Newsmaker: Doing the donkey work - Mike Baker chief executive, TheBrooke

The Brooke's stylish, open-plan office in a prime location just off Leicester Square creates a first impression of a well-organised, slick operation. This is matched by its latest fundraising initiative, by means of which it hopes to tap into a significant reserve of support through the Courses for Horses campaign, which is being run in conjunction with major UK racecourses. Throughout June, it is encouraging people to organise their own horse-themed fundraising activities to help boost the charity's funds.

But as recently as 2001, the year in which Mike Baker became chief executive of the equine welfare charity, it was a very different story. "The Brooke's commitments far outweighed its income and it might have even closed," says Baker. "It had been without a permanent chief executive for 18 months and didn't have a fundraising department. But it had enormous potential, a united board that realised something had to be done and a lot of reserves. I didn't see it as a failing organisation, and I felt that if I couldn't turn it around, it would be my fault."

The Brooke now has 500 staff working across seven countries and helping an estimated 500,000 horses, donkeys and mules - not to mention the three million people who rely on them for their very existence.

Baker's appointment raised more than a few eyebrows. With a pedigree as head of parliament for Amnesty International and chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, he was widely regarded as a campaigner rather than a manager. "Some people were surprised and thought it was a step back," he says. "But I get much more satisfaction from what I'm doing now. Constant fighting dissipates your energy and induces stress. Often, you are not only fighting the system, but having to deal with internal politics too."

Baker believes that The Brooke's focus on the interdependency between animals and people sets it apart from many other animal welfare charities. He says: "I have never felt that you have to choose between the two - you can't help these animals without also helping their owners. In Sudan, for example, relying on a hand plough will cause crop levels to fall by about 80 per cent. We try to teach people how to protect their most valuable assets."

Although The Brooke often finds animals in appalling conditions, Baker insists it is rarely as a result of deliberate cruelty. He explains: "It's usually just ignorance or poverty that leads to suffering. If you earn less than £2 a day and have to feed six members of your family, you are not going to give your donkey a day off to rest because it is injured."

Another problem is that in some of the countries The Brooke deals with, there are long-standing but fundamentally misguided traditions governing the way people treat their animals. In Pakistan, for example, it is traditional to cut the nostrils of a horse or donkey because people believe it helps them to breathe in more oxygen and work harder. Baker says: "We can't just go in and tell them their way of doing things is wrong. We try to facilitate a situation in which they can see what works and what doesn't."

The Brooke currently has offices in Egypt, India, Pakistan and Jordan, but Baker is keen for it to grow and hopes that, within the next 10 years, it will have a worldwide network of partnerships reaching five million horses. He acknowledges that this is an optimistic goal, but he believes it is achievable.

Baker says: "The UK has some of the most pampered horses in the world and The Brooke works with those that suffer the most. A lot of people are hugely passionate about horses - we will never be able to compete with the likes of the RSPCA, but we can be a big player in the horseracing world."

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