Fewer animals died than normal this year in the traditional ceremonies centered around the small Andalucian village of El Rocio which welcomed a million pilgrims to their sandy streets last weekend. They were all brought together to worship the 13th Century statue known as the Virgin of Rocio, with many walking for days in hot conditions, whilst some ride on horses or travel in carts pulled by animals, and that’s where the controversy arises over the welfare of the animals themselves.
Since 2000, more than 230 horses, mules and oxen have perished during the week-long festivities, and many more have suffered non-fatal injuries, and seven years ago, the number of equine deaths peaked at 25, causing an outcry among animal welfare charities which continue to highlight the fatalities.
Between 12,000 and 15,000 horses, mules and donkeys and their charges pick their way across the region in large religious groups called “hermandades”, pitching camp along route. The extreme conditions make the horses the most vulnerable because they are of a more sensitive disposition and they are susceptible to colic, which can prove fatal.
The Refugio del Burrito charity and the UK’s Donkey Sanctuary sent a 30-strong team of vets and animal welfare specialists, who treated almost 200 animals affected by injuries, exhaustion and dehydration. But despite the continuing problems, this year’s pilgrimage saw a significant drop in fatalities with eight deaths being the lowest since 2002. That could in part be due to the cooler temperatures this year, but it could also be down to police and local authorities cooperating with animal welfare charities, which set up an onsite veterinary hospital for the first time.