A Donkey Standing On A Bridge Made Of Branches

The underappreciated donkey

Jennie Lane shines an important light on a devoted animal

Jennie Lane has always been an animal lover. She grew up riding competition horses in upstate New York. In fact, they were the gateway to her veterinary career and position as an animal health and livelihoods technical advisor with Land O’Lakes International Development, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit closely affiliated with Land O’Lakes, Inc. Since her riding days, she has traveled the world to work with many members of the animal kingdom—horses, llamas, dairy cows, chickens, you name it. But her favorite animal may come as a surprise: donkeys.

So, how does a New York equestrian end up rooting for the donkey, what some might say is the less glamorous equine cousin? Let’s not put the cart before the horse.

Jennie’s journey to Land O’Lakes

In 2003, Jennie left her riding days behind her to attend Michigan State University, where she graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. After several years of practicing equine and small animal medicine in the U.S., Jennie soon found herself jumping on planes to share her veterinary expertise with farmers around the world.

“It didn’t take long for me to see the links between animal and human health. No matter where I was in the world, the better the animals were cared for—both from a health and business perspective—the better off the farming family was. I was curious about this relationship,” says Jennie.

So Jennie went to get her master’s degree in Public Health at the University of California, Berkley. Here, she studied the human end of the equation. While in school, in 2014 Jennie attended a Chicago Council for Global Affairs event in Washington, DC, where Land O’Lakes, Inc. CEO Chris Policinski was speaking about climate change, ag technology and feeding a growing global population.

“I had no idea Land O’Lakes was active in the international ag development space. It caught my attention,” says Jennie.

A year later, Jennie was chosen as a Leland Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center. Her assignment took her to Malawi, a small landlocked country in southeastern Africa, where Land O’Lakes International Development had a project that intersected her two favorite topics: livestock and food security. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this project, called Livestock for Resilience (L4R), was working with farmers on how to best care for their animals to have a more sustainable income.

A bit about Malawi

The first thing to know about Malawi is that around 80 percent of the population are farmers.

“The typical farm is small, one to three hectares. They live on and off the land—there’s a small patch for growing crops and then a mud or brick house with one or two rooms,” says Jennie.

Most farms have several types of animals. Chickens, goats, a pig or two, all wandering around together. There are even a few donkeys in the mix. This list of animals all have one thing in common: they are a resilient bunch—and for good reason. Drought in Malawi is a regular occurrence and less water means crop failure and less income to go around for all sorts of household needs, including livestock inputs (such as feed and vaccinations).

Another thing you should know about Malawi is that chickens are considered a financial currency. Meaning, many of these farmers don’t have formal bank accounts. Chickens and other livestock are assets traded for crop inputs, school fees and other household necessities.

Chickens as a currency

This currency system isn’t ideal for several reasons. First, if a live chicken is financially valuable, chances are you won’t eat it, especially when said chicken can reproduce. The fact that these animals can provide much-needed protein to families who are undernourished comes secondary to paying for living expenses.

“These are the same farmers whose children are stunted from malnourishment. But, it’s more complicated than just training people to integrate animal-sourced foods into their diet. Eating the chickens or eggs means farmers are left empty handed when it comes to school fees or other foods. It’s a tough decision and even tougher behavior change,” says Jennie.

Like any other living animal, chickens are also vulnerable to disease. Jennie and the L4R team witnessed this firsthand last fall when they got a call from a farmer a few communities away. “Those chickens you delivered to us a few days ago. They are dying, and our other chickens are getting sick,” he said.

The project had never responded to a disease outbreak before. Some of the project staff were in denial. But, from studying epidemiology and outbreak investigation, Jennie knew there was no time to waste. She took charge in running an emergency recall plan.

“These farms are spread out and we couldn’t just pick up the phone to tell them to quarantine their animals. We had to get out and recall them ourselves, one farm at a time. And the longer we waited, the more widespread the disease would spread,” Jennie says. “The worst part, was taking the animals. Imagine, someone comes by and says they needed to empty your bank account.”

It took a week to recover all the sick animals. In total, 262 farming households lost 1,264 chickens. Every farmer was later reimbursed.

“I hate to even think of how much bigger the problem would have been without Jennie there. Her leadership and expertise saved not only these farming families, but also those that weren’t yet impacted by the outbreak,” says Majra Gibbons, L4R program manager based in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Fail fast, then adapt

Due to governmental limitations and regulations on shipping samples, the L4R project team never found out what disease took over during the distribution. But, they did learn a thing or two about managing a livestock program.

“Take any living creature from their familiar environment, change their diet, increase the population and put them in high stress environment—of course they are going to get sick,” says Jennie. “We have to take this learning and implement it in future programs. Traditional livestock procurement and distribution models are very risky, especially for poultry. We should focus on training farmers on how to care for their existing animals, like improving feed, breeding practices, vaccinations, and housing. And for those farmers who don’t own livestock, we can develop more creative local chicken procurement or voucher schemes.”

Since the project’s close out in May 2016, Jennie moved to Washington, D.C., where she continues to use her animal wizardry for Land O’Lakes International Development. Taking what she learned from her year in the field, she is focused on designing stronger integrated nutrition and livestock programs, including redeveloping the organization’s livestock procurement and distribution guidelines.

The chicken disease outbreak was a stressful, scary time for all those involved. But it’s motivated Jennie to make our programming better. Which leads us back to the donkey.

“If something startles a horse, it runs away. Donkeys pause to assess what scared them. And then, they band together and push on. It’s why they are known for their stubbornness,” says Jennie. “They are tolerant. They work hard. They are animals that have evolved to adapt to their environment. We all could learn a thing or two from our donkey friends.”