2018-12-08 / News


Behold the Lovely, Lowly Donkey
by Candice C. Dunnigan

“Remember, the lowly donkey with a smile is but a unicorn in disguise.”

Old French proverb

One of the oldest and most continuous beasts of burden across the countries of the world has been the donkey. The animal is cited in the Koran, mentioned in Hebrew studies, and found in the Bible. As we approach the season of Christmas, the traditional tale is that Mary, great with child, traveled to Bethlehem from Nazareth on the back of a donkey. There is also the Biblical image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of an ass on Palm Sunday. Many people feel the dorsal hairs on many donkeys’ backs signify their role in the life of Christ. Donkeys have been around for more than 5,000 years, as a working animal for multitudes of people.

The animal originated in Africa, and is known as the Africa wild ass (Equus africanus), in present day Nubia and Somalia. They were captured and largely domesticated in Egypt. According to recent statistics, there are more than 40 million of them, mostly in underdeveloped countries. Donkeys are used for milk, meat, trekking, and as beasts of burden. These animals are known by several names, such as burros and asses. An intact (uncastrated) male donkey is called a jack. A young jack is known as a colt. A female donkey is called a jennet, or jenny. A young donkey is referred to as a foal. A male jack, who has been castrated, is called a gelding, as is a horse.

A friendly neighborhood donkey, Isle sur Marne, France. A friendly neighborhood donkey, Isle sur Marne, France. Donkeys and horses are related, and can produce offspring. If you breed a male donkey to a mare, the result is a mule. If you breed a male horse stallion to a female donkey, you get a hinny. A hinny usually resembles a horse more than a mule, with the exception of having long ears. Male mules are sterile. Mules are smaller than horses, they lack the arched necks found in Arabians, and have coarser hair. In France one type of donkey, the Poitou donkey, has been bred to draft horses, called Mulassier - “mule producer” - for huge draft mule pack animals, many of which were used by troops in World War I. This horse is related to the Percheron, Brabant, and Friesian breeds. Since that war, the breed has become close to extinct. Likewise the demand for large pack mules greatly diminished for both farm and fieldwork, but as in other countries, the popularity of donkeys stays constant.

While staying in the country of Champagne-Ardenne region in France this October, a donkey’s bray was one of the first things that greeted me and others in our group. It did not take long to find out where the calls were coming from, as our friend was just in the adjacent field. Upon closer inspection, we came to realize that not one, but two donkeys were living next to us, and their brays were as efficient as any watchdog for notifying if there were strangers present. As guard animals, donkeys can make quite a bit of consistently loud noise, however, like most dogs, they are often more curious than ferocious, and they can be won over with food. This pair, while shy and standoffish at first, happily came up to see me and eat the windfall apples and pears I found in the nearby orchard. I kept looking over my shoulder for their disgruntled human owner, but I never met one. So luckily, I did not get yelled at. The donkeys and I enjoyed our illicit visits and treat feedings.

Donkeys can be very engaging. Sometimes when you look at them, you would swear they are looking back with a smile. In fact, donkey owners and breeders say that you should not keep a donkey without a companion. The best is another donkey, however, these animals get along well with sheep, goats, dogs, cats, and horses, even swine. Domesticated donkeys weigh up to 500-plus pounds and usually stand between 10 to 12 hands in height. The popularity of miniature donkeys has been on the rise. In Michigan there is a breeding farm near Bronson in the southern part of the state. These smaller animals come with all of the characteristics of their bigger cousins. If frightened, a donkey’s reaction will be to freeze and remain rock solid still. This is one of the reasons they’ve been considered to be stubborn. A horse, on the other hand, will have the tendency to bolt or jump. But the donkey will stand in place.

When stressed, though, a donkey will make noise. The sound is a very loud, two-toned call, which we opt to note as “hee-haw.” The huge ears of the donkey help to amplify his hearing. When my pair of French donkeys heard us about on the grounds near their domain, the lead donkey let out a loud warning note as if to say, “I know you are there,” but it was not a panic call. A distressed bay is much more urgent and loud. Some donkeys are much more vocal than others and will let go with brays that also sound like singing. Donkeys have been known to “sing” to ringing bells, violins, pianos, and trumpets. When the local village bells chimed each morning at 7 a.m., these two donkeys also called out.

Donkeys are great first-alarm units for the farm when it comes to coyotes. They are not afraid to confront these animals with noise and force. A donkey can give a very swift and stinging kick, especially from its hind feet. Many times this happens when a person tries to impart “horse” experience onto a donkey. A donkey is stronger than a horse of its same size. You cannot muscle a donkey. They have a keener sense of curiosity. They may flee, and then stop and turn to face whatever scared them. They can grow quite comfortable in their surroundings, as shabby as they often are. It is when they sense that they feel uncomfortable with a human in their domain that they will strike in defense, but if they sense no fear of him, then they will accept that person in their space, even a stranger. Never take any donkey for granted. Often shy at first, that same donkey has the potential to become very aggressive.

Donkeys that have been bred for domestication can live up to 30 years. In the wild, the average age is 10 to 15 years. Since they came from arid lands, donkeys developed into nibblers, rather than grazers, like horses. A donkey can eat all kinds of food, such as peels, rinds, thorny bushes, plant stalks, some barks, as well as grain and hay. They do not consume as much water daily as horses do.

Donkeys do not do well in areas of high humidity. The coats of these animals are thick. The density acts as insulation from the heat and sun, and for protection in the cold. Humidity can rot their fur. Donkeys do benefit from grooming, and many of them enjoy being brushed.

I know that there have been mules and hinnies on Mackinac Island. Some were used as teams, as well as in private, for riding. I am not aware of anyone having donkeys or “burros” on the Island. Soon we shall have a new year ahead, and perhaps someone will change that record. You never know.

Meanwhile, this winter, I would like to extend best wishes to all of you, from my menagerie to yours. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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