In the last decade, 141 horses and mules have died on the Romería de El Rocío pilgrimage, a yearly tradition where people cross the Doñana National Park to reach the small Andalusian village of El Rocío. Around a million pilgrims and 20,000 horses, mules and oxen take part in the event every year, which is held in honor of Our Lady of El Rocío, but many animals die on the journey.
I have not seen physical abuse but rather extreme physical effort lead to death PACMA spokesperson Laura Duarte
Pressure from animal activists however, has helped raise awareness and increase vigilance. At the end of last weekend’s pilgrimage, six equines had died from heart attacks, digestive colic and accidents – the lowest number on record. The Civil Guard’s Environmental Protection Service (Seprona) also reported six riders for three cases of animal abuse involving six equines.
Slowly, the number of horses killed en route to El Rocío is diminishing. In 2008, 23 equines were killed, costing the Andalusian regional government €10,000 for the removal and destruction of the animals. In 2012, the number fell to 17; in 2016 there were 13 deaths; and this year just six.
“We have always asked ourselves how many animals die in a population of the 20,000 horses outside of the pilgrimage and the average is between eight and 10,” says Miguel Carro, head of veterinarian services during the pilgrimage. “In El Rocío, another five animals often die because of accidents and previous illnesses that were not apparent in their resting state.”
Around 20,000 animals take part in the pilgrimage
The Animalist Party Against Mistreatment of Animals (PACMA) has welcomed the “good news” that the number of animal deaths has decreased thanks to greater control and the presence of 2,314 Civil Guard officers. “It is the outcome of media pressure,” says PACMA spokesperson Laura Duarte. “This, however, does not change the exploitation that some animals are subjected to as mere means of transport. I have not seen physical abuse but rather extreme physical effort lead to death.”
Santiago Padilla, the secretary of the El Rocío confraternity, says the pilgrimage attracts a very wide range of people some with “more or less understanding of animals.” “No one is asked for a license,” he explains. “We have always demanded the greatest respect for the environment and the animals but outside of the confraternities there are a lot of people.”
The 121 confraternities that take part in the pilgrim take along a veterinarian to care for the needs of the animals.
“Any figure seems high to us. But it is not unreasonable, deaths are common,” says Carro. “Ninety-nine percent of people know how to care for their horses and would not consider not giving them water. The other 1% rents an equine and has no experience, but this is a factor associated with ignorance, not from bad faith.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.