Best Friends

Horse Sense in Ethiopia
By Noel Jordan
Best Friends
January/February 2000

at the vet

Jan Mitchell’s planned two-week stay in Ethiopia in 1998 expanded to almost two months and culminated in her founding an organization that has brought basic nutrition and veterinary care to the workhorses in the village of Debre Zeit. Mitchell, a Boulder medical social worker and amateur photographer, established the Animal Assistance and Education League in August of 1998, after witnessing the brutal beating ofthe horses that draw the carts in Debre Zeit and the lack of propernutrition for the work animals.

Mitchell traveled to Ethiopia in January of 1998 to produce photographic documentation of Debre Zeit’s horses for the International League for the Protection of Horses. “I knew the ILPH had found Ethiopia the most difficult place to work, but I was still horrified to see how the horses were beaten if they fell or didn’t go fast enough,” Mitchell says.

In the village 20 miles southeast of the capital city of Addis Ababa, Mitchell also discovered that the horses worked all day without water. “The villagers had been told that too much water would give the horses cramps,” she says. “As a result, they would let the horses go for eight hours without food or water. The horses would get so dehydrated they would just fall down and be left for dead.” Conditions were so grim that Mitchell extended her stay and, finding an ally in a local veterinary school professor, launched an impromptu sidewalk education program that led to the formation of the AAEL.

“We would look into horses’ eyes and see no life,” Mitchell says. “They were exhausted. I would run, sometimes three or four blocks, to somebody’s house and ask them to please sell me a bucket of water.” Mitchell and the professor, Wenduwessun Abebe, also demonstrated the restorative powers of molasses and sugar. Soon the villagers began mixing sugar and water together to nourish their work animals.

Eventually, the AAEL, which Mitchell founded with another Colorado woman, Mindy Sterling Houser, set up two water stations for the town’s 600 working horses. At the stations villagers could buy water for their horses several times a day and could also receive free medical care from Wenduwessun.

Among the horses’ medical problems were eye infections, caused by flies. The infections were routinely dealt with by cutting out the eyes of the horses without benefit of anesthesia. Penicillin, brought in by the AAEL, virtually wiped out the infection known as “moon blindness,” and a Cornell veterinarian introduced a less expensive antibiotic that could be applied daily to control other eye ailments. Lymphangitis, another affliction caused by flies, remains a problem for the village horses, Mitchell says, and the AAEL is working to combat the fly epidemic on a widescale basis. Meanwhile, villagers have themselves taken a progressive step by forming a horse abuse police force.

“We’re also encouraged that two other villages have set up water stations for their horses with our help,” says Mitchell. “And we have a site and the funds raised to build a veterinary clinic in Debre Zeit. People will pay for services on a sliding scale basis. Those who simply can’t pay will provide voluntary services to the clinic in exchange for the medical attention.”

Mitchell, who believes that education is the key to better treatment for animals, hopes the humane advances in Debre Zeit are duplicated throughout Ethiopia. “What we want to do is educate the people and then let them go out and spread the word to other villages that we may never reach.”

Back to top