which it works through advocacy to promote animal welfare. It does this by educating local people, working with policy makers, strengthening communities, and training people within small economies reliant on animal labor. The organization aspires to create a network of people who will supplement and continue the work of its staff and thus continue the process of many people making many small contributions that add up to something great.

“The point of the donkey competition is not just to have a beauty contest for donkeys,” Dr. Mohammed tells me. “All the donkeys are beautiful. We are here because we are trying to show Egyptians how to take care of their animals. So many of them either mistreat their donkeys or fail to do basic things to care for them. Then they become angry when their donkeys get sick or do not work like they think they should. I saw one farmer today complaining about his donkey refusing to work for him and when I examined the donkey, I saw immediately that it was severely dehydrated and just needed to drink some water. By holding these competitions, we hope that we can give farmers a fun reason to come out and visit us. Then once they are here, we can have a chance to educate them about their animals and to examine the animals so we can treat any immediate problems or provide preventative care for the future.”

Donkeys are ubiquitous even in modern day Egypt. They can be found not just in rural areas, but in virtually every neighborhood deep in the vast Cairo metropolitan area. While I am in Egypt, I even see donkeys pulling carts down freeways surrounded by cars and trucks on all sides. “We have lots of camels too,” Dr. Mohammed tells me when I am trying to figure out the different uses for each animal, “but although they are really strong and have a ton of endurance, they are more expensive.” Plus, he tells me with a smile, “Although camels can pull carts too, we Egyptians have forgotten how to train them to do that and so now we are stuck just using the donkeys.”  

In Cairo, Brooke has five veterinarians. Their hospital is open seven days a week with emergency on call support during the night, and their mobile clinics go out into the metropolitan area every weekday. One day, I follow Dr. Mohammed about 40 kilometers south of Cairo and close to the banks of the Nile to the district of Helwan, home to most of Cairo’s brick factories. Red bricks make up almost all of the buildings in Cairo and this one place seems to be where they are all made and baked. Like a post apocalyptic scene, smokestacks stretch out to the horizon in the place where we finally park and the ground is hard packed dirt with no trees or other signs of habitation besides the endless smoke stacks. I half expect to see Mad Max careening down one of the dirt highways as we arrive.

Throughout this barren place, people with hand trucks, many of whom are just children, work alongside donkeys hauling bricks in and out of the ovens every day during ten hour shifts. These brick factories are one of the stops that Dr. Mohammed makes in the Brooke mobile clinics. Out of the 20 to 25 thousand equines that Brooke treats per year in Cairo, this site has about 1,200 donkeys and the mobile clinic can check around 100 per day.

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Smokestacks and brick factories stretch to the horizon in the Helwan district of Cairo.

Dr Mohammed and Brooke Hospital are also involved with the donkeys that work in Cairo’s struggling waste collection operations. A group of Coptic Christians known as the Zabbaleen or “garbage people” live in a district in central Cairo called the Manshiyat Naser. These people form the backbone of a vast network of informal garbage collectors who fan out across the city each day to collect the city’s garbage for recycling, reuse, or disposal. Although many of their operations now rely on trucks, the Zabbaleen traditionally relied almost exclusively on donkeys to haul away Cairo’s trash, and in the clogged narrow pathways of the city’s inner slums, donkeys still form an indispensable first chain of collection and sorting. When I visit the Zabbaleen with Dr. Mohammed, I see many donkeys eating directly out of the garbage, and Dr. Mohammed tells me that he has had to perform multiple operations to pull garbage out of them. “Oh yes, I have many many stories of the Zabaleen and their donkeys,” he tells me with a sigh and a smile.

“This is humanitarian work,” Dr. Mohammed says. “Like any humanitarian work, it can be so rewarding at times and so depressing and devastating at others. Most of the time when it is challenging, it is because I am trying to get over my feelings of frustration, anger, or depression because of the things I see. We work with the poorest people in this area and it is always a challenge to gain their respect and trust so that they will listen to us. Sometimes we suffer from low resources and there is always so much work to do and so many animals to help, not to mention the occasional cruel owners who I know are inflicting their own suffering onto their animals.”

Towards the end of the competition when the judges are adding up points on their checklists, Dr. Mohammed and the other veterinarians move out from the tent and start to concentrate on their mobile clinic where farmers have already begun to gather. Dr. Mohammed and the others peer inside donkey’s mouths, take temperatures, check hooves, and hand out medication and other supplies. Most of the farmers wait quietly and chat amongst themselves, but a boy beside the tent keeps hitting one donkey with a whip out of boredom. Dr. Mohammed yells at him to stop and turns to me shaking his head, “This is what we are trying to prevent.”

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that there are about 3.3 million donkeys in Egypt. The vast majority of these donkeys are daily working animals and they form the country’s second largest population of livestock after goats. Among other working animals, Egypt has about 67,000 horses and 110,000 camels and thus, donkeys form by far the country’s largest animal labor force. Although Egypt’s donkey population has grown continuously virtually every year for which the FAO has statistics, the population does seem to be leveling out as of the early 2000s. This probably illustrates a slowly growing reliance on vehicles instead of draft animals as the country develops in fits and starts through political turmoil.

Brutal firsthand accounts of terrible violence exacted on donkeys abound, and Dr. Mohammed also says that his work to protect their welfare is sometimes looked down upon or mocked in Egypt. However, the existence of so many working animals and their sometimes inhumane treatment is a symptom of the economic, political, and social conditions within Egypt rather than an indictment of Egyptians’ lack of empathy or compassion for their animals. Indeed, as I saw in the brick factories, Egyptians often live under similar brutal conditions themselves.

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A member of the Zabbaleen directs a donkey hauling trash through Cairo’s “garbage city”.

As Brooke’s research has documented, working animals often underpin entire economies in many developing countries and the organization finds that “the money earned by each working animal can support between five and 20 family members” in developing societies such as Egypt. Indeed, the number of tasks I see donkeys performing every day in virtually every industry I encounter in the Cairo area is astounding. In addition, given the area’s underdeveloped and frequently unpaved transportation network, I can scarcely imagine what would happen to the metropolitan area’s congestion, noise, and pollution should all those animals be replaced by vehicles.

Although the situation may change in the future should the country’s economic situation improve, today, donkeys are  a vital part of everyday life in Egypt. Because of this, Brooke’s mission is to support their welfare so that they can continue to provide the economic benefits that are sustaining life for many people in the country. At the same time, however, Brooke does try to provide alternatives to donkeys. For example, Dr. Mohammed says that the brick kiln factories outside of Cairo used to almost exclusively rely on donkeys for hard labor, but that partially through the advocacy of his organization, about half of the animal labor has now been replaced by tractors.

Back at the donkey competition, I can not imagine what it would be like to sit here, in this empty lot, with all these donkeys, and under this sun, all day long without water or food because of Ramadan, but that is exactly what Dr. Mohammed, the other doctors, the donkey owners, and the fairly sizeable crowd of spectators have all been doing (although I will note that a group of teenagers by the lot’s boundary fence have been passing a bottle of water around like American teenagers with beer at a high school football game, but they are being politely ignored). Dr. Mohammed is grinning from ear to ear by the end of the day, and he’s got his rubber gloves on, so I know he means business. Elbow deep in an ass, he pauses suddenly and looks at me with a smile because there is a great whoop of cheering coming from the tent. A donkey has won. Spectators near me either sigh in exasperation or laugh while nodding “I told you so,” to their friends. The only condolence to the others may be that the loser donkeys do not seem to care either way. At this point, they are surrounding a big pile of hay (apparently sitting out this year’s Ramadan) and enjoying their day off. And indeed, despite the sun and the challenges and the poverty and all the donkeys yet to treat, Dr. Mohammed turns to me after the cheers with his usual grin and exclaims, “This has been a good day!”

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A Brooke mobile veterinary clinic at the donkey competition.

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A donkey garbage cart sits in front of Brooke Veterinary Hospital in Cairo.

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