No Country for Old Burros

May 7, 2010

By Eric Davis, DVM

We had been traveling for hours through the foothills of the Sierra Gorda, bouncing along the narrow dusty road, between cactus and thorn bush, with the occasional brilliant jacaranda tree in full purple bloom.

The winding switchbacks from La Paloma to the mountains.

A cow or little herd of goats wandered here and there, as we passed through one tiny community of drab brick buildings after another. I hoped that the Alamo car rental facility at the León airport would not look under the van when I returned it in another week; the rocky road was punishing the transmission of the vehicle with regular crashes and bangs.

We rounded a turn, and a line of shear peaks rose into the sky directly ahead of us. I could see the white scar of the road that wound back and forth, in endless switchbacks, as it climbed into the clouds above. It was as if somebody had randomly selected this mountain and stubbornly built a road to the top for no particular reason. It was clear that this would be a very long day.

Together we care for equines

Two hours later, when we finally arrived in the little town of La Paloma, the farmers with their horses and burros were already waiting for us. We were working with a team of Mexican veterinarians and students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), part of a very successful project that provides veterinary care for donkeys and horses in the poor rural areas of Mexico.

Dr. Hernandez, one of the Mexican veterinarians working with the team, tends to a mule during the clinic.

This clinic was truly an international effort, and the sign on the door of UNAM's van—Unidos cuidamos a los equidos en Mexico, or together we care for equines in Mexico—proved it. Aside from the students and veterinarians from the USA and Mexico, we had a student from Germany and a veterinarian from Peru. We also received support from the Donkey Sanctuary in Scotland and the International League for Equine Protection, a British animal welfare organization.

As we were getting started, one particularly venerable burro stood out among the group. His gray muzzle and thin face spoke of age, and the white hair on his withers was the result of years of packing wood, corn, water and otra cosas, around the ravines and steep trails of the Sierra Gorda. The owner, whose white hair and grizzled face made him a perfect match for his pack animal, was concerned that his companion and coworker was losing weight.

Veterinary care...and comfort

A physical examination revealed a strong heart, clear lungs and normal abdomen in the old burro; however, when Dr. Jose Antonio looked in the animal's mouth, the cause of the weight loss was clear. Decades of chewing coarse grass, leaves and corn stalks had left several teeth broken and jagged, making normal chewing impossible. Using equipment provided by veterinarians of the Equitarian Project in the USA—not to mention strong skills in dentistry—the UNAM veterinarians went to work with power floats and extractors. With some mild sedation and appropriate analgesia, the broken teeth were removed and the sharp edges made smooth. A good deworming was next on the agenda for the old burro.

After a long—yet rewarding—day helping these working horses, the group takes a break.

While all this was going on, the UNAM team's resident saddle maker, Joaquin, was weaving a new cinch for the burro's pack saddle. Always surrounded by local farmers, who watch him work at his portable loom, Joaquin is well known for making broad, soft girths of natural cotton chord. These woven bands greatly improve the comfort of working horses, mules and donkeys, who otherwise would have their saddles attached with abrasive and synthetic rope. As you can see, this was truly a full-service clinic for these horses.

Now free of parasites and with a mouth full of newly-sculpted teeth, our old burro—with the comfortable new tack on his back—and his companion started up the trail from La Paloma to their home in the mountains.

Life will remain hard for the burros, as well as the people, in these mountains. But as this world gets smaller, and we work together, it will get better, poco y poco.

Dr. Eric Davis developed the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program in 1995 and has served as mentor and inspiration to hundreds of young veterinary professionals over the years. He continues his hard work in the field and is currently a consultant for the program.