Scientific Name - Equus asinus
Class - Mammalia
Order - Perissodactyla
Family - Equidae
Genus - Equus
The Donkey is a domesticated Ass, deserving our attention, and respect,
because of its long and checkered history, and because of the marked,
if subtle changes in appearance and temperament it has undergone. They
were probably domesticated well before the horse, and were only supplanted
by it because of the horse's greater speed and weight carrying (as opposed
to pulling) ability. A point that should not be overlooked is the "prestige
factor", a rider looks much more impressive on a horse, than on a
donkey, and can literally look down on their dismounted fellows. (Try
doing that from a donkey!) The ridden horse has traditionally been the
mode of transport for the warrior and nobility because of this prestige.
The rich ride horses, the poorer classes either go on foot or by donkey.
Even today this prejudice exists, how many "Horsey" people do
you know who still look down their noses at donkeys and refuse to let
them any-where near their precious horses?
Truly wild, (as opposed to feral), asses are today confined to Northern
Africa and Southern Asia. They are a dying race, and as their numbers
dwindled, so the numbers of donkeys increased. Donkeys were called Asses
until the 18th. Century, by which time they had been taken over a large
part of the world by Man. They were important beasts of burden, were used
for riding, also ploughing, turning wheels and many other forms of menial
task. To a large extent, the donkey has been the helpmate of the poor
man throughout the ages, and continues as such today in much of the Third
The vitality of donkeys is reflected generally in their long life. Wild
asses, kept in zoos, have commonly lived 20 - 24 years. Amongst Third
World working donkeys, they usually only live 12 - 15 years. However,
this is more a reflection of their hard lives and poor living conditions.
When looked after well, with good food, regular
worming and general health care, it is not uncommon for pet donkeys to
last well into their 20's. For the donkey, there are many records for
above 20 years, some for 37 or more and one white donkey is said to have
lived for 50 years. There are several claims for 50 years or more, even
to as much as 80. Whatever the truth, the mere frequency of these reports
suggests that donkeys are traditionally held to be long-lived. One record
for a mule is 37 years.
Origin of the Donkey
The Persian wild ass (Onager) was partially domesticated by the Sumerians,
about 3000 BC, but was soon displaced by the more tractable horse. A race
of African wild ass was domesticated about the same time, possibly even
earlier. There are many illustrations of donkeys in ancient Egyptian tomb
paintings. It seems certain that the donkeys so widely used in Asia were
not domesticated forms of the Asiatic wild ass, but were imported, possibly
from Egypt. Moreover, it is very likely that the donkeys used in Europe
were imported from Asia, not directly from Egypt. When this took place
is uncertain. In fact almost everything connected with the ancestry of
the donkey is guesswork, except that its original home was probably Africa.
So far as the European donkey is concerned, Homer, the Greek poet who
lived 3,000 years ago, made no mention of it, although he wrote of a mule
from Asia Minor. However, if you have mules, you HAVE to have donkeys.
The Romans, however, knew of the donkey, and made extensive use of both
the donkey and it's offspring, the mule. One early Roman Emperor made
the Army reduce its heavy dependency on mules and donkeys. He made the
soldiers carry much of their load on their own back - hence the soldiers
acquired the nickname of "Marius's Mules".
There is a Saxon word for ass, so we can suppose the donkey was taken
across Europe during the Roman occupation of Britain and was still there
at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Because of the ass's Biblical
connections, it was considered to be a very suitable mount for Bishops
and other ecclesiastical persons during the Middle Ages.
The Points of a Donkey
Most of the terms used to describe the various parts (or "points")
of a donkey are derived from those used for the horse. Both the horse
and the donkey are based on the same anatomical model - the equine - and
have the same basic structure, both internally and externally. There are
some minor differences in the way that they function but for all practical
descriptive purposes the same terms can be applied to the same areas of
the body. The proportions may change , but the area remains the same.
A term you will often hear is "CONFORMATION". This applies to
the way that the various parts of the donkey's body relate to each other
in terms of size, proportion and the way that the donkey moves and stands.
Every breed of animal has a certain "IDEAL CONFORMATION" - it
is this standard conformation that individual animals are judged against.
To have good conformation an individual animal must closely resemble this
breed standard. We won't discuss conformation too much here, except to
say that good conformation is obviously better than bad conformation.
For practical purposes, what you INTEND to do with your donkey, as opposed
to what you CAN do with him, depends largely on his conformation. For
information on what constitutes good conformation you should seek the
advice of a knowledgeable donkey person. A person who is knowledgeable
in HORSE conformation will often be very critical of a donkey's conformation,
because they are judging the donkey by HORSE standards - but a donkey
is NOT a horse or small pony. What may be unacceptable in a horse or pony
can be perfectly normal in a donkey.