Rabies brought Susan and I together three years ago in Marrakech. I had been trying to help a dying cat I had found on a run and been badly scratched. I posted a picture of my swollen hand on Facebook and almost immediately an unknown number flashed up on my phone.
‘Alice, it is Susan Machin from Jarjeer Mule and Donkey refuge. I saw your post. Have you had a rabies shot?’
I hadn’t and thought I probably didn’t need one, but Susan was having none of it. She is a retired Barrister and is used to command. ‘It is absolutely imperative. You can die nine months after the wound. Once Rabies has you, there is no cure and it is a horrible death.’
Although she had never met me, she then drove an hour into Marrakech to take me to the Rabies clinic and handhold me through the process.
She, and her husband Charles, bring that care to Jarjeer which is the home they have founded for injured and sick donkeys and mules. After lockdown, it was the first trip I took, picking up my friend Karima who is an artist and wanted to do some paintings of the animals, along the way. We were overjoyed to be out of the house and actually driving somewhere different. Road trip!
Jarjeer lies over the Kik plateau and down past the dam of Lalla Takerkoust on the rolling semi-agricultural plains towards Marrakech. The driveway was bursting with crimson bougainvillea as Toyota Yaris struggled valiantly up the hill. We had our masks on but because we and the Machins and the workers in the sanctuary had all been isolating in places with no incidences of the virus, we took them off and breathed freely again. It was a very hot day.
The sanctuary lies just behind the Machin’s home and they have been working to build a little café and shop for visitors when they can come again. We walked through hedges of fragrant rosemary, alive with bees, down to the sand paddocks.
Donkeys and mules were everywhere: some in little groups, some in devoted pairs, some lying down and some just mooching. We went in the gates and immediately a little fellow trotted up to me and tucked his head under my arm, demanding love. ‘They have so missed having visitors,’ said Charles.
Soon, I was surrounded by soft muzzles and long, furry ears. Everyone wanted their share of attention. I didn’t have enough hands and if I lingered too long on someone, then a firm head butt reminded me that there was a queue.
Everyone has a name and everyone has a story. Abandoned, starving, blind, crippled – Jarjeer saves as many as they can, sending their ambulance – the mulemobile – far and wide across the country as the calls come in, given special dispensation during Covid by sympathetic police to continue their work. Susan and Charles set Jarjeer up but they have also given ownership of it to the surrounding community, some of whom are on the Board, and to the men who work there. I think that is one of the reasons for its success along with the fact that Susan works to change attitudes, to educate and to change laws, where she can, in order to protect animals out in the wider world.
‘It’s poverty,’ she says, not passing judgement about the damage that has been inflicted on the mules and donkeys, ‘poverty and ignorance.’
You would imagine it would be depressing being surrounded by so much suffering but, in fact, it is uplifting to see the animals socialising together – a blind mule being gently greeted by the others, a little pair of donkeys who are resting against each other in the shade of a high clay wall – and also hearing the stories of human kindness. One stuck with me, particularly. A Moroccan woman found a donkey starving on a rubbish dump. She called Jarjeer and while she was waiting for the rescue she brought food and water to the little animal and covered it with a blanket at night to keep the cold off.
There’s new life too. They may be injured but the donkeys still have a glint in the eye – a fair few foals have been born in the refuge and I definitely spotted some donkey flirting going on while I was there.
I watch as two of the men carefully tend to Gertrude, whose hoof was damaged, grew far too long and made her lose the use of her front leg. She is lying down on her side, breathing quietly, her eyes exhausted. The hoof has been trimmed right down but she needs to learn to walk again. The men gently slip a broad leather band under her tummy and hoist her up so she can stand without putting her weight down. Slowly, she will strengthen and one day she will be out with the others.
Leaving Gertrude’s stable, I take a last look around the paddock and turn to open the gate. A hairy nose bumps into my back and I turn round, ‘Just one more ear rub,’ beg the liquid eyes looking up at me, ‘that’s it, up a bit, left a bit, right there!’
Corona has taken its toll on Jarjeer, which has had to close for visitors. If you’d like to help, that would be amazing. You can donate here, or if cash is tight why not follow them on Facebook and support them that way.
The beautiful pastel of the donkey above is by the artist Karima Rebecca Powell – check her out here.