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Dream job in research: improving the lives of horses and mules

Polly Compston works with communities worldwide on animal welfare; what’s your dream research job?

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Polly Compston, Research Coordinator for Brooke, in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Brooke)

Work has taken Polly Compston to some unsual places and thrown up some unusual challenges. As Research Coordinator for Brooke, an international charity that protects and improves the lives of horses, donkeys and mules, she travels to remote regions of the world, where she must communicate with local people about complex animal welfare issues.

“We do a lot of work in strengthening healthcare systems and working with people who provide treatment to animals, understanding how we can help them build their capacity and be more effective,” Polly explained. “Ten years ago, most of our work was about providing free treatment to individual animals. But we have learned to look at more sustainable options as well so that we have a greater effect addressing the problems that animals face.”

Doing that effectively means coordinating a team of on-the-ground researchers in 10 countries, and building an evidence base that will shape policy and provide protection to these animals. Many of the researchers at Brooke operate in remote areas. Ensuring the team has access to the resources it needs and is working from the latest research is vital.

“We use Mendeley a lot, and we use it in a variety of ways,” Polly said, referring to Elsevier’s reference management software and researcher network. “If we’re working on a particular research project, we can collect references in a single place that can be accessed in multiple countries. It’s much more effective and organized then storing scientific literature in our own storage system.”

It also helps the teams understand which documents have most credibility, Polly said:

If you share documents by email, there’s no immediate way of establishing credibility. You have scientific articles mixed in with grey literature, blog posts, opinions, and whatever else anyone is sending around. When it’s a paper in Mendeley, we can approach it understanding that it’s a particularly robust piece of evidence.

The teams at Brooke also use it as a way of keeping their own skills sharp, staging “journal clubs” using Mendeley’s shared annotations as a starting point for discussion:

We want to maintain our skills in evaluating the quality of a paper, and also see what we can apply to our own work, so our journal clubs are quite discursive. We’ll choose a piece, and then in the run-up to the meeting, people will use Mendeley to comment on the article. Those comments guide our discussion. It’s mainly something we do in the UK, but we’ve also done it internationally.

Keeping everyone up to date with the latest reseach is not the only communications challenge the team faces however. And not all challenges require a technological solution.

“I remember working in India with the Qalander community,” she said, referring to the formerly nomadic group now settled north of Delhi. “They were breeding mules, they had a stallion and some mares, and they were seeing quite high rates of spontaneous abortions. The mares were losing their foals.”

Along with Dinesh Mohite, Research Team Leader at Brooke India, Polly visited one of these communities to analyze the risk factors and understand the most common diseases. “We used a system of participatory epistemology tools – drawings and matrices in the sand – to discuss with the commmunity members exactly what the difficulties with their animals’ health were” she said.

For Polly, it was a moment of putting into action a system she’d seen demonstrated – and in doing so forging a connection with the community.

Sometimes you can feel like you’re arriving into someone else’s space with your own expectations, but in this moment it felt like we were working together with the community, and I could see Dinesh developing his skills and really becoming a researcher in this process. It was a special moment.

Dinesh Mohite (in the blue cap) works with the Qalander community to understand their animal welfare issues. (Photo courtesy of Brooke)

Animals and animal healthcare have been a part of Polly’s career since she trained as a vet a decade ago, and equids have been especially important to her.

Working overseas, you work with a lot of animals. There’s something about the role donkeys, horses and mules play in people’s lives. They’re so important – ploughing fields, taking children to school, fetching water – but also so  under-recognized. They often don’t fall under a definition of livestock, which means that they are underserved by policies and development agendas.

Brooke aims to deliver significant and lasting change, even in some of the world’s most challenging areas. It trains and supports owners of horses, donkeys and mules along with local vets, farriers, harness makers and animal traders to improve standards of care. Operating in 10 countries and funding projects in many others, it is now one of the most far-reaching and effective equine welfare charities in the world. To continue growing and improving, they undertake research into which systems and activities are working and where change is needed.

Horses and donkeys with their owners, clearing rubbish near a slum in the outskirts of New Dehli. (©Brooke/Freya Dowson)

Additionally, Polly’s work gives her a chance to see her colleagues build their skills and networks. “We have fantastic people in the countries where we operate,” she said. “With what Brooke does, they end up working long days with animals they didn’t necessarily have to deal with before, but they develop incredible empathy for them, and seeing that build is incredibly rewarding.

“You get to see people hone their skills as researchers, build their networks and present their work internationally,” she added. “That’s so important.”

Understanding the why behind animal welfare issues

Dinesh Mohite attending the International Symposium of Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics in Mexico in 2015.For someone who loves animals, the work can be tough and occasionally involve working with people whose approach to animal welfare is culturally different. “We did some work in Kenya with the Maasai, looking at why they brand their animals either with hot irons or incisions. That causes a large welfare concern, obviously,” Polly said. “But what we found was that there were two main drivers behind that – one was about controlling the animal, one was about identifying it as belonging to your clan. When we understand that, we can work on things like alternative approaches to animal handling and behavior.”

The teams also operate at a policy level, encouraging decision makers in different countries to promote policies that support improved animal welfare. “Often, these animals are part of a value chain – they carry agricultural produce, they transport people. When we carry out research that helps put a number on the economic value of the animals, we can use that research in advocacy work.”

The nature of the work means the teams involved often see animals in distress, whether undernourished, overworked, or exhibiting behavioral abnormalities through exhaustion. Polly explained that its crucial to have an understanding of the life these animals are a part of. “Honestly, I saw more cruelty as a vet in the UK than I have working overseas,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I’ve seen more animals in trouble, but on an individual basis, I find cruelty much harder to understand than poverty. What we do is build an understanding of the way people live and work with that understanding. In that way, we can work to make their lives better in the long run.”

Action for working horses and donkeys

Learn more about Brooke’s work at www.thebrooke.org

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