Four-Legged Garbage Collectors Hit Sicilian Streets

The hours aren't bad. They're strictly union: 7 a.m to 6 p.m., six days a week. And the job comes with benefits: a personal assistant, sunbaths in the park, photographs, generous maternity leave.

The job location is decidedly attractive, the peaceful and picturesque Sicilian town of Castelbuono, nestled in the hills just 10 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The climate is Mediterranean.

Candidates for the position must be female, with a strong back and long ears.

Long ears?

Yes, because the newest employees in Castelbuono are donkeys — Teresa, Valentina, Cosima and Damiana — to be specific. Since February, three of the donkeys (Damiana is presently on maternity leave) have been walking the narrow streets of the old town every morning, helping to collect garbage door-to-door.

"We are saving money," Mario Cicero, the mayor, proudly told ABC News. "The service is just as efficient, and the children love them!" The idea of using the donkeys came to Cicero, 45, late last year. "Yes, the idea was mine. It's patented!" he laughed.

Always seeking new ways to be more ecological and beautify his town, Castelbuono's environmentally conscious mayor has been at work for 10 years in various capacities to make this town of 10,000 residents a model of environmental respect. The town is listed among the top 11 in Italy for environmental quality by the Lega Ambiente, or Environmental League.

Recycling the garbage began in Castelbuono in 1996 and is so successful that the town now separates 42 percent of its waste. "We are one of the most virtuous towns in the country," Cicero exclaimed, with his Sicilian inflection. It was after he became mayor in 2002 that Cicero decided to remove all the ugly, malodorous garbage containers in the historic part of Castelbuono and replace them with door-to-door daily collection of differentiated waste.

The citizens of Castelbuono responded and started separating their garbage, putting it on their doorsteps every morning.

But that was not enough. "I thought about what went on in the historic center of town," recalled the mayor, "where the tourists come across these trucks spewing diesel fumes and stinking of garbage. They block the traffic, too. So I thought, why can't we use something traditional, like our donkeys?"

So now in the small streets of the old town the rhythmic sound of donkey hooves has replaced the rumble and smell of the trucks.

The day starts early for the donkeys as they get groomed and saddled in the little public park on the edge of town. Breakfast is stale bread, prepared for them by their caretaker, Vincenzo Mazzola, a local expert in all things equine. For the moment, the donkeys live in the park.

"I like to let them loose as much as possible," said Mazzola, so afternoons are often spent grazing on empty plots on the outskirts of town. The local agriculture school is preparing proper quarters for them.

"They are all Sicilian donkeys," explained the jovial Mazzola. "We only keep females, because they are generally more docile, and they produce milk and foals."

Donkey milk, it turns out, is a blessing for babies and young children who are allergic to cow's milk. "It's an excellent milk, very sweet, and good for nursing mothers and babies," said Mazzola.

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