This melancholy adage describes a truth many citizens in developing countries confront daily. Horses, donkeys, and mules are an economic lifeline for families. It’s believed 90 per cent of the world’s estimated 100 million equines are working animals, toiling under packs or saddles or behind carts, carrying goods and people, contributing to the livelihoods of individuals and communities. These beasts of burden are often victims of ill-fitting tack, inadequate health care, poor or limited feed, and harsh conditions.

Yet many aren’t willfully neglected or abused by their owners. “The problem can be two-fold. One is the lack of knowledge. They just do things the way they were done by their forefathers. And then sometimes there’s a lack of funds,” explains Dr. David Paton, owner of Paton Martin Veterinary Services in Aldergrove, BC, who recently travelled to Costa Rica and Ethiopia on separate equine outreach projects. “The poor animals. They’re not intentionally mistreated, they just kind of suffer along.”

At 27, Dr. Jocelyn Wichtel, manager of clinical skills at the Ontario Veterinary College, is in the budding stages of her career, yet already has relief work under her belt. She and a few colleagues spent time last fall in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country with only one private veterinary clinic and precious few animal care resources.

Compared to North America, animals here are seen in a “very different light,” says Wichtel, admitting, “Some of the customs were hard to accept when I first learned of them.”

Although clinically treating animals is an important element of outreach trips, Paton and Wichtel both stress the main objective is providing education and hands-on training to owners and local veterinarians. “If we can demonstrate to them the value of the welfare and longevity and the serviceability of the animal, it may well become more of a priority to properly care for the animal, says Paton. “They’ll get a financial return, because the animal will function longer, better. Sometimes there’s the funds, but not the knowledge. If you can give them the knowledge, then the funds might be there.”

“It Doesn’t Take Much”

Paton, an active horseman who enjoys the sport of cutting, has travelled extensively in his 40-year veterinary career through government consulting, participation in equestrian associations and as an FEI-accredited veterinarian. His love of travelling, combined with a desire to make life better for animals, has taken him to developing countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union.

In January 2016, he attended an annual training workshop in Costa Rica held by the Equitarian Initiative. This US-based non-profit group, affiliated with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, prepares volunteers and veterinarians to provide equine health care along with education and leadership in poorer nations.

The first two days consisted of sessions on the realities of working in developing countries. Then the group of 30 veterinarians, vet technicians, vet students and interns, animal-health specialists, a farrier, a saddle fitter, and their interpreters journeyed to four remote jungle areas identified as high equine population centres. With no animal health care services, all equipment, medications, and other supplies had to be shipped with them.

Animals received physical exams and vaccinations and were treated for ticks and worms. If necessary, the horses were then triaged to stations for farriery, dental work, castration, and saddle/harness fitting. About 100 animals were seen daily. “It kind of took me back to the days of doing a lot of field surgery,” says Paton.

One of the Equitarian Initiative’s objectives is to encourage participants to develop their own projects in other locales. In March 2017, Paton found himself in Ethiopia where he and friend, fellow BC veterinarian Dr. Alex Wales, provided outreach to some of the country’s more than 6,000,000 donkeys (the highest number in the world). They were invited by a connection of Paton’s – Irish show jumper Jennifer Crooks, whose family had just founded an orphanage, Uraydi’s Village, in the south-central town of Sodo.

As in Costa Rica, painful skin conditions and sores, mainly from poorly-fitting tack, are a top concern in Ethiopia. Paton and Wales were joined by a harness maker provided by the British charity The Donkey Sanctuary. He advised owners on proper tack fit and how to make comfortable, practical packs and straps from local materials. “It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of expensive stuff to make the animal’s life better,” says Paton.

One of the trip’s main focuses was teaching 14 keen students from the local veterinary school about basic donkey health care. With few people able to afford veterinary services, treating individual animals isn’t a veterinary priority. Instead, education and practice is geared toward government regulatory veterinary medicine versus practical clinical care, explains Paton.

“None of the students had given intravenous injections to a donkey. We saw one [student], who, after several years of vet school, didn’t know how to put a stethoscope on properly,” recalls Paton. He hopes the students recognized the value in what they learned and will continue pursuing humanitarian work.

Embrace the Culture

When Jocelyn Wichtel’s co-worker mentioned she had a connection in Papua New Guinea who was concerned about the country’s lack of veterinary presence and some animal welfare and husbandry issues, the young veterinarian was all in to help organize and fund a relief trip. This type of selfless work is ingrained in Jocelyn, as her parents are both vets with their own long-term projects in Haiti and Kenya.

A year later, Wichtel, along with three other Ontario-based large and small animal veterinarians – group leader Dr. Carol Sanio, Dr. Helena Dean, Dr. Justine Rudniski and pre-vet student Christina Jobson – landed in PNG. Most of the diverse tribal-based population in the rugged, tropical island country north of Australia lives in rural areas, relying on subsistence agriculture.

Even though the team undertook routine veterinary procedures, the emphasis was on teaching and sharing knowledge to provide “a platform for sustainable improvements in animal welfare and productivity in contrast to other programs that provide only free medical care,” explains Wichtel. They consulted with local veterinarians, farmers, and villagers to identify particular issues and provided sessions, workshops, and presentations on basic herd health and managing common diseases for a wide range of animals, including horses.

Overall, the horses were in reasonably good health, notes Wichtel. Skin conditions and tropical parasites were the most prevalent concerns. She was, however, “shocked” to learn most of the country can’t access barbiturates for humane euthanasia.

“I heard all sorts of theories on how ‘humane’ euthanasia should be performed, from slashing with knifes to bullets to beating an animal or overdosing a pet with human anti-malarial medication.”

With this in mind, the group spent much time discussing quality of life for animals, pain perception, and euthanasia options. “Things we just take for granted in North America,” says Wichtel. Despite encountering different attitudes toward animals and their welfare, she stresses it was critical to “be open-minded, non-judgmental, and to embrace the culture.”

As the youngest veterinarian on the team, Wichtel pushed herself out of her comfort zone many times and credits her more experienced colleagues for their guidance. She expanded her clinical and problem-solving skills while working under “less-than-ideal circumstances.”

A Drop in the Bucket

However, both she and Paton express a sense that the work was a drop in the bucket.

“You wonder if, in the big picture, it’s been all that helpful,” says Paton. “You help one animal and think that’s worth it – and it is – but we worked on a couple of hundred of the six million donkeys in Ethiopia. So you come away feeling really good about the few you helped, but man, there’s a lot that need help.”

Wichtel says, “It felt overwhelming or oppressive at times, like our efforts had very little overall influence on such a huge problem. It did emphasize to me the importance of making this a multi-year project.” She plans to return to PNG within the next couple of years.

Paton, too, hopes to “evolve the work we’ve done in Ethiopia” with an end goal of engaging the community on donkey health and welfare to the point that future outreach can take place elsewhere