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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There are a lot of places in this world where donkeys are a precious resource. Ethiopia is one. There, donkeys are seen as so important, there are even special hospitals to treat them.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton sent this postcard from the donkey sanctuary in Ethiopia's capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BRAYING DONKEY)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Ethiopia is both donkey heaven and donkey hell. Home to more than six million donkeys, it comes second only to China, which currently tops the global donkey stakes.

BOJIA ENDEBU: Yes, there is a good saying in Ethiopia: A farmer without a donkey is a donkey himself, because the donkey does lots of work of the farmer.

QUIST-ARCTON: Bojia Endebu is a veterinary surgeon and a seasoned donkey doctor. He's in charge of The Donkey Sanctuary across the country, located in four of Ethiopia's nine regions. The sanctuary began operating in 1986, and now offers free treatment at two stationary and seven mobile clinics.

ENDEBU: The objective of The Donkey Sanctuary is to improve the quality of life of donkeys in Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWBELLS AND VEHICLES)

QUIST-ARCTON: It's hectic in Addis Ababa's high density Markato neighborhood. You have to take care not to bump into donkeys, many wearing tinkly bells. They're everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic like a time warp, in stark contrast to a city that is modernizing dramatically with construction, cranes and wooden scaffolding. Trotting with loads on their backs, the donkeys seem oblivious of cars, humans and building sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BRAYING DONKEY)

QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Chala Chaburte and his team have begun a day of consultations at the Markato Donkey Clinic. The vet says he owes a personal debt of gratitude to donkeys, because the work of his family's two donkeys helped pay his medical school fees.

CHALA CHABURTE: Yeah, I love donkeys. That is why as soon as I graduated from the university, I joined the project, The Donkey Sanctuary. Here, there are lot of problems of donkeys. For example, this donkey came with car accident.

QUIST-ARCTON: Other medical problems are tetanus, anthrax, hyena bites, livid, red back sores from overloading and colic from indigestible plastic bags the donkeys swallow. About half a dozen of them, all townies and suffering from all manner of ailments, are penned into a spacious enclosure with a large trough, waiting to be seen by Dr. Chala. Countrywide, Ethiopia's clinics treat, on average, 400,000 donkeys each year.

Tadesse Kasa, a tall man with crooked teeth and a disarming smile, has brought in his lame donkey Bula. Dr. Chala is cleaning the donkey's hoof.

CHABURTE: There are a lot of small stones inside the hoof of the donkey.

QUIST-ARCTON: While Bula's hoof is being scraped and cleaned with iodine and strapped up, Tadesse, like other donkey owners, says their animals are friends. Tadesse says the donkeys are very important to his family, because without them, they simply wouldn't be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAYING DONKEYS)

QUIST-ARCTON: Here, here nods a delighted Dr. Chala, and it seems the donkeys agree.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

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