The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies
Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies Bicentenary

Inclusive multi-species research improves pack mule welfare

An approach based on deep listening and genuine dialogue involving animals has helped transform conditions and welfare for working equines.

Breaking camp at Tazrit 2
Credit: Dr Glen Cousquer

The welfare of equines working in international mountain tourism has been improved by a novel approach focusing on learning through awareness-based systems change to overcome shared challenges.

The research was carried out in the mountains of the Moroccan High Atlas over the span of eight years. During this period, mountain guides were trained in pack animal welfare, whilst trekking teams working for local ground handlers received practical training in working more compassionately with their pack mules. This work fed into the development of company practice and new industry standards.

This marks the first time this approach to systems change, known as Action Research, has been used with other-than-human animals actively being listened to as participants and stakeholders.

The outcomes suggest that dialogical approaches and practices can be extended to the animal world and that as a species, humans can deepen the quality of their listening to co-create a more compassionate and inclusive world.

Professional and vocational training

Researchers from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies first investigated the welfare of working equines and other pack animals in the international mountain tourism industry, finding that they are often negatively affected by overloading, bitting and tethering injuries and lameness

They found that training mountain guides and mule owners to recognise and address signs of physical and emotional distress in mules helped them form a deeper understanding of the animals and their welfare. They also found that mules and their handlers benefited from a common platform for their concerns to be heard and addressed; this helped establish a sense of collaboration and solidarity between humans and animals.

Such training can provide opportunities for a holistic One Health approach to be taken, with the potential to ensure a successful expedition for all members of the trekking team, including the pack mules.

Stakeholder engagement

Researchers involved as many stakeholders as possible from the mountain tourism sector, including trekkers, tourists and mountain guides, international travel agencies, mule handlers and owners, and most importantly the mules themselves.

By engaging all stakeholders in dialogue, this research aimed to deepen awareness and understanding of the complex issues surrounding the exploitation of animals and their owners within the tourism industry.

This understanding, coupled with the openness to collaboration between stakeholders, enabled change in the welfare of working equines.

The research methodology was based on an Action Research model pioneered by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Presencing Institute in the US. This approach to awareness based systems change has been adopted across the world, from Scotland to the United Nations.

The recent publication in the Journal of Awareness Based Systems Change was carried out in collaboration with the independent artist Abdelaziz Haounti. It is accompanied by a sister publication in the Austral Journal of Veterinary Sciences. The guide training took place at the Centre de Formation aux Métiers de Montagne and this together with the subsequent fieldwork was funded by the Donkey Sanctuary and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Our approach of extending action research to include pack mules working in mountain tourism as participatory stakeholders has led to greater awareness of mule welfare and changes in the practices of stakeholders to improve the working conditions and welfare of mules. If this shift of awareness is sustained over time, it can contribute to the development of more equitable working practices based on a willingness to listen, care and change how we choose to act as members of the international mountain tourism community.

Dr Glen Cousquer Lecturer and MSc Programme Co-ordinator in Conservation Medicine and One Health

Further reading:

Scientific publication: Action Research With and For Pack Mules

Scientific publication: From Domination to Dialogue and the Ethics of the Between: Transforming Human-Working Equine Relationships in Mountain Tourism

About the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies   

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than 800 staff and almost 1400 students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos.   

The School comprises:   

The Roslin Institute   

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems   

The Roslin Innovation Centre   

The Hospital for Small Animals   

Equine Veterinary Services   

Farm Animal Services   

Easter Bush Pathology   

The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education   

We represent the largest concentration of animal science-related expertise in Europe, impacting local, regional, national and international communities in terms of economic growth, the provision of clinical services and the advancement of scientific knowledge.