The Donkey – the universal beast of burden


The donkey is related to the wild asses of Africa and Asia, but in its domesticated form is still used in certain areas of Southern Europe – and in the Third World – as a ‘beast of burden’, carrying heavy loads or pulling a laden cart. Here we can see a fine example of a donkey in a stall at Cefn Mably Farm Park, just outside of the Welsh capital city of Cardiff. This is a working farm, which is also open as a visitor attraction. The donkey shares a stall with a pony, and it has been shown that donkeys exert a calming influence on other equines. Thus, they are often the traveling companions of thoroughbred horses on their long journeys to and from various racetracks. Observe the prominent dark ‘cross’ marking on the donkey’s back, said, by some, to have religious significance. Predominant coat colours are dark grey through fawn, with black or white sometimes occurring. Donkeys may be crossed with horses, but their powerful progeny – the mule – is infertile.

The usual donkey seen in Great Britain is a domesticated equine, Equus africanus asinus. The male is refered to as a ‘jack’ and the female donkey as a ‘jenny’ or ‘jennet’. As you might imagine, given the close relationship between man and donkey, there are many pet names for this delightful animal – ‘cuddy’ in Scotland, and the gentle-sounding ‘neddy’, which is heard in my native Derbyshire, and other places in the North of England. There are close to 100 recognized breeds of donkey, varying widely in size, coat characteristics, and behaviour; around 3.0% of the world’s donkeys live in Europe, with the rest of the breeds being spread everywhere across the temperate and arid zones of the world. Donkeys are well-adapted to desert conditions, making most efficient use of whatever water sources are available, and utilizing the moisture from the green vegetable matter they eat. The wild asses of the Middle East and Central Asia are solitary for most of the year, and the strong, penetrating bray of the donkey (which can be heard in the still, desert air for miles) can be attributed to the need for individuals to communicate with each other.

It is thought that the first donkeys were domesticated from wild asses around 3,000 BCE in the ‘Golden Crescent’ in the Middle East, which arcs from the Euphrates to the Nile rivers. From that moment on, they have hauled wood, drawn carts and carried people, often pulling loads which are astonishing. Now, the world’s donkey population is close to 44 million, with 97% in the Third World – 50% in Asia, 25% in Africa, and the remainder in Latin America. There they are used for ever-increasing numbers of economically important tasks, from carrying bulk supplies of water to offering rides to tourists. The country with the highest per capita donkey population is Ethiopia, and I remember when I was there, back in 1983, seeing long lines of donkeys heading out of Addis Ababa at dawn, and coming back later, laden with firewood. In a country where fuel is both scarce and expensive, the donkey becomes the ‘family truck’. However, they are subject – in many cases – to everything from benign neglect to ill-treatment, and since their hooves are much softer than those of horses, and need special care if they are not to give trouble, it can be seen that many donkeys do not lead happy or healthy lives.

Fortunately, there are many societies and organizations working to see that donkeys are given better treatment, worldwide, including the establishment of donkey sanctuaries. Indeed, in countries such as the U.K., clubs exist to encourage the competitive showing of donkeys, and trials involving the pulling of donkey carts around courses. The donkey has a reputation for being stubborn, but if well-treated they make a fine pet, and will repay care with much affection.

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One comment on “The Donkey – the universal beast of burden”

  1. These are indeed remarkable creatures. I’ve just completed “In the Service of the Sultan” by Ian Gardiner where he served the Sultan of Oman (for the Queen in her Royal Marines) during the Dhofar insurgency. I was quite surprised to read they used donkeys to infiltrate with heavy supplies so as to not advertise their arrival with helicopters.

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