The American Fondouk, an animal hospital specialising in horses, mules and donkeys, has operated in Fez since 1927. A new director, Dr Gigi Kay, took over in August and renovations have begun. Suzanna Clarke visits and gets more up close and personal than she bargained for.
The huge, work-worn mule was laid out on the vinyl cushions, which are the Fondouk’s temporary operating table, until the new renovations are complete. Its owner had brought it in a short time before, with a large piece of what looked like meat hanging beneath its belly – muscles and fat held by a thread. While it was gruesome to look at, it must have been excruciatingly painful for the animal. “An accident with farm machinery,” the owner explained.
“We need to get this out of the way,” said Dr Gigi Kay, the dynamic new director of the Fondouk, and its chief vet. “Can you do it?” she asked me. She was referring to the animal’s penis, which was dangling into the wound. “Okay,” I gulped, and put on sterile gloves, wrapped a towel around the mule’s member and pulled it out of the way, trying not to feel faint at the sight of the gaping hole in its flesh. I maintained this intimate contact for the next hour.
“I hope you aren’t squeamish,” Gigi said, as she began delicately snipping away at the hanging bits of muscle and dead skin.
The wound was flushed with saline solution and then the other vet, Dr Mohamed Bourassi, assisted to suture the muscle together. Stretching the skin across looked like an impossible task, but with some firm persuasion, it was pulled across like a satin sheet, hiding the bloody mass beneath. I was impressed at how neatly and quickly the two vets worked, using thin plastic tubing to take some of the strain off the skin and making small incisions on the taut skin on either side, to prevent tearing.
Their task was made all the more difficult by the fact that, despite more than the usual dose of anaesthetic, the mule wasn’t fully asleep. It kept jerking and twitching and had to be constantly topped up with ketamine. There were seven of us involved in the operation and each person was doing an essential job; from the man who held the animal’s leg to stop it kicking the vets' faces, through to my own, more humble, contribution.
Finally, the operation was finished and I was relieved to release my grip. Where the gaping hole had been was a neat row of stitching and the prospect that the animal might survive and, after recovery, continue its working life.
“But doesn’t it hurt you to patch them up and then return them back to such difficult conditions?” I asked Gigi later. “They are not my animals,” she said simply. “We are only here to make them better. We give them the best quality care they have ever had in their lives. They are fed and cared for as if they were in horse equivalent of a five star hotel. We are happy if they are well enough to go back out there.”
After seeing suppurating wounds and injuries caused by hobbles, or carrying carts or heavy loads, how did she feel about the owners of the animals? “ I am never judgemental,” she says. “I was brought up with these people and I know what hard lives they have.”
Instead, Gigi bargains for each day. “Recently we had a mule which had been hit by a car. Its owner said it had to start ploughing on Monday. I said it needed more time, and he kept coming back, asking when it would be ready, and I would ask for another day or two. I’m constantly bargaining.”
For a mule or donkey owner who depends on the animal for his family’s livelihood, the loss of it can be devastating. So the role the Fondouk plays is an essential one of making sure that the animals can continue. And, on a larger scale, the Fez Medina would not be what it was without them.
Started in 1927 by American tourist Amy Bend Bishop, the American Fondouk is the only American equine hospital operating in Morocco. There are ten others, run by the British organisation Spana. The American Fondouk is overseen by a board and relies for its funds on private donations. As running costs are around $25,000 per month, this is a considerable commitment.
|Dr Gigi Kay|
Judging by the number of well-heeled types still coming to the clinic with their pets, word hasn’t yet got around. “We still euthanize animals if it’s medically essential,” she says.
The Fondouk treats around 20 animals a day that come through its doors and another 20 which are held in recovery stalls. The two vets and eleven other staff are constantly busy. “It should really be a three vet practice,” she says.
Lots of injuries they attend to are mules and donkeys that have run-ins with cars; abscesses and wounds caused by hobbles and inappropriate harnesses and colic from animals eating plastic bags. The clinic’s resources are modest, but Gigi has plans to make the stalls bigger and to have a proper operating area. The clinic will shortly get a weighing machine so they can better judge the amount of anesthetic to administer.
Before beginning at the American Fondouk in August, Dr Gigi Kay was the Veterinary Director for a working equid hospital in Luxor, Egypt and before that, Veterinary Director of Spana in Morocco. Originally from England, she was brought up in the Middle East. Her family was constantly on the move, with her diplomat father and archaeologist mother. “I always wanted to be with horses, even before I could walk,” she says.
Gigi was 17 when she first came to Morocco for three years, then spent five years living here when she was with Spana. She is married to an English doctor, Dick Hooper, and has recently returned from a stint in Sydney.
She enjoys the personal care she is able to give her patients at The American Fondouk.
“This is an ideal job for me,” Gigi says. “I like making broken animals better.”
Dr Gigi Kay wants to encourage tourists to visit, with the aim that the Fondouk can generate some of its own money through donations.
The American Fondouk is open from 8am to 4pm. Anyone, including tour groups, is welcome to visit, but be prepared to give a donation. The animals of Fez depend upon your generosity.
See the American Fondouk Website here. or phone them on 066 5794400.
Photos and story: Suzanna Clarke