Donkey The donkey or ass, Equus asinus, is a domesticated animal of the horse family, Equidae.
Most wild donkeys are between 1 and 1.60 m in length. Domestic donkeys stand from 0.9 to over 1.40 m tall. The Andalucian-Cordobesan breed of southern Spain can reach up to 1.60 m high. Donkeys are adapted to marginal desert lands, and have many traits that are unique to the species as a result. They need less food than horses. Overfed donkeys can suffer from a disease called laminitis. Unlike horse fur, donkey fur is not waterproof, and so they must have shelter when it rains. Wild donkeys live separated from each other, unlike tight wild horse herds. Donkeys have developed very loud voices, which can be heard for over three kilometers, to keep in contact with other donkeys of their herd over the wide spaces of the desert. Donkeys have larger ears than horses to hear the distant calls of fellow donkeys, and to help cool the donkey's blood. Donkeys' tough digestive system can break down near-inedible vegetation and extract moisture from food more efficiently. Donkeys can defend themselves with a powerful kick of their hind legs.
Etymology of the name
The word donkey is an etymologically obscure word. The first written attestation of it dates to circa 1785. Until recent times, the synonym ass was often used to refer to Equus asinus (e.g., as in jackass, "male donkey"); ass has clear cognates in most other Indo-European languages. However, its homonymity with the vulgar term ass for "buttocks" probably influenced its gradual replacement by donkey in the sense of Equus asinus. No credible cognate for donkey has yet been identified. Hypotheses on its derivation include the following:
- Perhaps a diminutive of dun (dull grayish-brown), a typical donkey colour.
- Perhaps from the name Duncan.
- Perhaps of imitative origin.
The ancestors of the modern donkey are the Nubian (a medium sized donkey with a grey and white coat, stripes on back and legs and a tall, upright mane with a black tip) and Somalian subspecies of African wild ass. The African Wild Ass was domesticated around 4,000 B.C. The donkey became an important pack animal for people living in the Egyptian and Nubian regions as they can easily carry 20% to 30% of their own body weight and can also be used as a farming and dairy animal. By 1800 B.C., the ass had reached the Middle East where the trading city of Damascus was referred to as the “City of Asses” in cuneiform texts. Syria produced at least three breeds of donkeys, including a saddle breed with a graceful, easy gait. These were favored by women.
For the Greeks, the donkey was associated with the Syrian god of wine, Dionysus. The Disney film Fantasia (1940) features a Dionysian character on a donkey. The Romans also valued the ass and would use it as a sacrificial animal.
In 1495, the ass first appeared in the New World. The four males and two females brought by Christopher Columbus gave birth to the mules which the Conquistadors rode as they explored the Americas. Shortly after America won her independence, President George Washington imported the first mammoth jackstock into the country. Because the Jack donkeys in the New World lacked the size and strength he required to produce quality work mules, he imported donkeys from Spain and France, some standing over 1.63 m tall. One of the donkeys Washington received from the Marquis de Lafayette named "Knight of Malta" stood only 1.43 m and was regarded as a great disappointment. Viewing this donkey as unfit for producing mules, Washington instead bred Knight of Malta to his Jennets and, in doing so, created an American line of Mammoth Jackstock.
Despite these early appearances of donkeys in America, the donkey did not find widespread favor in America until the miners and gold prospectors of the 1800s. Miners preferred this animal due to its ability to carry tools, supplies, and ore. Their sociable disposition and fondness for human companionship allowed the miners to lead their donkeys without ropes. They simply followed behind their master. With the introduction of the steam train, these donkeys lost their jobs and many were turned loose into the American deserts. Descendants of these donkeys can still be seen roaming the Southwest in herds to this day.
By the early 20th century, donkeys began to be kept as pets in the United States and other wealthier nations, while remaining an important work animal in many poorer nations. The donkey as a pet is best portrayed by the appearance of the miniature donkey in 1929. Robert Green imported miniature donkeys to the United States and was a lifetime advocate of the breed. Mr. Green is perhaps best quoted when he said "Miniature Donkeys possess the affectionate nature of a Newfoundland, the resignation of a cow, the durability of a mule, the courage of a tiger, and the intellectual capability only slightly inferior to man's." Standing only 32-40 inches, many families recognized the potential of miniature donkeys as pets and companions for their children.
Although the donkey fell from public notice and became viewed as a comical, stubborn beast which was considered “cute” at best, the donkey has recently regained some popularity in North America as a mount, for pulling wagons, and even as a guard animal. Some standard species are ideal for guarding herds of sheep against predators since most donkeys have a natural aversion to canines and will keep them away from the herd.