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Rocky Mountain News

Spreading Horse Sense in Ethiopia
By Rebecca Jones
Rocky Mountain News
May 30,1998

at the vet

When the bedraggled little horse fell to its knees under the weight of the heavy art, Jan Mitchell stifled a scream.

She's been stuffing her emotions ever since arriving in Ethiopia. Screaming and hysteria weren't the ways to reach these people and gain their trust and respect. If she wanted to do any good, she couldn't yell and she couldn't judge.

But when the horse's owner began whipping it to force the bleeding animal to its feet, Mitchell could stand it no longer. She shrieked at him to stop. Others in the crowded street corner in Debre Zeit, 20 miles southeast of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, joined in and forced the man to stop striking the horse because it clearly was upsetting the American woman.

The horse got up on its own, and a shaking Mitchell began gently bandaging its bloody knees. She sent a boy for sugar and they fed the horse and gave it water. Others in the crowd of onlookers began ministering to the pathetic animal, bathing and stroking it.

Now home in Boulder, Mitchell, 44, can't stop worrying about the horse and the thousands of other horses in Ethiopia whose lives are daily exercises in agony: hours of labor, no water, improper food, improper care. "They're not bad people," she says of the owners who work their horses until they drop, rarely allowing the animals to drink or rest. "No, they're very loving people. But they don't think the horses know anything. They whip them just to keep them going. They're totally uneducated about proper animal care."

Mitchell, a massage therapist and foster parent for animals for the Boulder County Humane Society, spent five weeks in Ethiopia this winter at the behest of the International League for the Protection of Horses, a British organization that strives to improve the lot of horses everywhere. It was in March 1997, while on vacation in Fiji, that Mitchell met Jeremy James, an ILPH volunteer. Noticing the camera around her neck, he asked whether she'd consider coming with him to photograph some of his work in a Fijian village. Since she was reading The Horse Whisperer at the time, Mitchell considered it a timely request and agreed. They hiked to the village, where James washed and wormed several horses, instructed their owners in how to care for their saddle sores and other wounds and taught them proper equine nutrition.

So when he called her in December and asked whether she'd be willing to go to Ethiopia with him to do more of the same, she agreed. "He warned me there would be worse conditions than I'd ever seen." Mitchell says, "I'd have to get my emotions in check." When she arrived in January, she, James and their interpreter, Wenduwesson Abebe, began walking the streets. "It wasn't difficult to find horses that didn't look well," she says. They encouraged horse owners to give water to the severely dehydrated animals — many believed working horses should not be allowed to drink — and gave them water buckets as a reward for their promise to do so. They chided owners into putting away whips.

Her planned three weeks in Ethiopia stretched into five. "I was supposed to go to the Seychelles and sit on the beach," Mitchell says. "But I couldn't. There was too much work to be done."

Now home, Mitchell is working to raise money to send their interpreter to veterinary school, either in the U.S. or in Britain. Abebe already teaches surgery at the veterinary school in Debre Zeit, but the conditions — and the mind-set — at the school are appalling, Mitchell says. She hopes that with proper schooling, Abebe can return to Ethiopia and be a permanent force for the humane treatment of animals.

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