The sun peeks over the skyline of the medieval Turkish city of Mardin as a herd of cream-colored donkeys begin their day’s work to collect debris before relaxing in the evenings with classical music.
Guided by city workers, the animals carry garbage bags that roam the city’s narrow alleys built on a cliff overlooking the former Mesopotamia, 60 kilometers from Syria.
“We’ve been using them to clean up the city for centuries. They are the only ones who have access to these narrow streets, says Kadri Toparli, who works in the cleaning team in Mardin’s old town.
“Otherwise, it would be impossible to do this work.”
When names like Gaddar (cruel), Cefo (generous) and Bozo (pale) reflect their personality and traits, about 40 donkeys “have the status of municipal workers,” Toparli explains.
“They work like us, eight hours a day, after a break of four hours in the middle of the day.”
In the evenings, the donkeys relax from a long day of climbing at least 150 steps to the beat of the music while the vets treat them in their stables.
“We take care of them. Every night we play classical music or traditional melodies for two hours,” Toparli says.
“We see they’re happier when we call Beethoven,” he ponders.
In the early 20th century, when Mardin had only 20,000 people, donkeys carried ash produced from wood and coal heaters.
Today, the Old Town alone has 60,000 inhabitants and generates almost 10 tonnes of waste every day.
“We have mini vehicles we call‘ garbage taxis. ’We also use them, but they are not as efficient,” says Abdulkadir Tutasi, the mayor of the old town.
Efforts to phase out donkeys are in line with the growing sensitivity of Turkish society to animal welfare in recent years.
To counter possible criticism, Mardin’s old town authorities say they are working with animal rights organizations to monitor donkey working conditions.
Toparli makes every effort to treat his asses with care and respect.
“They’re very intelligent animals. They know their territory by heart,” he says. “Often we don’t have to guide them back to their stables.”