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Donkey work

Written by  Dr Nicolene Swaneooel
| in Veearts
| December 15, 2015

Picture a woman with a precious baby, borne on the back of a humble little donkey, heading towards Egypt.  Then let us celebrate the lives of the under-acknowledged contribution these often abused creatures have made to human welfare and history.

Origins, culture, myths

The modern domestic donkey (Equusasinus) descended from the African wild ass, (E. africanus) in northeastern Africa from about 6000 years ago.

Scenes with donkeys or wild asses occur in early Egyptian art, for instance, murals from King Tutankhamen’s tomb, which show scenes of a wild ass hunt. (His reign was circa 1330 BC.)  Domestic and wild donkeys likely existed at the same time then, as today. The Nubian ass, a wild ass subspecies, which is said by some scientists to have contributed genetically to the modern donkey, is still alive but critically endangered. Other researchers seem to indicate that modern Nubian wild asses are survivors of previously domesticated animals, not the other way around. It might also be that wild asses were domesticated several times, and interbreeding between wild and domestic asses is likely to have continued during the process of domestication.

The earliest archaeological remnants of domestic donkeys on record date from around 4 500 BC, and were found in Upper Egypt near Cairo. It seems these animals were hitched up for human use much later than cattle, sheep and goats - evidence for the latter dates back to the seventh and eighth millennia BC.  They might well have ousted oxen as the preferred pack animal.  While oxen, who are ruminants, need time to chew cud, donkeys don’t, so they can stay on the move for longer.  They are also better adapted to desert conditions than oxen.

Domestication led to an increase of body size of many animals, notably that of horses, but domestic donkeys are smaller than wild donkeys. Compared to horses, their energy requirements are smaller which negates long grazing hours. They are tougher in body than most horses, especially their hooves, making them the preferred partner of the less affluent farmer and traveler.

Their greater mobility most likely helped improve long-distance trade across Egypt. Besides bearing loads, they also served as a source of meat.  From the north east areas of Africa donkeys spread to the Middle East where the little ass was quite ready to bear the load of the fleeing Mary and Jesus into the safety of Egypt, thereby retracing his own diasporic steps.

By the second millennium BC donkeys were introduced into Europe.  This being roughly the same time when viticulture was introduced into Europe, and as they are associated with the Syrian god of wine, Dionysus, these pack animals were probably vital in quenching the thirst of Europeans, by bearing wine.

During war, historically and contemporaneously, donkeys bore machines of war, and served as food when soldiers were starving. 

Many religious texts refer to donkeys.  In the Bible (in the book of Zechariah) a king rides a donkey into Jerusalem.  Why not a regal warhorse? Apparently, leaders of the ancient Middle East rode horses into war, but donkeys to show they are coming in peace.  Rich and affluent people in Biblical telling often rode donkeys, so this was not necessarily seen as a sign of humility. Solomon was said to have ridden a donkey when he became King of Israel. Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah refers to a donkey and a donkey’s foal. Jesus, being from the tribe of Judah, is thus said to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah of a peaceful king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Balaam, on his way to do evil to the Israelites - who were fleeing Egypt under Moses’ guidance - was beating his donkey, who stopped and refused to budge when she saw an angel in the path.  The donkey was given a voice to ask Balaam why he was beating her.  Balaam was then able to see the angel for himself.

Donkeys were held in esteem in many cultures and religions, but were less popular in others.  The Quran, for instance, mentions that the donkey has the harshest of all voices, encouraging people to talk softly and politely, unlike a donkey.

“Donkeys are stoic, and do not show signs of discomfort easily, this means they can be driven to exhaustion before an insensitive handler is aware of abusing the animal.”

Human-donkey interaction

Donkeys are stoic, and do not show signs of discomfort easily, this means they can be driven to exhaustion before an insensitive handler is aware of abusing the animal.

decjan2016 veearts 1Donkeys weigh around 160kg and should never carry more than 50kg, or pull a cart with a combined load of more than twice its body weight - around 320kg. These animals are often overloaded and expected to pull carts that are dilapidated and inefficient.  Their headgear and cart harnesses can cause discomfort and chafing if not correct.  Many development projects aim to manufacture and sell - at low cost - more appropriate carts and harnesses. Unfortunately this seldom works as people tend to find it more convenient and economical to make their own from locally available scrap material.  Such projects should rather aim to teach handlers the basic principles of suitable construction that bears the welfare of the animal in mind.  So experts/research teams should rather help local donkey users to identify suitable material and how to construct it to work optimally - not only for them, but also for the animal. If the animal can be kept in good health it is better off and can also deliver better work over a longer period.

Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, in McGregor in the Western Cape, finds that many people look down on donkeys, believing them not to have the same worth as commercially farmed animals, such as cattle and horses.  They are seen as the workers of poorer people, and are nothing to be proud of, rather to be ashamed of. So donkeys bear the brunt of human prejudice too.

They are seldom given the physical care horses may get, like hoof-, dental-, and primary health care. Injuries and diseases are often left to run their course, without veterinary treatment.

When donkeys are not needed for work any more, they are often left to their own devices. Those who do not starve, might become feral. Feral donkeys can stress environments, for instance denude grazing of wild herbivores in or near nature reserves.  Donkey sanctuaries  and other animal welfare organisations are often asked to deal with the numerous offspring of uncontrolled breeding of the many herds of semi-feral donkeys on farms.

Conversely, donkeys may be kept as pets and get ‘spoilt rotten’ - receiving too much food and inappropriate food as treats.  This results in malnutrition and obesity, which might lead to metabolic diseases.

Cuter varieties of pet donkeys are increasingly sought after.  Miniature versions are being bred progressively smaller, often with emergent medical problems due to breeding for looks rather than for function. Welfare abuse is thus not only at the hands of those who beat and starve donkeys, but also by those who over-feed and inbreed them.

Donkey behaviour

Donkeys are often thought of derogatorily.  They are seen as stubborn, stupid and lazy.  It is important to remember that they are herd animals, and feel unsafe away from their mates.  They need to learn to trust their human handler, and then can become co-operative, willing workers.

As donkeys have evolved to travel long distances with sparse vegetation and limited water, they will - naturally - live more solitary lives than horses.  They are prey animals and have an instinctive fear of predators, and humans can also be viewed as predators.

Smaller herds form with mares living with only the current and perhaps the previous years’ foals. As resources are scarce, stallions are very territorial. With more generous conditions, ample grazing and water, larger social herds can form. Unknown animals will be chased away.  Especially stallions might be inclined to chase unfamiliar dogs, smaller animals, perhaps even small children, if not well socialised to be more tolerant of such intrusions. Smaller natural herds also mean that there is no safety in numbers, so donkeys are naturally primed to be triggered into flight sooner than horses. This might be why they might not seem as ‘brave’ as horses.  They are also not as fast as horses, so have to take off sooner.  This, combined with a smaller size, made them less suitable to bear soldiers into battle, but they did their war duty and often transported the machines of war and supplies on battle fronts.

Donkeys don’t have a strong hierarchical system in their herds and even in large ‘loose’ herds smaller subgroups form. An individual will form a solid friendship with one other donkey and several more casual friendships with a few other donkeys.  Such social networks are not always noticeable to humans. When a donkey is taken out of such a herd to work, it might cause great distress, as mates are being torn apart.  The donkey does not realise it will return later and can become extremely anxious and refuse to move away, hence the ‘stubborn’ attribute. In such cases the stick is often lavishly applied to force the animal to move on, making it even more fearful of humans.

Donkeys can live to over 40 years of age, and during this time strong social friendships are cemented.  They should never be kept alone, and if no other donkeys (its preferred partner) can be supplied, ensure that there is another affectionate animal. A goat, or even a cat might fill the gap. Donkeys are also often used as mates for lone riding horses.  Even in a bigger herd situation, but especially if there are only two social partners, try never to separate the one friend from the other. Let the friend tag along on the ride, to the show, or to the vet.

Donkeys naturally are more active at dawn and dusk and tend to rest during the hotter parts of the day, another reason they might appear lazy or stubborn. 

Due to eye position, donkeys do not see well right behind or in front of them, though they do have good lateral vision.  A sudden approach or movement from behind or in front, or an obstacle that cannot be seen well until the last minute, might scare it disproportionately and make it refuse to move, or make it shy. Realise that the donkey is not stupid. It understands what it can see, it is fearful of what it can’t see and thus cannot comprehend.  Always approach a donkey from the side rather from behind, or from directly ahead.  

Try to see the donkey’s situation from the donkey’s point of view.  The donkey is doing what seems safe to it, or is trying to avoid something that makes it feel endangered, anxious, uncomfortable, or threatened. The staff at Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary often remind themselves and others of what equine expert Ben Hart said: “The donkey is very good at being a donkey.”

Though in developed countries agriculture and transport have long been mechanised, there are still millions of donkeys used for those purposes worldwide, mostly by poorer people, or in areas inaccessible to motorised vehicles and large machinery. It is therefore important that the welfare of these helpers of humankind not be forgotten, and that we learn to rather apply the carrot than the stick, to convince the creatures that their work is valued, and that they will be returned to the safety of their herd once their task is done, however small ‘the herd’ might be.  

More information and references:

Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary is just outside the quaint little village of McGregor in the Western Cape.  You can get there by tar, but for the more adventurous it is worth doing it the dirty way - on scenic rural dirt and gravel roads.  End your journey with refreshments and browse for gifts and farm produce at their restaurant and shop. Take the whole family. There is not only donkeys to meet, but bird watching, as well as a short hike around the farm. Stay the night in one of many homely B&B’s in this tucked-away town. Eseltjiesrus rescues and rehabilitates abused donkeys.  The professional staff members educate and advise people on donkey health and welfare at their sanctuary, but also through outreach projects and workshops with other professionals. They are affiliated with an acclaimed international body - The Donkey Sanctuary, in the UK.

The Hand

Developed by The Donkey Sanctuary in the UK, this basic and easy tool, is a handy aid for animal welfare assessment. Using The Hand as guide, the person is taught to read the status of the donkey’s (or any other animal’s) welfare. This allows objective assessment of the animal and the conditions it lives under,  in order to improve welfare and also for research purposes. Workshops teaching donkey owners and animal welfare workers are being held worldwide with funding from The Donkey Sanctuary. Eseltjierus Donkey Sanctuary, works in conjunction with the UK and offers workshops in South Africa. 

Using their hand as a guide (thumb to fingers, back of the hand and knuckles) people become skilled to assess all aspects and not miss anything.  The animal’s behaviour, demeanour, body condition, physical condition (including wounds, hydration status, hoof-health, soundness, injury and disease conditions) and the history of the animal can all be measured.