Written by Glen Cousquer, veterinary surgeon and international mountain leader.
The suffering of pack mules and other working animals who labour in the tourism industry has largely gone unnoticed. It lies hidden, invisible to those who fail to see, tolerated by those who accept the excuses that the industry puts forward to justify its own failure to take these matters seriously … and take responsibility.
This is especially true of the pack mule working in Morocco’s mountain tourism in industry. I have seen overloaded mules fall on steep mountain paths; I have seen old, emaciated mules forced to work because no one takes responsibility for establishing that they are fit to work. I have seen mules with blood in their mouths and sores on their backs carrying the suitcases of rich, unseeing and uncaring clients, up to expensive hotels in the Toubkal National Park, hotels that have made their fortune on pretending to be champions of responsible and sustainable tourism, hotels that do not have systems in place to ensure that their businesses are responsible. I am deeply troubled and very concerned about this lack of responsibility.
I first became aware of this issue twenty years ago and have, over the last six years, abandoned a career in veterinary practice in order to research the subject and raise awareness of the plight of these hard working animals.
The sad truth is that mules and their owners lie at the bottom of the social hierarchy. As such, they are easily exploited and are often blamed for the poor condition of their mules. The fact is that they barely earn enough to feed their families, let alone to feed their mules properly. They are not offered any training to improve their knowledge and understanding of good muleteering practice. They are not helped to buy the best possible equipment for their mules. They do not have social security or health care for themselves, let alone access to proper health care services for their mules. They are, very much, at the bottom of the pile and tourists and the companies they travel with have for decades failed to recognise the extent to which they exploit the labour provided by mules and muleteers.
This is a scandal that needs to break. Only once it is out in the open will trekking companies really start to take responsibility for their labour force, both human and non-human.
A failure to understand good muleteering practice means that many pack mules are worked in traditional bits, where head collars would suffice. A good understanding of mule behaviour and of a mule’s needs would recognise that these are grazing animals who can feed on the move and, in doing so, meet some of their essential behavioural and nutritional needs. The traditional bit, however, is designed to cause pain and discomfort. It is an instrument of torture that allows owners to force their mule to do what the handler wants. It is effective because it is so unpleasant that the mule is unable to refuse, or even protest. I have seen too many old, lame mules dragged around the mountain in such bits, many with painful lacerations to their gums .
Even those mules who do not have obvious wounds suffer in other ways. The traditional bit allows people with little respect for their animals to work them effectively. This represents a betrayal of the animal and has no place in the modern world where we seek to promote trust and understanding as the basis for good relations in tourism. These bits make eating and drinking very difficult if not impossible: the mules are prevented from chewing their food properly and are literally being refused food and starved to an early death. Shockingly, the life span of a mule working in the industry is decades shorter than it should be and this is, in many respects, because the industry is not helping the communities who buy mules to work on trek to look after these animals. The industry is quite literally failing to take responsibility by passing the buck.
Amongst the problems that the industry is most obviously responsible for is overloading. This causes untold problems as mules suffer chronic damage to their joints and tendons. It can also lead to mules falling and suffering fractures. Riding a loaded mule shows little respect for the mule’s welfare and is storing up problems (including dehydration, fatigue, exhaustion and injury) for later. And yet, with few excpetions, most companies do not have a clear policy to ensure mules are not overloaded and that owners do not ride.
Other common welfare abuses that are currently the norm in the industry include:
- failing to water mules at the start of the day leading to dehydration.
- overloading that frequently results in joint and tendon injury.
- tethering mules with thin nylon ropes that cause rope burns.
- failure to repair and maintain equipment leading to injury.
- failure to provide good foot care that respects the natural function of the hoof.
The industry needs to take these matters seriously. Tourists should be demanding that the companies they travel with have clear, documented policies in place that ensure welfare is respected at all times.
Questions to ask of a tour operator include:
- Do you pay a fair wage and how is this calculated? (for example in Morocco, a minimum of 150 dirhams per day is needed)
- Do you ensure pack mules are not ridden or overloaded?
- Do you guarantee that mules will never be worked in traditional bits?
- Do you insist on mules being worked when loaded in head collars?
- Do you provide a budget for the mules’ food to be purchased?
- Do you provide training for your muleteers?
- Do you provide first aid kits and grooming kits for your mule team?
It is only by challenging others to take these matters seriously and to take responsibility that we can achieve significant change in the industry. No mule should be worked when in pain or with blood in their mouths and yet that is happening right now! Make sure you are not complicit in animal cruelty when you travel.
Cousquer, G.O. and Alison, P. (2012). Ethical responsibilities towards expedition pack animals: The Mountain Guide’s and Expedition Leader’s Ethical Responsibilities Towards Pack Animals on Expedition. Annals of Tourism Research, 39 (4), 1839-1858.
Cousquer, G.O. (2014). Promoting pack mule welfare on expedition. The Professional Mountaineer.
Glen Cousquer (BSc(Hons) BM&S CertZooMed MSc MSc MRCVS) is a Veterinary Surgeon and International Mountain Leader. He is currently based at the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh.