In this village, donkeys are a girl's best friend.

"My donkey helps me carry water five miles back and forth, four times a day," said Lakech Mulugeta, 19, as she slowly dipped her yellow five-gallon jug into a pond and filled it until her thin arms struggled with the weight. Her donkey is her minivan, her water cooler, her co-worker and treasured companion. "We travel many miles together. We never leave each other."

There is an adage here in the rural and rocky hills of Ethiopia: "A woman without a donkey is a donkey herself." The animals bear the loads of firewood, water and food that otherwise are borne on the backs of rural women whose physical labor shapes the Ethiopian landscape.

"Our donkeys are like blood to us," said Legasse Wolde, 40, a health assistant at the Donkey Hospital, Health and Welfare Project in Debre Zeit, 33 miles southeast of Addis Ababa, the capital. "Actually, donkeys are more than blood; they are like air and blood."

But this is a hard time for donkeys, and for their human masters. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, is facing a food shortage that could affect as many as 11 million people. The population has doubled in the last three decades, to 67 million. The poverty and crowding have placed an added burden on the country's 9 million donkeys.

As donkeys are being overloaded, more are falling ill. In addition to the loads, donkeys are traveling farther to retrieve water. They end up with parasites, sores and swollen, bloody hooves.

"Donkeys are good animals. They work seven days a week with little food and water," said Keith Powell, a visiting donkey project veterinarian from Britain. "But they are caught in a cycle -- like women are in Africa -- of truly exhausting and never-ending physical work."

The number of donkeys being treated at the Ethiopia hospital jumped from 40,000 to 68,152 in just the last two years, said Bojia Endebu, the head veterinarian at the donkey hospital here.

"You look at the way donkeys are overused and you see their sores from the ropes they have to strap on and the large sacks they are carrying," said Endebu. "I am optimistic, always, but all I see are sad donkeys. It's not a world where life is getting easier, for anyone, even donkeys. Especially the donkeys."

Donkeys are a sign of relative prosperity in many villages, where they are given to children when they start their working lives, around age 12 or 13. A donkey can cost the equivalent of about $25, a large sum in this part of Ethiopia. They sometimes form part of a wedding dowry.

The status and importance of donkeys in Ethiopia are reflected in the donkey hospital here, the only full-service health post in the world exclusively for donkeys. It includes a donkey emergency room and an ambulance service that consists of, well, several donkeys pulling a cart.

The hospital was started a decade ago by Elisabeth D. Svendsen, who founded a donkey sanctuary in England in the early 1970s. During a trip to Ethiopia she noticed how mistreated donkeys were and saw they were laden with sacks stuffed with anything from charcoal to earthenware pots filled with grain to crates of local beer. She also noticed how donkeys in Ethiopia die at a tender age. The average life span for a donkey in Ethiopia was nine years, compared with 30 in Britain.

"Donkeys are extremely important because they work full time for the poorest people," said Svendsen, who now lives in England. "In the Western world donkeys are mainly companions and pets, but in some African countries donkeys are absolutely essential. They have quite a hard life and work their entire lives."

The hospital operates as a charity, funded by donations from animal lovers and others, Svendsen said. She now has clinics in Lamu, Kenya; Devon, England; and in Mexico and India.

In Kenya, people call Svendsen "Mama Punda," or "mother of donkeys" in Swahili. Svendsen is to the donkey what Dian Fossey was to mountain gorillas in Rwanda, an outsider who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of animals. She wrote an illustrated children's book about the trials of a 2-year-old overworked donkey named Dusty, who was born in Debre Zeit.

The hospital was host to the Global Donkey Seminar 2001, where donkey advocates from Egypt, India, Greece and Mexico descended on the town to talk about the role of donkeys in their societies and their general health and happiness. Of course, most patients at the hospital don't look so happy: On a recent day, one stall was occupied by a donkey with sores so infected that they had turned bright yellow. In another stall, a donkey was hooked up to an intravenous drip after its owner failed to give it water.

Workers at the hospital try to make it a cozy place. The squat building forms an L and has a lawn where patients can graze. There is a surgery center, a feed store, recovery stalls and a giant display with a chart of donkey anatomy. A plaque outside the operating room says the equipment was "Donated by the Readers of Horse and Pony Magazine." There is a library that includes articles from the Journal of the American Mule.

In fact, a key to donkey health is educating their owners.

"It's much easier to teach the young people," said Endebu. "Old people are more stubborn than donkeys. But we try to explain that with healthier donkeys, the owners earn more money and have a better economic status. Maybe they can bring the donkeys to market three times a day instead of six."

At the Donkey Hospital in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, a worker shows how maltreatment and overwork, increasingly common as resources grow scarcer, can affect an animal.