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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Winds of change over animal welfare at El Rocío

Por: | 09 de julio de 2014

Exactly a month ago, if you had glanced at the chaotic mêlée of Andalusian life crammed into El Rocio’s sandy streets, it would have been easy to think it was business as usual at one of southern Spain’s most irrevocably traditional of religious festivals. And indeed it was, as the village with a population of 1,635, performed its unfathomable annual swelling act to accommodate around one million visitors over the weekend of religious devotion and fervour.

Donkey sanctuary el rocio general shot
photos by The Donkey Sanctuary

Leading up to this year’s event there had been a low hum of concern over issues such as the pilgrimage’s environmental impact on the nearby Doñana National Park and, more vociferously, from animal welfare charities highlighting the impending catalogue of equine deaths and mistreatment during the period. But from an outside perspective, the concern seemed to come from a position of resignation, whereby it was almost a matter of taking bets on how many animals would die this year.

In fact 11 animals did perish in 2014 – six less than last year. While marking a faltering step in the right direction, it certainly hasn’t appeased the outrage from many, commenting on the fatalities across different social media.

But perhaps the most important change has been brought about by an Anglo-Spanish collaboration between Málaga-based charity El Refugio Burrito and its British equivalent The Donkey Sanctuary, which alongside UK animal welfare consultant Animal Kind, were there on a fact-finding mission to compile an independent report on animal welfare issues at El Rocio and provide hands-on veterinary assistance to any animals found in distress.

Donkey sanctuary vets attending pony
volunteer vet attends rented pony pulling cart

According to El Refugio del Burrito: “What our welfare team found there … was a scene fit for Dante’s Inferno. Hundreds of equines were being forced to work day and night, with little rest, food or water. Some of the animals were starving, extremely thin and exhausted. Our team has found some cases in which privately owned animals were in bad condition, but it was mostly animals for rent that got it worse. They were rented out illegally, sometimes even to minors, and then terribly abused by those renting them … Our team treated dozens of equines in urgent need of vet treatments in situ. Mainly the open wounds were caused by poor, inadequate, rusty bridles and harnesses. Many exhausted animals were also seen to.”

Donkey sanctuary bloody nose
a widely seen injury caused by the traditional serrated edged noseband

Suzi Cretney from the UK Donkey Sanctuary is quick to point out that not all the animals at El Rocio are abused, and there is some incredible horsemanship on display, but agrees that it is the rented animals that appear to suffer the most.

Such was the poor state of some illegally rented animals that were “old, tired, undernourished and full of open wounds” that the charity volunteers, with the cooperation of the authorities, facilitated the confiscation of three horses and a pony. The animals have since been moved to El Refugio del Burrito’s headquarters where they have been receiving veterinary treatment with a view to being re-homed in the future. The animals’ owner is being prosecuted by the Civil Guard.

Donkey sanctuary skinny horse
one of the undernourished and neglected animals found by the volunteer team

This collaboration with the Civil Guard marks perhaps the most important change from this year’s proceedings at El Rocio. In the past a much-levelled criticism has been the authorities’ reported ambivalence towards animal abuse during the festival. But over the course of the few days that the triumvirate of charities was present, there was a distinct thawing of hostilities, culminating in the unprecedented move to facilitate the seizure of the four animals. Rafael Benjumea from El Refugio del Burrito says: “The collaboration of the authorities with us has been exemplary; they saw to every request and helped promptly and efficiently. We believe things can improve greatly at this festival, and our charity will strive towards making a big impact next year, hopefully with the help of many volunteers, the authorities, and other animal welfare organisations that may want to help.”

So with winds of change reaching the powers that be, it just remains for such a change in the mindset of some of the less-caring individuals with animals in their charge. But even here Suzi Cretney felt a shift in the time that they were manning the dusty El Rocio streets. “As soon as owners saw that we were there to help their animals in a practical way, they got on board pretty quickly. We could give them simple ideas like putting gauze on the serrated nosebands so that open wounds could be protected.” They were even approached by a group of children who had rented a mule and were so disgusted by the state of the animal that they felt compelled to get help from the team.

Donkey sanctuary vet noseband
volunteer vet advising Rociero on protecting his mule´s nose injury caused by serrated noseband

Despite the sometimes upsetting scenes of animal neglect and cruelty at the festival, Crezney remains upbeat and positive. “This year was really an investigation mission and it was important to carry it out in a measured way. We’ve come away with a tremendous feeling of optimism and look forward to coming back next year to improve the welfare of more animals.”

If you want to make a donation towards the upkeep of the rescued animals or to find out about next year’s campaign at El Rocio, contact www.elrefugiodelburrito.com

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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