Donkeys and mules have long been a cornerstone in human existence, both in industry and by supporting rural life. Donkeys play a particularly multifarious role in rural communities, from carrying water, food and crops, to aiding disaster relief efforts in areas that are inaccessible by vehicle. Despite their critical and central role in such environments, donkeys and mules are the ‘forgotten animals’, falling between gaps in legislation aimed at supporting rural households that rely on working animals. Neither donkeys nor mules are considered livestock, nor are they considered domestic pets, and they certainly fall outside many development or welfare agendas. Our ‘Value of Donkeys and Mules’ project aims to identify the role these animals play in rural households, and to quantify the value they bring to rural livelihoods. Further, we aim to identify links between the socio-economic status and cultural beliefs of equine owners and the welfare of their equines.
Working closely with international partner organisations, we have visited the brick kilns in India, where the transport of bricks by donkeys provides the main source of income for many rural households; and mountainous regions of Nepal, where mules are the primary method of transportation for both people and goods in otherwise isolated communities. During fieldwork it quickly became clear that, as well as understanding the beliefs and nuances of the communities we visited, we also needed to recognise the markedly different perceptions and motivations between ourselves and our partner organisations, as well as between researchers, assistants, and interpreters.
Whilst we had designed a seemingly robust study in theory, we were to embark on a steep learning curve when applying these designs in different cultural settings. I will present the early findings of our research in India, alongside the challenges and insights gained from working overseas.