If you think of a day out at a traditional seaside resort, doubtless such things as Kiss Me Quick Hats, Fish and Chips and of course Donkey Rides on the beach will spring to mind.
Although seaside donkey rides are not a new idea – they were originally introduced back in Victorian times, around the 1880s. Ever since then, seaside donkeys have kindly offered thrilled children a trip across the sands.
I remember how astounded I was when I first heard a donkey in full braying mode – I was staggered at how loud and long it went on for! When it comes to braying, donkey’s sure pack a punch, with the average bray being at least 20 seconds long and being audible up to 3km (almost 2 miles) away. Braying helps donkeys to communicate with each other over dispersed terrain and to help them hear all that braying, they have quite large ears, which also double up in giving them the added benefit of a handy cooling mechanism -so they can chill out!
Of course, donkeys are part of the horse family and are derived from their wild ancestors, the African wild ass (which is now sadly on the endangered list). They have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years. They are herd animals and enjoy the company of others; although they aren’t too concerned on who makes up the herd numbers – they will form bonds with sheep, for example and help to protect them from predators (a trait that is harnessed by farmers to protect their livestock).
So, what’s the difference between a donkey, mule and ass? Well, donkey is the generic name for these animals, with the term ass being used as an alternative to this (in fact historically this was what donkeys were called). Whereas a mule is actually a cross bred animal, which is the result of a male donkey (known as a Jack) mating with a female horse (a mare). Lesser known is the result of a female donkey (known as a Jenny) mating with a male horse (a stallion) to produce a hinny.
Fun fact – hinny was traditionally used as a term of affection for a female partner (mmm wonder why that one died out hey girls?!)
The name donkey is a bit of a mystery – we’re not too sure where it was derived from. One theory is it comes from the Spanish word don (for gift). Another proposes that it comes from the name Duncan and a third that it comes from the most common colour for donkeys, which is dun (brownish grey).
Donkeys have been very much a part of human life for at least 5,000 years, with evidence of domesticated donkeys as far back as 3,000 BC. They were very popular with the Ancient Egyptians, who kept them in large numbers for work, meat and dairy provision. Remember Cleopatra’s reported love of bathing in ass’ milk? In fact, donkey remains have been found in Pharaohs’ tombs, with the animals being given the same ceremonial burial rites as important humans.
The popularity of the donkey carried over to the Greek and Roman empires, the latter of which are attributed to helping to populate donkeys throughout Europe. They were a valued source of labour for the growing of vineyards for wine production and are consequently associated with the god of wine – Dionysius.
Donkeys were to go global, with the first ones being brought to the Americas on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495. The first to reach North America were thought to have crossed over from Mexico in 1598.
The gestation period for a donkey is quite long and can be up to 14 months. Jenny’s make good mums and are devoted to their foals and fillies. Whilst on the subject of breeding, there are a growing number of breeds of donkey being identified in recent times – 189 breeds were recorded in 2011, an increase from 77 in 1995. Europe has the most variety of breeds with 51 and USA the least with just 5. The country with the most donkeys is China, boasting 11 million and in total there are approximately 41 million in the world, although the population is declining from the 44 million in 1997.
Donkeys can range in size from 7.3 to 15.3 hands high, from the largest breed the American Mammoth Jackstock to the smallest breed, the Mediterranean Donkey. They have a voracious appetite, preferring grass and plants and they munch their way through an impressive 6,000lbs of this a year!
How about that reputation for stubbornness? Well, donkeys are generally less trusting of humans than horses and can’t be so easily persuaded to do something; however, once their trust is earned and a bond established, they are affectionate and faithful. Indeed, donkeys are thought to be intelligent chaps, boasting excellent memories and the ability to engage in playful activities. However, if they’re wanting to defend themselves, then they’ll pull out the biting and kicking routine (you don’t want to be on the wrong end of that!!) Although, that said, donkeys can have a remarkably calming influence, particularly on horses – they will give comfort and support to newly weaned foals and will also provide succour to help sooth skittish horses.
Although considered humble – remember that Mary rode a donkey on her way to the stable where Jesus was born – donkeys have long been unsung heroes. Did you know that they served in World War I in Gallipoli, where they helped as stretcher bearers for Australian troops? Also, during wartime, donkeys took on the agriculture and transport work that had formally been carried out by horses, who had been seconded to serving in battle.
Indeed, in developing countries donkeys’ strength is still relied upon as a means of transport, carriage and labour and they are hopefully appreciated and cared for in return for their efforts.
There are a number of donkey sanctuaries throughout the world that provide advice on how to care for donkeys and also are involved in efforts to rescue those poor unfortunates who suffer neglect and cruelty. On that sad note, there is a growing concern regarding the use of donkey hides in Chinese medicine and that this is having an impact on the donkey population and it is hoped that the efforts of charities such as donkey sanctuaries can promote the animal’s welfare and reduce this trade.
As well as being working animals, donkeys are popular as pets too and some have even made a break for the wild, becoming feral. There are feral donkeys in Sardinia, where they enjoy protected status and also in the USA. However, the escapees in Australia total about 5 million where they’re regarded as something of a pest.
Donkeys have made it into popular culture too – as soon as you think of the cartoon character, Shrek, you immediately think of the characterful Donkey, who, in my opinion, definitely manages to steal the show. There’s also the doleful Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, who although prone to pessimism is still a reliable friend. For some of the more mature readers, there’s Muffin the Mule – a popular puppet in the 1950-60s. Then there’s the classic party game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ and of course there’s the Mexican pinata, a donkey shape filled with sweets that unfortunately endures a good battering to enable to children to reach their prize.
Donkeys have been part of our lives and culture for many years and hopefully we will continue to appreciate them as industrious, characterful and reliable companions – after all, they’re definitely no silly asses!