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Street-cleaning donkeys in Turkey listen to Beethoven while they work

Donkeys help locals clean the streets of the ancient Turkish city of Mardin
Donkeys help locals clean the streets of the ancient Turkish city of Mardin Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Ben Anthony Horton with AFP
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Welcome to Mardin, the ancient Turkish city where donkeys clean the streets.

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As the sun rises above the medieval Turkish city of Mardin, a herd of cream-coloured donkeys begin their day collecting rubbish along the cobbled streets.

Guided by city workers, the animals carry bags of waste as they wind through the narrow alleyways of the metropolis.

Built on a cliff top overlooking what was once Mesopotamia, the city has always had a special relationship with these four-legged friends.

“We have been using them to clean the city for centuries. They are the only ones who can access these narrow streets," says Kadri Toparli, who works for the Mardin old town cleaning team.

"Otherwise, it would be impossible to do this work."

With names that reflect their personalities - Gaddar (Cruel), Cefo (Indulgent) and Bozo (Pale) - the forty or so donkeys "have the status of municipal employees," Toparli explains.

The donkeys relax in the evening with the help of classical music and veterinary care.

"They work like us, eight hours a day, with a break after four hours in the middle of the day."

After climbing at least 150 steps throughout the course of their work, the donkeys relax in the evening with the help 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," he quips.

Is it a breach of animal rights?

At the start of the 20th century, when Mardin was home to just 20,000 people, the donkeys collected the ashes produced from wood and coal heaters.

Today, the old town alone has over 60,000 residents, generating nearly 10 tonnes of waste every day.

"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.

But efforts to phase out this reliance on donkeys reflect the growing concern for animal welfare in Turkish society.

In January 2020, Istanbul banned horse-drawn carriages from the Princes' Islands, a rustic archipelago popular with weekend visitors. The carriages, once emblematic of the nine hilly islands, were replaced with electric vehicles.

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To ward off potential criticism, Mardin's old town officials say they are working with animal rights organisations to monitor the donkeys' working conditions.

Donkeys get a happy retirement

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."

Recruited at the age of six, the donkeys are retired with great fanfare when they reach the age of 14 or 15.

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There is an official ceremony, with a plate of watermelon offered to the pension-age donkey instead of cake.

The average life-span of these animals is between 25 and 30 years, meaning Mardin’s herd are treated to a well-deserved rest after their civic service is complete.

Watch the video above to find out more.

Video editor • Ben Anthony Horton

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