The donkey or ass (Equus asinus) is a domesticated animal of the horse family, Equidae. The wild ancestors of the donkey are African.
Donkeys are typical equids, generally smaller than the domestic horse, though mammoth jacks can be as large as 17 hands (170cm at the shoulder). They come in a variety of sizes and breeds just like the horse family, ranging in size from miniatures, standard (pony size) to mammoth (full grown horse sizes). They have long ears and a "broomtail" similar to a cow's tail.
Relationship to horses
A male donkey (jackass or jack) can be crossed with a female horse to produce a mule. A male horse can be crossed with a female donkey (jennet or jenny) to produce a hinny. These hybrids are almost always sterile because horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62, producing offspring with 63 chromosomes. Due to different mating behavior, mules are much more common than hinnies: before the male mounts the female, the latter kicks vigorously at the former. In donkeys, this behavior is much more intense; thus, a stallion will often simply not mate with a jenny because he is taking more of a beating than he is expecting to get and will refuse to mate. Moreover, mules are more easily handled and also physically stronger than hinnies, making them more desirable for breeders to produce.
From before the dawn of recorded history, donkeys have been used in Europe and western Asia to carry loads, pull carts, and carry riders. Though not as fast as a horse, they are long-lived, cheaper to maintain than horses, have great endurance, and are agile on poor tracks. They remain of crucial economic importance in many developing countries.
Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is due to some handlers' misinterpretation of their highly-developed sense of self preservation. It is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest, as opposed to horses who are much more willing to, for example, go along a path with unsafe footing. Although formal studies of their behaviour and cognition are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn. Once you have earned their confidence they can be willing and companionable partners in work and recreation. For this reason, they are now commonly kept as pets in countries where their use as beasts of burden has disappeared. They are also popular for giving rides to children in holiday resorts or other leisure contexts.
In prosperous countries, the welfare of donkeys both at home and abroad has recently become a concern, and a number of sanctuaries for retired donkeys have been set up.
The Wild Burro of the Southwestern United States is the descendent of the beasts of burden used and abandoned by the early prospectors. These animals, considered to be a living legacy, have lately been at risk due to drought. The Bureau of Land Management conducts round-ups of endangered herds, and holds public auctions. More information can be obtained from U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.
Wild burros make good pets when treated well and cared for properly. They are clever and curious. When trust has been established, they appreciate, and even seek, attention and grooming.
The long history of human use of donkeys means that there is a rich store of cultural references to them, including:
- The ass was a symbol of the Egyptian god, Seth
- The ass was a symbol the Greek god Dionysus.
- Greek mythology includes the story of King Midas who judged against Apollo in favor of Pan during a musical contest, and had his ears changed to those of a donkey as punishment.
- There are numerous references to donkeys (chomor) in the Hebrew Bible
- The gospels have Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem; this has given rise to a legend that this is the origin of the cross on a donkey's shoulders.
- An Indian tale has an ass dressed in a panther skin give himself away by braying.
- One of Aesop's fables has an ass dressed in a lion skin who gives himself away by braying.
- A German proverb claims a donkey can wear a lion suit but its ear will still stick out and give it away.
- English proverbs include "better be the head of an ass than the tail of a horse.", "if an ass goes a-traveling, he'll not come back a horse.", and "better ride on an ass that carries me home than a horse that throws me." (though all these are now obsolete).
- Classical Greek expressions about donkeys included: onos pros eortēn = "a donkey at the festival" (gets all the work); onos hyetai = "a donkey is rained on" (i.e. he is unaffected or insensitive), onos pros phatnēn = "a donkey at a feed trough" (like the English expression "in clover").
- European folklore also claims that the tail of a donkey can be used to combat whooping cough or scorpion stings.
- The donkey has long been a symbol of ignorance. Examples can be found in Aesop's Fables, Apuleius's The Golden Ass (The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius) and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream
- Because of its connection with ignorance, in modern slang, referring to someone as a dumbass means that they are unintelligent. Many people would find this term vulgar and rude.
- The word ass has entered every day use in the English language as a term used to describe a person who resembles a donkey in some way, such as appearance, stubbornness, intelligence, etc.
Etymology of the name
The word "donkey" is one of the most etymologically obscure in the English language. Until quite recent times, the standard word was "ass", which has clear cognates in most other Indo-European languages; no credible cognate for "donkey" has yet been identified, though it is possible that it is a diminutive of "dun" (dull greyish-brown), a typical donkey colour; originally, "donkey" was pronounced to rhyme with "monkey". In the late 18th century, the word "donkey" started to replace "ass", almost certainly to avoid confusion with the word "arse", which, due to sound changes that had affected the language, had come to be pronounced the same way (/æs/ > /ɑ:s/ and /ɑ:rs/ > /ɑ:s/). The /ɑ:s/ pronunciation of "ass" was eventually restored to /æs/ in order to reserve the distinction, but not without the curious consequence of American English losing the word "arse" entirely and handing over its meaning to "ass".
Symbolism with Democratic Party
The donkey has also been a long-time unofficial symbol of the Democratic Party of the United States.
A donkey's eyes are placed such that it can see all four feet at any one time.