Morocco may depend on its beasts of burden but their treatment often borders on cruel. MARK EVELEIGH meets the people aiming to change that.
“You’ve seen the battered pick-ups and taxis puttering around the old town? With their mirrors tied on with bits of old wire and their windows sheeted with plastic?” Dr Denys Frappier was asking. “Well, there – metaphorically speaking – go the donkeys of the medina.”
Frappier has spent a decade working to keep the clapped-out wheels of Moroccan inner-city commerce running at full ‘horse-power’. The experience has left him with a quirky way of looking at things. There are 4000 horses, mules and donkeys working in the labyrinth of alleyways that make up Old Fez and the souks still echo with warning cries of muleteers. You learn quickly to flatten yourself against the wall as a donkey-train scythes through the crowd, loaded with fresh skins for the tanneries. Ageing packhorses take the place of removal lorries here, and even the Coca-Cola warehouse makes its deliveries with a fleet of tired mules.
Known here as ‘Medina Mercedes’, these animals work in conditions that have not changed since the time of Mohammed. In a rare concession to progress, however, the medina muleteers have recently taken to shoeing their charges with the recycled car tyres that help to give them extra grip on the slippery cobbles. Horses are crucial to the functioning of a community in which motor vehicles are impractical.
The most brutal treatment of a working animal I’ve ever witnessed took place just outside the medina entrance at Bab el Guissa. The horse was so emaciated that its ribs were almost cutting through its skin. Its knees were buckling under the weight of a heap of boxes that rose to twice the height of the animal’s head. I could not imagine the whip-wielding owner ever believed the beast would get it to its destination alive but perhaps he just wanted to make the last delivery as profitable as possible.
Frappier is no stranger to such sights. He left his job as vet to the Canadian Olympic riding team to work at the animal hospital that is known as the American Fondouk (a traditional Moroccan caravanserai).
“At first we would see real atrocities every day,” he recalls. “After three months I was cracking up and wanted to go home. But they didn’t find me a replacement quick enough and I began to adjust. Twelve years later, I’m still here. We’re making a serious difference now, thank God, and we see only about one really dire case a week.”
We wandered among the stables visiting the patients while I tried to come to terms with just what might constitute a ‘dire case’ in Fez. There was a horse that had lost an eye. Its owner had left the wound untreated so long that maggots were already feasting on it. Frappier estimated that about one in three of the in-patients at the fondouk would have to be destroyed and there was every chance this poor creature would be one of them.
Collisions with motor vehicles are common and fights with other horses are daily occurrences. Many horses have never seen real grass and their unnatural diet leads to tooth problems. In the dusty atmosphere of the medina, respiratory disorders are rife and there is a neverending procession of harness injuries, colic, lameness, worms and parasites.
Every morning the American Fondouk sees up to 100 sick animals and last year they treated a total of 18,000. The hospital survives solely from private donations and Frappier figures that for the cost of even a minor visit to a European vet as many as 10 animals can be treated here … and 10 families might be saved from the loss of their only source of income.
Just as the donkey cargo-trains remain in the minds of many tourists as the classic snapshot of Fez, so the horse-drawn carriages of Marrakech are an icon of The Gateway to the Desert. These calèches are used all over the city as the most convenient way of carrying passengers and great piles of cargo through the tangled back streets.
One sweltering afternoon, a calèche trotted me through the traffic of Marrakech’s Ville Nouvelle to drop me at the animal hospital run by British charity the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (Spana). About 30 similar carriages were queuing in the hot desert sun. A team of vets, volunteers and farriers were carrying out examinations that amounted to what someone described as MOTs for the fleet of open carriages that ply the streets of Marrakech. New legislation had been passed giving Spana the authority to rescue sick horses, and tourists are now encouraged to take the registration-numbers of mistreated animals and report the drivers.
In the mountains that rise to the south of Marrakech, the city-bound Medina Mercedes convertibles take on another identity. To the guides of the High Atlas the working mules here are known as Berber 4x4s.
Isolated communities here survive winter beyond the frozen passes only because of the mule-trains that import vital provisions during summer. For a rich city-dweller a mule can be worth six months’ income, but in the country a dead mule can spell disaster for a whole family. Wanton cruelty towards their animals is a luxury few Moroccans can afford.
Dr Gigi Kay, director of Spana Morocco, remembers working on rescue operations during the Al Hoceima earthquake that killed almost 600 people: There was one man who used his family’s allocation of aid agency blankets for his mule and cow,” she says. “Also, there was a mule with a fractured leg. It was so precious that it shared a tent with the children while the farmer and his wife slept outside in the rain.”
What you can do
Tourists who witness calèche horses in a bad condition or being mistreated can contact Spana in Marrakech by calling +212-4-430 3110 and speaking to technician Mohammed Faifaite, or to the vets (Drs Lamrini, Lamrani or Boubka).
With regards to identifying the horse, the registration of the calèche/owner is on a tax disc-type affair inside the vehicle. The marking on the hoof of the horse (a front hoof, best to check both), is only a number indicating that it has had its Spana ‘MOT’ in the past four months. It is not the number of the horse. The hoof branding takes about four months to grow out so if there is no obvious brand, it may be that the animal did not turn up for the last check. However, the hooves often take some brushing and cleaning to show up the brand clearly, so it’s best not to jump to conclusions.
Tourists can also look out for a brass plaque inside the vehicle which means the horse and owner have won a prize from Spana in an annual prizegiving.
Spana does also take qualified vets as volunteers in Morocco. Prospective volunteers can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. For non-vets, the refuges and clinics are happy to show visitors around.
– Karen Jones, Spana’s veterinary director