Donkey or ass is
a domestic animal falling under equine family. In this family there are the
horse, mule and zebra. Donkeys are used by human for draught, pack, and ridden
work, milking, breeding, and sometimes eating.Donkeys have some advantages and
disadvantages. They are generally voluntary to work and friendly towards human.
Donkeys can be trained easily and need little supervision during work. They are
easy to be fed and consume poor food well. They are comparatively cheaper to
buy than other draught animals. On the other hand they generally suffer from
being alone and can be noisy when frustrated and alone. They are breed and
mature slowly. 7
The aim of this
compilation was to provide information of species characters including
taxonomy, origin, terms, ecology, form, lifespan, behaviour, vocal expression,
colour, markings, and relationships with other species, religion and myth of
name of Equus asinus was determined
by Linnaeus in 1758. The type locale was in Manisa, Turkey. 7 The
donkey may have been domesticated in the Sahara Desert region 6,000 years ago,
perhaps earlier in Egypt, 15 and afterwards spread to most countries
of the world. In historical times, donkeys became the chief means of transport
over the Asian Silk Road between China and Europe for many centuries.3, 13
Groves 8 has suggested that original donkey domestication might have
been in the Middle East, not long after the beginning of agriculture. Despite
the importance of the domesticated donkey, faunal remains and rock art
representations of donkeys are extremely rare. This can possibly be explained
by the fact that donkeys have mostly been important for poor households and
have consequently had low prestige. 5
1. 2 weeks (left) and 6 months (right)Lupenyo (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
English, the proper word for a donkey is ‘ass’. The word ‘donkey’ is an
etymologically obscure word. The first written attestation of it dates to ~1785, and it seems to have been introduced
in the 19th century, possibly derived from the Flemish ‘dunnetjie’,
meaning small and dun-coloured. In
Flemish and Dutch the word for ass is also ‘esel’, which, like the French word
‘âne’, clearly derives from the Latin ‘asinus’, signifying that the donkey was
introduced to most of Europe by the Romans. 17
1. Scientific classification of the donkey.
3. Calf training (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
4. Horse& donkey skeletons superposed (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
5. Hoof underside (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
6.Donkey skeleton (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
word ‘ass’ was made problematic by American usage, in which the British word
‘arse,’ spelled and pronounced that way but an offensive term for the part of
the human body that is sat on, became pronounced and even spelled ‘ass’ in
American English. This has done the
animal no service, so the word ‘donkey’ is now preferred to ‘ass’. Positive associations as embodied in the
English phrases ‘donkey’s years’ and ‘donkey work’ – reflecting the longevity
of the animal and its capacity for hard work – presumably originated in the 19th
The classic English word for Equus asinus.
Used in the King James version of the Christian Bible, where donkeys often play
an important role, mainly in the Old Testament.
Slang and now preferred alternative word for ‘ass’.
Stock (Jackstock): A group term for the American Mammoth Jack and Jennet,
because the male version was used in breeding mules.
or jackass: A male donkey. The term stallion may also be used instead of jack
or jackass, especially where an uncastrated male is indicated.
or jenny: A female donkey. The word ‘mare’ is often also used instead of jennet
or jenny, especially where breeding is referred to.
Male offspring = 1 year old of a donkey (or horse).
Female offspring = 1 year old of a donkey (or horse).
Burro: In Latin America or the Spanish-influenced
Western United States, also in Lusophone Africa, word for donkey.
Cuddy: Colloquial Scottish name for donkey.
Welsh gypsy name for donkey or mule.
Offspring of jackass (male donkey) and mare (female horse)
Offspring of jennet/jenny (female donkey) and stallion (male horse).
The proper term for a gelded (castrated or altered) male donkey (or horse).
Jack: Not necessarily a mule, but a jackass used to breed to horse mares to
Jack: A jackass used to breed to jennets (female donkeys) to produce more
donkeys (www.lovelongears.com, 2011). 18
tolerate hot, dry conditions, often in areas with low-quality forage. They have
a higher threshold for thirst than other equine species in terms of water
intake and latency to drink when fluid deficits develop. 7 They do
not thrive in damp areas, but easily live in marginal desert lands and are
adapted to areas that are arid at least seasonally. 2
Equus asinus individuals typically have narrow, concave and
slightly flexible hoofs which are suitable for rocky areas rather than flat
desert or sand dunes. ‘Chestnuts’ (vestigial remains of a ‘thumb’ or dewclaw)
are located only on the forelimbs. The dental array is: incissium 3/3, canine
1/1, premolar 3-4/3, molar 3/3, giving a total of 40 or 42 teeth. The incisors
are used to seize plants and break off portions, or sometimes to uproot the
whole plant while foraging, in which hoofs may also be employed. Donkeys
breathe ~22 times per minute. 7 Their
ears are proportionally much bigger than those of most other animals and enable
them to hear the distant calls of fellow donkeys. The long ears also help to
cool the donkey's blood. Donkeys' tough digestive system can break down
near-inedible vegetation and extract moisture from food more efficiently.
The normal lifespan of a donkey in good health can
exceed 50 years, but their lives are often shortened by poor management and
parasite infestation. 12 In Ethiopia a donkey life span is ~9 years, but they can live up to 25 years
under adequate health care and improved nutrition. 10 Their average
lifespan is about 15 years in Mexico. In some countries Jennies are not kept by
donkey owners, who believe that, “Jennies cause problems and do not work well”.
Thus in such areas the ratio of males to females is about 4:1 which causes
lowered donkey production. Abandoned Jennies are mostly killed by predators. 20
Where jacks are left uncastrated, this can also cause problems, as intact jacks
can be aggressive towards younger males and even kill them. 11
In the wild, donkeys graze from dawn till late morning
and again in the late afternoon; they rest in the heat of the day and around
midnight, when they will actually lie down to sleep, leaving one or more of
their number standing on guard. Much of
their behaviour is governed by their herd-animal nature.Some wild male donkeys
are territorial, inhabiting and defending specific areas for several weeks. 7
8.Manda at 22 years (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
10.Mudenda showing stripes (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
Figure 11. Mule logging (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
When not sexually excited – sometimes a problem in
intact males of any species – or being aggressive towards carnivores, donkeys
are very friendly, calm, quite, patient, intelligent, cautious, playful, and
eager to learn and enjoy the company of humans. They have great endurance. They
are very cautious and agile on poor tracks. They are notorious for stubbornness,
but this is due to some handlers’ misinterpretation of their highly-developed
sense of self preservation. It is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into
doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest. Donkey is
self-preserving in nature, but it is often wrongly called ‘stubborn’ by humans.
This almost certainly reflects the handlers’ shortcomings rather than thedonkeys’.
They prefer to do what is good for themselves, which is not always what the
human thinks is best, especially when it comes to getting their feet wet. They
dislike stepping in water or on wet areas, and even dislike bridges over dry gullies. Donkeys can perform all the
gaits that horses or mules do, 18 , 19 but prefer a four-footed
12. Some possible markings around a donkey’s head (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
defend themselves with a powerful kick of their hind legs, but they can also
chop down with their front legs from a rearing position, or even with one
foreleg on the ground, and have been known to kill dogs in this way. A donkey's
eyes are placed such that it can see all four feet at any one time, 19 and
they are notable careful about where they put their feet, even when they are
males are dominant over individuals of their own species. Adults of both sexes
are dominant over juveniles. No regular leadership is observed in large groups.
7 Territorial stallions chase or escort intruding males away from
the mares. A territorial donkey stallion shows dominance by posture: holding their head upright,
forward facing ears, ritual chasing of other stallions and examination of other
individuals’ scents. As seen in all equids
and mammals generally, donkey foals engage in many play behaviours. They
frolic, run, chase, buck, jump and leap. They toy with interesting objects in
their environment. They pick up, carry, sniff, chew, shake, pull or paw items.
Foals mount other young and also adults. They engage in ‘King of the Mountain’
competitions, block passageways to exclude others, and engage in play fighting.
At the age of one year, a donkey foal still spends most of its time no more
than 10 m away from mother,2 and may not be weaned until the next
foal is born to its mother, sometimes not even then.
Donkeys are herd animals and, while preferring their
own species, can adapt to live in groups of a different species such as horses,
sheep and goats. 1, 11
13. Mystery location (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
tend to express themselves vocally only when they know they can be heard, and
that attention will be paid to their needs.
have developed very loud voices, really raspy and brassy. The bray is the
characteristic ‘hee-haw’ as “aw-ee, aw-ee” and can be heard for over 3
kilometres. This enables donkeys to keep
in touch with other members of their herd over the wide spaces of the desert,
19 and is often an expression of frustration or loneliness. 14
Jacks especially seem to enjoy braying and will ‘sound off’ at any opportunity
(www.lovelongears.com, 2011). 18
adapted to living in arid or semi-arid areas and so need to separate somewhat
for grazing and browsing; therefore braying is significantly important in their
life in case of danger. 7 The bray is produced during both the air
intake for the “ee” and air outflow for the “aw”. Typically, braying consists
of a series of brays, primarily by males. They are mechanically produced with
some variation and terminated when the animal becomes short of breath. The
acoustic character, duration and sequence, some “ee-aw, while others “aw-ee”,
are unique to each animal. 6
Donkeys have a considerable vocal range.
Even within the bray, experienced listeners can detect differences in
emphasis and intent. A donkey facing
danger can make a sound very like the roar of a lion, and in more intimate
situations, as when a donkey is expecting food or meeting a friend after an
absence, there are various grunts and whines that can convey its feelings.
in the donkey range from the gray shades of gray-dun to brown, black,
light-faced roan (both red and gray), variants of sorrel, the blue-eyed ivory,
frosted/spotted white, bay and spotted
pattern. Real horse Pinto, Horse aging
gray, horse Appaloosa, Palomino and buckskin colours do not occur in the donkey
(www.lovelongears.com, 2011). 18
donkeys are of the familiar gray-dun colour, theycan have lots of colour
shades. Most donkeys have dorsal stripes and shoulder crosses, leg barring
(garters), dark ear marks as well as light points, white muzzle and eye rings,
white belly and inner legs. 18 Unless white all over, they do not
haveany white colour on their rump. 7
16. Donkey in a herd (Photo by Wolfgang Bayer)
This refers to a line of darker hair starting with the mane and running to the
end of the tail, called ‘dorsal stripe’or ‘eelstripe’. This is usually crossed
at the withers by another darker line of hair, or ‘shoulder stripe’, forming a
cross. The shoulder stripe may be long, very short, thin, wide, fading or
dashed. Shorter crosses, or
intersections along the dorsal stripe, can also occur starting back of the
shoulder stripe and diminishing towards the tail. Crosses are not seen on all donkeys, but can
even be discernible sometimes on black donkeys.
are commonly light areas or ‘points’ around the eyes (eye rings), muzzle and
belly and on the insides of the legs.
When these areas are light, so, also, is the inside of the ears.
donkeys also have dark markings on the ears, and as ‘garters’(or zebra marks)
around the legs or as ‘zippers’down the inside of the forelegs.
dark markings can often be found on the side of the neck (collar buttons), and
above and below the eyes – see Fig. 12.
17. Thriving on dry grass(www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
Relationships with other species
Donkeys and horses
belong to the Equidae family, but
there are some morphological differences, which can make a difference to the
equipment which each can use. For
instance, points nine, 10 and 11 below mean that donkeys cannot be efficiently
or comfortably saddled and hitched in the same way as horses.
1. The donkey only has chestnuts (epidermal
callosities) on the inner surfaces only of its forelegs, whereas the horse has
them on all four legs.
2. The donkey has a long head with a big
nasal cavity compared to the horse’s short and wide head.
3. The ears of donkeys are longer than 20 cm,
and hairy, but the ears of horses are shorter than 15 cm in adults in length
and less hairy.
4. Donkey hoofs are higher, smaller,
narrower, longer and more flexible than horse hoofs, whereas horse hooves are lower,
bigger, rounder and broader and more of a unit.
5. Pasterns are more upright in a donkey than
in a horse, i.e. the angle between the donkey’s hoof and the ground is steeper.
6. A forehead blaze is rare and nose blaze
and white socks virtually unknown on donkeys, whereas horses often have these.
7. The donkey tail is terminally tufted, a
‘broom tail’, with long hair confined to the distal half, but the horse’s whole
tail is long-haired, long hairs growing from its base.
8. A donkey neck is straighter than a horse’s
9. The donkey has virtually no withers, and
it is not prominent as in horses – in other words, the donkey scapulae are on a
level with its anterior spine.
10. A donkey’s crupper and rump are also not
as pronounced as those of horses, it pelvis having a slightly different angle
compared to that of a horse.
11. A donkey generally has a straight back and
a dipped loin, with the spine pitched slightly above the ribs, whereas a horse
commonly has a slightly swayed back and is level across the spine and rib joins
and over the pelvis.
12. The donkey mane is usually coarse, stiff
and upright, but all horse manes are long-haired.
13. A forelock is generally absent on donkeys,
but all horses have forelocks.
14. In an emergency situation donkeys behave
purposefully and calmly, regrouping if they can and facing the danger, but
horses can bolt for long distances.
15. The gestation period for a donkey can vary
between 10 and 14 months, but the gestation of a horse is about 11 months or
336 days.7, 9, 14, 18
20.Jenny and foal (Photo by Shaun Farmer)
21.A happy rider (Photo by MashuduMaroge)
Donkeys and cattle
When a donkey is compared to an ox, there are some
advantages and disadvantages to be considered (Table 2):
Table 2: Comparison of donkeys with cattle
ADVANTAGES of donkeys cf cattle
DISADVANTAGES of donkeys cf cattle
food more efficiently
only one stomach, must eat frequently, particularly before working
work almost twice as hard
must drink mother’s milk frequently
eat only about 1/5th total
breed produces milk surplus to what is needed by young
eat only about 1/12th high value food
work well with friends, so they need to be bought in pairs
drink only about 1/4 water
go far, and quickly, so they need supervision.
for kilogram, donkeys thus produce more work for less food
live up to 50 years and thus produce around 50.000 hours of work in a
long distances to find food, so exhaust less of environment
slower than oxen, often faster
easy to train
acceptable for women and children to use
from fewer diseases
not suffer from Foot and Mouth Disease
22.Browsing on twigs (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
Religion and myth
donkey may have been the manifestation of the Egyptian God of Seth, and is also
the animal associated with the Greek god Dionysus. In the Christian Gospels,
Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. 19 As this donkey
is also a colt, a deeper symbolism is probably represented, but certainly the
association between Hebrew kings and donkeys is intended. Outside of the
scriptures, there are other myths associating donkeys with Jesus. In Hindu
mythology a donkey (in Sanskrit) gardbha
is the vahana (vehicle) of the god
Kalaratr. 17 In parts of India the ritual marriage of
two donkeys is supposed to usher in good monsoon rains. 16
23.Donkey defying dog (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
25.Foal circa 6 months
24.Easy to ride and with children (www.donkeypower.donkecology.com)
are favourable for human life for centuries.Some studies showed that a couple
of donkey can produce a draught force of 15-20% of their combined body weight
for three hours a day. In this way a couple of donkeys is enough to do all
tillage work in light soil and can do secondary tillage and inter culture in
other soil types. The speed of working donkeys is generally higher than oxen. 4
Each year fossil fuels lessen and one day will be finished. Other energy
sources are either too expensive or not developed enough yet to use. Power of
donkey should not be ignored and humanity will need it in the future. Donkey is
apotential of world’s livestock heritage.They will be an important actor of the
world’s domestic livestock genetic resources and biodiversity. All of those
reasons donkey will have a significant role in the future. All breeds should be
conserved as a genetic material in donkey genetic pool.
This study was carried out under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Mehmet
Ertugrul (Ankara University, Turkey) and I gratefully thank him. I would also
like to thank Prof. Dr. Firat Cengiz (100. Yil University, Turkey), Prof. Dr.
Ensar Baspinar (Ankara University, Turkey), Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Zafer Arik
(Akdeniz University, Turkey), Prof. Dr. GurselDellal (Ankara University,
Turkey), Prof. Dr. Saim Boztepe (Selcuk University, Turkey), Assoc. Prof. Dr.
Askin Kor (100. Yil University, Turkey), and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Yalcin Bozkurt
(Suleyman Demirel University, Turkey)for their comments.For constructive comments,
careful scientific revision and editing in English, I am gratefully indebted to
Dr Peta Jones (Donkey Power, South Africa).
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