Not all the animals at El Rocio are abused, and there is some incredible horsemanship on display, but it is the rented animals that appear to suffer the most. Most of these animals are old, tired, undernourished, full of open wounds and rented non-stop. Such was the poor state of some animals that 9 of them have been confiscated.
One more year, El Refugio del Burrito displays an operation to ensure animal welfare during El Rocío Pilgrimage. These year we have assisted close to 150 animals and rescued 9 badly mistreated equines, mostly from the illegal rental business. Our presence is to ensure the welfare of horses, mules, donkeys and ponies that participate to the pilgrimage and to minimize their suffering.
With over one million participants and close to 120 brotherhoods, El Rocío is the largest pilgrimage in the Western world. The worshippers will undertake the journey to the chapel of El Rocío (Almonte, Huelva) in carts decorated with colours and ribbons and riding horses, mules and other equines. Around 20,000 animals accompanied them.
The work of El Refugio del Burrito in the pilgrimage of El Rocío is carried out in close coordination with the Nature Protection Service of the Civil Guard (SEPRONA) of the province of Huelva. A team from ERB of 20 people, including veterinaries, farriers and specialists in equine behaviour and care, integrate this security and assistance operation and has been in El Rocio town from the 31st of May until the 6th of June.
During the pilgrimage this year, we have:
• Offered veterinary assistance and safety to those animals found in distress due to mistreatment, abandonment or omission of care, through itinerant veterinary devices and a field hospital.
• Counselled owners and users of equines, to ensure the welfare of the animals and prevent the use of inappropriate harnesses.
• Patrolled the access ways and the village of El Rocío to identify and prevent cases of animal cruelty and report to the competent authorities.
According to Veronica Sanchez, Director of El Refugio del Burrito (ERB): “Our team has found few cases in which privately owned animals were in bad condition, 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 due to the lack of equine knowledge, irresponsibility or lack of empathy. Our team treated 141 equines in urgent need of vet treatments in situ. Mainly the open wounds were caused by poor, inadequate, rusty bridles and harnesses. Some exhausted animals were also seen to.”
Rented animals suffer the most
Guillermo Garcia Palma, Equine Veterinary from ERB 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. “We have seen people showing an incredible love for their animals, which are well treated and in the proper conditions. Some brotherhoods and pilgrims do not hesitate to ask for help if they see even a minor problem in their animals. Of course there are some wounds caused by harnesses and symptoms of colic, there are around 20.000 equines here, but their animal are overall well treated and care. The problem remains in the illegally rented animals. Most of these animals are old, tired, undernourished, and full of open wounds and rented non-stop” add Guillermo.
“Our expert has been constantly evaluating the state of the rented animals and if they are fit to work with the support of Seprona. We have been marking those animal that were not in good shape to work and asked the owners not to rent them anymore. After we have been supervising that they follow the recommendations. If they don’t and they rent the marked animals again, animals are confiscated and taken to a safe place and the owners are prosecuted for animal cruelty”, explains Veronica Sanchez.
The average age of the rented animals are around 25 years old. Equine rented business owners buy the cheapest animals which normally are in the worst conditions, then they forced them to work day and night, with little rest, food or water. Some of the animals are starving, extremely thin, full of open wounds and exhausted.
Such was the poor state of some illegally rented animals that the SEPRONA, with the collaboration of our equine experts, had to confiscate 3 horses, 5 mules and 1 donkey. The animals have been moved to a safe place where they have been receiving veterinary treatment with a view to being re-homed in the future or offering care for life to those that have chronic conditions. The animals’ owners are being prosecuted.
Last year, one rented mule collapsed in the way. The animal was around 26 years old and very thin. The team of ERB tried to do everything that was in their hands to save her, but she died. The owner and the renter has been sentenced to one year and four months in prison and three years of disqualification from working with animals for omission of care of this mule, thus causing its death.
Collaborating with authorities
This collaboration with Almonte townhall and Seprona is perhaps the most important change towards equine welfare at the Pilgrimage. Rosa Chaparro from El Refugio del Burrito says: “The collaboration of the Seprona with us has been exemplary; they were there to every request and helped promptly and efficiently. We believe things can improve greatly, and our charity strives towards making a big impact through the collaboration with authorities, brotherhoods and pilgrims. Education is another important pillar. Brotherhood and pilgrims are more and more aware about animal cruelty and most of them really reject and punish any type of mistreatment towards animals.
A member of Seprona responsible for Animal Wefare at El Rocio says: “95% of animals are well treated and in good conditions. Only around 5% are mistreatment cases. We want to eradicate totally any mistreatment. This doesn’t represent El Rocio pilgrimage and it is giving a bad reputation to the rest of the people that treat with respect and love their animals.
“As soon as owners see that we are here to help their animals in a practical way, they got on board pretty quickly. We are not here to end the tradition, but to advice and provide them with expert advice and care like putting gauze on the serrated nosebands so that open wounds could be protected. This year we have been approached by many pilgrims asking for help or support. Even some people that had rented animals were so disgusted by the state of the animals and they approached us to get help” says Coral Ruiz, Animal Welfare Advisor.
Despite the few upsetting scenes of animal neglect and cruelty from the rental business at the El Rocío Pilgrimage, Veronica Sanchez remains upbeat and positive. “Our next steps are to continue promoting animal welfare good practices around pilgrims and brotherhoods, punish the mistreatment of the animals that Seprona has confiscated and work with authorities to regulate in a near future the equine rented business to prevent the cruelty towards these animals. We’ve come away with a tremendous feeling of optimism and look forward to continue working to improve the welfare of more animals next year.”