What exactly is a donkey? Where do they come from? Are they stupid? Why do we speak of "donkey's years"? Here are the answers to these questions and more.
The donkey is properly known by the Latin name Equus asinus. He is also known as the ass, sometimes called a moke (originally by Welsh gypsies), a burro by Spanish-influenced Americans, and as a cuddy by some Scots.
Origins and Characteristics
Donkeys are related to horses and ponies, which are naturally native to lush grasslands, prairies and steppes. However, donkeys are adapted to the marginal desert land, so their food needs are less.
Due to their physical characteristics, particularly at the shoulder, donkeys are slower and less powerful than horses, although they do have an initial turn of speed over a short distance.
In the wild, donkeys live further spread out from each other than horses. Hence they have amazing voices, which can carry up to two miles, and of course their delightful ears which are bigger than horses' so they can more easily hear a distant neighbour.
There are still several types of donkey living wild in various places in the world:
" the Kiang in India and Nepal
" the Onager in Mongolia, Turkestan, Iran and Syria
" the Somali wild ass in Africa, which has zebra-like striped legs
" the Nubian ass, also in Africa, which has a shoulder stripe and a dorsal stripe, forming the famous cross. (The domestic donkey often also displays these markings.)
There are also feral donkeys living in places such as the Mohave desert, in the south-west USA, where they thrive. These are not truly wild animals, but descendants of domestic donkeys that have escaped or been set free.
Wild donkeys stand between 10 hands (102 cm) and 14 hands (142 cm) high. Most domestic donkeys are in much the same height range. However, a miniature donkey is under 9 hands (91 cm) when adult. At the other extreme, the American Mammoth and the French Poitou donkeys can stand up to 17 hands (173 cm).
Domestic donkeys come in a wide range of colours: from black to white, through every shade of grey and brown, even pink, which is correctly known as pale strawberry roan. They also come in broken colours, bi- and tri-colours being very popular as they are rarer.
We cannot be sure how man first came to cooperate with the donkey. (Yes, you do cooperate with a donkey! It is a highly intelligent animal which, unlike a horse, will not be commanded blindly into a situation of danger: donkeys would not make steeplechasers or three-day eventers.) However, due to their patience and persistence, donkeys found a very valid role as a surefooted pack animal and draught animal.
The donkey has an ill-founded reputation for being stubborn and stupid. This almost certainly reflects their handlers' characteristics rather than their own. It was often the less successful tradesmen that had donkeys, because they could not afford to keep horses, which have more expensive needs. Perhaps, like bad craftsmen, these tradesmen blamed their tools: the poor old donkey
Donkeys can be very long lived. Donkeys of 60 years old have been recorded, but normally a 40 year old donkey is looked on as being elderly. You can appreciate why we refer to 'donkey's years' as being a long time (though this may also owe something to the length of donkeys' ears, a play on words!). Of course 'donkey work' is always demanding and arduous. It's not clear where the expression 'talking the hind legs off a donkey' comes from, though!
Donkeys in Britain
Donkeys were among the first animals after cats and dogs to associate with man, and were certainly one of the first draught animals used by man when he took up agriculture. They form the subject of many cave paintings in Europe and Africa.
In the Past
Donkeys originally arrived in Britain many centuries ago with the Roman legions. The Romans used them both as pack animals and harnessed four abreast to draw wagons full of supplies. The donkey soon found its place: wherever there was hard work and little reward.
Later we can find working donkeys, harnessed and drawing a carriage in Anglo-Saxon paintings, shown pulling a plough in Sussex on the Bayeux Tapestry and more recently there are many pictures of Queen Victoria driving her donkey. At the peak of their popularity there were 100,000 working donkeys in London, including a milking herd: donkeys' milk is very good for premature and delicate babies and children.
There are very few working donkeys in England today. A few farms are run with their help, they are companions to nervous horses and newly weaned foals, water is raised by them at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, and there are also donkeys fetching and carrying in Clovelly. But of course in many developing countries a donkey is a person's most prized possession, being its owner's tractor, family car, shopping trolley and companion, all rolled into one.
Today a donkey's life is a lot more tolerable even if it is spent working giving rides on a beach, as there are rules to ensure the donkeys are well looked after and not overworked or abused. Also there are organisations, the Donkey Breed Society being one, which look after the best interests of all donkeys: our slogan 'Working for all donkeys' sums it up. The Society was formed over 35 years ago and helps to oversee the well-being of donkeys in Britain today.
Nowadays it is much more likely that the donkeys you will see will be family pets, often being shown, driven, taken for walks, teaching youngsters to ride or just being a well-loved companion. It's true to say that most people have a soft spot for the donkey, and most donkeys have a soft spot for us too!
All About Donkeys