Every day at dawn, a herd of hard-working donkeys emerges from their stables into the cobbled streets of the ancient Turkish city of Mardin to collect rubbish. Working alongside city workers, the cream-colored animals help carry bags of litter as they meander through the narrow alleyways of the medieval town.
From the time it was built on a clifftop overlooking what was once Mesopotamia, the city has always had an important relationship with these domesticated hooved friends. “We have been using them to clean the city for centuries. They are the only ones who can access these narrow streets,” Kadri Toparli, who works for the Mardin old town cleaning team, tells euronews. “Otherwise, it would be impossible to do this work.”
As Toparli explains, there are about 40 donkeys helping keep the city clean, all of whom “have the status of municipal employees.” “They work like us, eight hours a day, with a break after four hours in the middle of the day.”
After a productive day of work, the donkeys unwind in the evening to the relaxing notes of classical music and veterinary care. “We take care of them. Every evening, we play classical music or traditional melodies for two hours,” Toparli says. “We see that they are happier when we play a piece of Beethoven.”
What about animal welfare?
More than a century ago, when Mardin was home to just 20,000 people, the donkeys were helping local authorities collect the ashes produced by wood and coal heaters. Today, the city’s population has more than tripled in size, generating about 10 tonnes of waste daily.
“We have mini-vehicles which we call ‘garbage taxis.’ We use them as well, but they are not as efficient,” says Abdulkadir Tutasi, the mayor of the old town. With that said, the efforts to reduce the reliance on animals to keep the town clean reflect a broader concern in the Turkish society to improve animal welfare in the country. Recently, for instance, Istanbul officials replaced historical horse-drawn carriages with electric cars in the Princes’ Islands, a frequently visited archipelago.
Mardin’s old town officials say they are working with animal rights groups, which help them monitor the donkeys’ working conditions and ensure that they are cared for properly.
Donkeys get a happy retirement
On his end, Toparli goes to great lengths to treat his donkeys with care and respect. “They are very intelligent animals. They know their zone by heart,” he says. “Often, we don’t need to guide them back to their stables.”
The donkeys are recruited when they are six years old and get an actual retirement celebration at the age of 14 or 15. During the official retirement ceremony, the pension-age donkeys are offered a plate filled with watermelon instead of cake. As the average life expectancy of donkeys is about 25-30 years, Mardin’s herd are treated with a relaxing and well-deserved rest once their public service is complete.