Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Another word for donkey is ass, and the Spanish word for donkey is burro.  The scientific name is Equus africanus asinus.  This name shows that donkeys are members of the horse family, Equidae.  There are still ancestors of the donkey living in Somalia.  They are called African wild asses, and they are critically endangered.  But there are many varieties of ass descendants from the African wild ass.  They live in all parts of the world, and they are not endangered at all.

African Wild Ass
Wikipedia, uploaded by Tekken50

Donkeys were first domesticated in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE.  Remains of domestic donkeys that date back to the 4th millennium BCE have been found in Lower Egypt.  Researchers think that people first domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats.  Later, the inhabitants of Nubia, which is called Ethiopia now, started using donkeys instead of oxen to be their main pack animals.

Donkey in Egyptian painting, c. 1298-1235 BCE
When people in pastoral cultures were moving from place to place, they had to wait for cattle to chew their cud, but donkeys didn't need to do that.  So by using asses instead of oxen, traders could move trade goods faster across Egypt.  During the Dynasty IV period (2675-2565 BCE), some rich Egyptians owned more than 1,000 donkeys.  These animals were used to carry things, and also for milk and meat.

By the end of the 4th millennium BCE, there were asses in Southwest Asia, with the main breeding center in Mesopotamia.  Damascus became famous for its large, white riding asses.  Syrian breeders also developed three other breeds.  One of these was a favorite of women to ride because it had an easy gait.  The Greeks and Romans had lots of donkeys, too, and spread the animals through the areas they controlled.

Poitou Donkeys
Christopher Columbus brought the first asses to America on his Second Voyage, which landed at Hispaniola in 1495.  The first donkeys on the North American continent may have been two that Juan de Zamárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, took to that country in 1528.  Juan de Oñate probably brought the first donkeys into the United States in April, 1598.

Burro train bringing gold from the mines near Ouray, CO
©1906, W. S. Smith

There are now estimated to be about 41 million donkeys throughout the world.  Ninety-six percent of these are in underdeveloped countries, where they are used as pack animals or in agriculture.  China has the most, with 11 million, followed by Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico.  Sometimes the donkeys are ridden, or they help with threshing, raising water, or milling.  In cultures where women are not allowed to work with oxen, the women can use donkeys to do farm work.

In Italy, some donkeys are used for their meat and milk.  Italians eat more equine meat than any other European country, and donkey meat is the main ingredient of several regional dishes.  Asses' milk also sells for a good price, as it does in Croatia, where it is used for soaps and cosmetics, as well as for drinking and cooking.

Donkey Burgers

Donkey meat is thought to be a delicacy in some parts of China.  There are restaurants that specialize in making dishes out of donkey meat, including sometimes donkey genitals.  A traditional Chinese medicine product is donkey-hide gelatin.  This is made by soaking and stewing the hide.

A male donkey is called a jack, which is where we get the word jackass.  A female is called a jenny or jennet.  A baby donkey is a foal, the same as a baby horse.  If you mate a jack to a female horse, you will end up with a mule.  Some large donkey breeds are raised mostly for the purpose of producing mules.  A cross between a stallion and a jenny, which is much less common, is called a hinny.  Mules and hinnies can rarely reproduce because horses have 64 chromosomes, and donkeys have 62. This means that a mule or hinny has 63 chromosomes.  Crossing a donkey with a zebra creates an animal called a zonkey, zerbroid, zebrass, zedonk, zebra mule, zebra hinny, zebret, or zebrinny.


Donkeys have been used during wars in many of the same ways they are used in peace time.  During World War I, members of the British, Australian, and New Zealand medical corps used donkeys to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield at Gallipoli.  Members of the Italian Army's Mountain Fusiliers each had a donkey to carry his gear, and if conditions got too extreme, the animal could be eaten.  Another use for donkeys has been to carry explosives.  This has even been done during recent conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan.

Wild Burros

There are some places in the world where donkeys have returned to the wild and established feral populations.  Examples of this are the Burro of North America and the Asinara donkey of Sardinia, Italy.  Both of these groups have protected status.  In Australia, where there are maybe 5 million feral donkeys, the animals are considered to be invasive pests.  They compete with livestock and native animals for food; they spread weeds and diseases; and they damage watering holes and cause erosion.


Donkeys are famous for being stubborn, but some people say they just have a stronger sense of self preservation than horses do.  So if a donkey thinks it might be dangerous to do something, it will think twice about doing it.  After a person has got a donkey to trust him, the donkey is much more likely to do what is asked.  There haven't been many formal studies about donkeys, but it appears that, in spite of being cautious, the animals are really very intelligent, friendly, playful, and eager to learn.


In developed countries, where donkeys are not used as beasts of burden any longer, the main reasons for keeping them are to sire mules, to guard sheep, for children's rides, and as pets.  Donkeys can be stabled with horses and ponies, and they often have a calming effect on nervous horses.

Woodblock print of donkeys (or mules) that Mom saw in an antique shop

I'm thinking that we could get a cute little donkey to keep in our back yard, and it might make Tristan and Marius feel calmer, so they wouldn't keep fence-fighting with Henry, the dog nextdoor.  But Mom said it might not work that way, and anyway, she doesn't want to have to pay for donkey food or have a donkey eating her flowers.


  1. Good one! Learned a lot from this.
    Aunt Lynn