About 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 93 million depend on donkeys in some way, according to The Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K. nonprofit.

By Amy Yee (NPR) |

Ethiopia’s government doesn’t want Ethiopia to be thought of as a donkey country.

Donkeys have a reputation there as the lowliest of animals and of being unclean to boot.

Yet Ethiopia has the world’s largest population of donkeys. It has 7 million of the animals — outstripping the No. 2 donkey country, China, by about a million.

And life can be pretty tough for a hard-working Ethiopian donkey.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I saw one donkey straining mightily while pulling a cart. Overloaded with rows of water jugs and people, the cart weighed hundreds of pounds. The animal’s head was bowed. His thin, shaking legs looked ready to break as he fought for footing on the muddy, rutted road.

In Ethiopia, it’s common to see donkeys laboriously hauling loads as drivers, many of them children, crack whips or switches across their backs and faces. People depend on these animals to transport water, wood for cooking, food and other goods, as well as people. About 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 93 million depend on donkeys in some way, according to The Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K. nonprofit.

In spite of their importance in Ethiopia, these beasts of burden are overworked, neglected, abused and stigmatized. They suffer from harness sores, maggot wounds, infections and colic from poor food, among other ailments. Because people don’t think much of donkeys, they usually do not take them to the veterinarian if their animal gets sick or is injured. Until recently, veterinary colleges didn’t even train students to treat them. If donkeys were sick or too old to work, they were abandoned or left to hyenas — a painful death.

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