My career as a donkey vet

When I joined The Donkey Sanctuary in 1998, I had little idea that I would still be there and learning new things 23 years later. Initially, my ambition had been to become an equine vet, and I had followed a fairly typical path from mixed to solely equine practice after graduating. However, my parents had owned donkeys when I was growing up. Donkeys are the sort of animals that once you have known them, you always want to be around them. 

Alex and Nin

Alex as a child with one of her family's pet donkeys

I had the audacity to write to the founder of The Donkey Sanctuary, Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, while I was at vet school, to ask if I could join the International Donkey Protection Trust, as it was then called, on an overseas trip. Dr S, as she was affectionately known, invited me to join a two-week trip to Kenya, which I jumped at. The trip opened my eyes to the work that was needed globally to improve equid welfare.

I’m now Senior Veterinary Surgeon (Education) at The Donkey Sanctuary. Typical questions I am asked about my work include: ‘So, what does a donkey vet do?’ and ‘Does seeing the same species get boring?’

My answers can be very long! At The Donkey Sanctuary, we care for several thousand donkeys around the UK at our sanctuaries, in private homes and in our Donkey-Assisted Therapy centres. We have a state-of-the-art purpose-built donkey hospital with excellent facilities, and as well as treating sick donkeys, we also train vets, both across the UK and worldwide.


The Donkey Sanctuary cares for several thousand donkeys around the UK

A major part of my role at The Donkey Sanctuary includes the use of education and training to improve donkey welfare. We have run continuing professional development courses and have produced factsheets, training materials and books for many years, but our latest adventure involves producing high-quality online training material. The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated and highlighted the need for this type of training, so in the near future we will be launching the Donkey Academy, a brand new virtual learning environment. 

However, I’m still a hands-on donkey vet too. I try to achieve a balance between clinical work and the education side of things. Generally, I’ll spend three days each week on clinical work, and two days on education and training. It’s flexible though, and clinical work always comes first – I relish a day in the clinic, doing surgery or out on the farms. I also oversee our holding bases in Scotland and in ‘normal’ pre-Covid times, I would go up there twice a year to check on the welfare of their donkeys and liaise with local vet practices. We have a team of 10 vets at The Donkey Sanctuary and, until recently, we would all do some teaching, or travelling to vet schools and practices, as well as trips to Europe and further afield. Each vet has an area of the country to cover for welfare calls and the Donkey-Assisted Therapy centres, and would visit them twice a year.

In the UK, donkeys are mainly companion animals, but across Europe, there are still some donkeys working in low-level agriculture and increasingly in the production of milk. Globally, donkeys and other working equids provide vital transport for countless people, as well as being part of the milk and meat food chain. 

Owning a working donkey means survival for some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world. They allow their owners to participate in work and boost economic capacity. They enable children to receive an education and help promote gender equality by allowing women to be economically active.  

The Donkey Sanctuary is the world’s largest equine welfare charity and during the course of my career, I have variously worked with donkeys to teach, train, assess welfare or treat them across many countries where The Donkey Sanctuary has partnerships. Pre-Covid, I used to do three or four trips each year outside of the UK. While it can be challenging to see donkeys in difficulty, especially when (for various reasons) you can’t do anything for them at that moment in time, you need to think strategically and long term – there’s no value in alienating people who you may need to work with in future. My favourite parts of my job have always been working with the people who use donkeys. Generally, the love and affection they have for the animals is strong and these trips have been an incredible privilege, allowing me to gain insight into the interdependence of humans and their donkeys, and a great opportunity to make friends and share our interest in these wonderful creatures. 

Alex in The Gambia

During a visit to The Gambia

The Donkey Sanctuary is also the largest source of non-invasive epidemiological research in donkey health and welfare. The vet team is heavily involved in collecting data and working with our research and operational support teams to analyse and share the results of our work. There is a strong emphasis in everything we do on keeping accurate and detailed records.

Our research areas are incredibly diverse and cover such things as changes to land management to benefit donkeys, the welfare of donkeys in the brick kilns of Nepal, and sarcoid epidemiology in UK donkeys, to name but a few.

Other aspects of our work that require veterinary input include offering advisory expertise as part of the ICWE (International Coalition for Working Equids), and for the charity’s Global Programmes and Advocacy departments.

Over the past few years, our work has progressed to include more herd health and preventive healthcare. This has been driven by the development of our new Equid Assessment and Research Scoping (EARS) tool. The EARS tool allows us to collect data anywhere across the world using an app and then work with this information to monitor and improve donkey welfare.

So, working with donkeys is never boring. As well as being part of a passionate clinical team, we know that we are part of a greater organisation whose sole focus is on improving the welfare of the species that we care most about. Every day is full of interest, bringing with it new challenges, and I would absolutely recommend a career working with donkeys.

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