Donkeys have been used and often abused as a working animal for over 5000 years and estimates suggest there may be more than 50 million donkeys globally, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals.
Donkeys are descendants of the African wild ass and are adapted to marginal desert lands. Unlike wild and feral horses, wild donkeys in dry areas do not form harems. Each adult donkey establishes a home range and breeding over a large area may be dominated by one male. The loud call or bray of the donkey, which typically lasts for twenty seconds and can be heard for over three kilometres, helps donkeys to keep in contact over the wide spaces of the desert, and donkeys large ears help them to pick up more distant sounds, as well as helping them to keep cool.
Domesticated donkeys, on the other hand, are very social and if kept in pairs or in a herd, show a preference to be with individuals that they have bonded with and are able to understand each others feelings and emotions via the use of a large behavioural repertoire including subtle behaviours such as yawning, sighing and stretching which all have meaning to other donkeys.
Despite our long history of association with donkeys we still rarely understand them and their complex behaviours, and we largely still regard them as stubborn in nature, yet in reality they are intelligent animals with reasoning and problem solving abilities.
A stubborn donkey is in fact an intelligent donkey. These stoic animals rarely panic and may even appear catatonic when in distress. When faced with a potential threat, donkeys prefer to plant their feet while they analyze the situation. This is all too often misdiagnosed as “stubborn,” when they are in fact likely experiencing fear. A donkey ‘digging in its heals’ is employing a survival mechanism borne out of a healthy fear of moving forward due to a perceived threat, or a desire not to be separated from their herd where they are likely to be even more vulnerable.
Donkeys can also think about things in a logical and sensible manner and come to conclusions which benefit them as individuals and can have benefits for others within their social group, demonstrating they have both reasoning and problem solving skills.
Researchers at The Donkey Sanctuary, UK devised a test to look at reasoning and problem-solving, by setting up a situation in which a mule and a donkey were led into an arena with a fence dividing the animals from a food reward. An open gate in the fence allowed them to reach the other end of the arena and get the reward. The trial was repeated a number of times, but the location of the gate was moved several times. Results showed that the mules and the donkeys figure out how to find the gate and get to the food each time. The mules and donkeys demonstrated a flexibility in their approach to solving the problem, qualities which do not equate to being stubborn in nature.
For more examples of problem-solving donkeys click here and here to see a donkey helping it’s friends to escape from their field, here to see a donkey knocking on the door to get in, here to see a donkey letting itself and a friend into their stable, and here to see a donkey opening the door and letting its friends into the food store.
It seems that far from being stubborn, donkeys are in fact very smart and sensitive individuals and not that much different from you and I.
Donkeys really are amazing animals
Donkeys and mules are found all over the world, with an estimated population of some 50 million. These trusting, intelligent animals contribute so much to mankind the world over - they prop up entire communities by working hard – but many are suffering due to poor living conditions, lack of veterinary care and being overworked.
Exceptionally strong animals, they are often forced to transport heavy loads of sand, bricks, and stone. These gentle animals are often left to suffer from dehydration, malnutrition, and untreated ailments.
In China, millions of donkeys are farmed for their meat and their skins to produce a medicinal gelatin (ejiao). The demand for ejiao has dramatically increased in the last few years. There used to be around 11 million donkeys in China, but the number has dropped to 6 million in the last 20 years. Donkeys and donkey skins are now being transported from other countries, including Africa. Most of these are being bought and sold by dealers but a significant number of donkeys are also being stolen from their owners. The global trading of donkey skins is having a large impact on donkey welfare and the livelihood of people around the world.
If you are interested in helping working animals, the please check out SPANA for more info.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
We are proud to have The Donkey Sanctuary as a member of our coalition. Take a look at their site to find out more about how you can help.