10 Surprising Facts About Donkeys

playful dark brown donkey jumps over bunch of branches in field

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The donkey is one of the most underappreciated animals around. With roots in both Asia and Africa, it has a long and varied history. As far as its characteristics, you've heard of its famed obstinance, but do you know the intelligent reason behind it? How about their skillful ears or the way they can act as guards for livestock?

Keep reading for 10 facts that will make you want to give more thought to this common working animal.

1. Donkeys' Large Ears Help Them Stay Cool

brown donkey with big, tall ears peeking out from behind another donkey

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Wild asses such as donkeys evolved in arid locations in Africa and Asia, where most herds tend to be more spread out. The large ears help heighten a donkey's sense of hearing, so it can pick up the calls of herd mates — and predators — from miles away. Another use for the donkey's long ears is heat dissipation. The larger surface area helps the donkey expel its internal heat at a high rate to stay cool in the hot desert environments.

2. Donkeys' Vocalization Is Unique

The donkey's characteristic sound is called braying. It is unique among the equids because it requires an ability that donkeys have but horses and zebras lack: vocalizing while both inhaling and exhaling. The hee occurs during air intake, and the haw comes during air outflow.

Despite this sound being specific to donkeys, there is still some variation. The duration and frequency of a bray, for instance, is unique to each individual animal.

3. One Donkey Breed Is Impressively Hairy

profile Poitou donkey grazing with long, shaggy brown hair

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The Poitou donkey was developed in the French Poitou region in the 18th century, and it is a standout among breeds created by humans. Used primarily to breed mules across Europe, it is known for its distinctive long coat that hangs in thick, matted cords called cadenettes, similar to dreadlocks. The longer and more matted the coat, the more prized the donkey.

But as the use of donkeys and mules declined in the modern era, so too did the breeding of Poitou donkeys. By 1977, there were only 44 individuals left. Since then, numbers have been rising thanks to private breeders and conservation efforts.

4. Their Ancestors Are on the Brink

trio of African wild ass donkeys with black and white striped legs stand together in the shade

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There are two species of wild ass: the African wild ass and the Asiatic wild ass. However, only the former is the ancestor to which today's domesticated donkeys can be traced. Unfortunately, despite being the start of domesticated donkeys 5,000 years ago, the African wild ass is in danger.

According to the IUCN, the African wild ass is critically endangered with between just 23 and 200 adults left in the wild as of 2014. It is hunted for food and traditional medicinal purposes, and also suffers from human encroachment; human-tended livestock outcompetes the wild creatures for what little water can be found in their arid habitat.

5. There Are Conservation Efforts To Protect Endangered Wild Asses

The future for the African wild ass may seem bleak, but there are people working to protect them. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), an environmental treaty of the United Nations, created a plan in 2017 called the "Roadmap for the Conservation of the African Wild Ass Equus africanus." The thorough strategy hones in on each geographic area that holds a significant African wild ass population and outlines tailored objectives and actions to be taken over the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, there is also legislation in place to protect these donkey ancestors, including full legal protections in Eritrea and Ethiopia and the establishment of protective nature reserves.

6. Donkeys Are Part of Many Hybrids

dark brown mule with long neck and upright ears gazes forward in pasture

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Donkeys are key to a number of the world's hybrid creatures; because they are closely related to horses and zebras, donkeys can produce offspring with both. In fact, creating hybrids was standard practice for centuries because mules were popular working animals. The long history of creating donkey hybrids has led to an abundance of names for the mixed-species animals. Here are just a few:

  • Mule: a hybrid of a male donkey and female horse
  • Hinny: a hybrid of a female donkey and male horse
  • John mule: the male offspring of a horse and donkey
  • Molly: the female offspring of a horse and donkey

Mules are almost always sterile. But despite the slim odds of foal, folks still came up with names for them:

  • Jule, donkule: the offspring of a male donkey and female mule
  • Hule: the offspring of a male horse and female mule

Because donkeys can mate with zebras, there are creative names for those offspring too:

  • Zebra hinny, zebret, zebrinny: a hybrid of a male donkey and female zebra
  • Zebroid, zebrass, zedonk: a hybrid of a female donkey and male zebra

7. They Are Highly Social

two long-haired donkeys standing side by side in open field

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Donkeys are social animals that don't like to be alone. They evolved as herd animals and form deep, lifelong bonds with other donkeys or animals with whom they share a pasture.

Close bonds between two donkeys are called pair bonds, and there is also research to prove their legitimacy. Separating a pair has negative effects on the donkeys that include stress, pining behavior, and loss of appetite.

This is why for those interested in owning a donkey, it's commonly advised to bring home two, or at least place your donkey with potential friends such as a horse.

8. They Can Act as Guard Animals

large donkey in a pen surrounded by sheep

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Donkeys are naturally aggressive toward canid animals. As a result, they are sometimes used as "guardians" for livestock — they can defend against a dog, coyote, fox, or even bobcat that's bothering a herd of sheep or goats. The livestock will begin to see the donkeys as protectors and gravitate toward them when they feel they are in danger.

9. They're Stubborn for a Reason

man pulling stubborn donkey that will not budge to walk with him

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Donkeys are known for being obstinate, planting their feet and staying put regardless of how hard a handler pulls. But just because they have a tendency to resist doesn't mean they're dumb, as commonly assumed. Quite the opposite.

Donkeys have a keen sense of self-preservation. If they feel they're in danger, rather than running away, they'll stand their ground and refuse to move, giving them time to make their own decision about whether or not it's safe to keep going forward. It's a distinct difference from horses which, when frightened, usually flee immediately.

10. Some Donkeys Are Tiny

tiny miniature donkey with fluffy brown and white coat stands in pasture

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Miniature donkeys are impressively small. Native to Sicily and Sardinia, they stand no taller than three feet high at the shoulder. The Guinness World Record for shortest donkey currently belongs to KneeHi at 25.29 inches tall, but another miniature donkey, Ottie, stood at 19 inches high when fully grown in 2017 and never officially received the title.

It's important to note that unlike many other miniature animal breeds, the miniature donkey is not a bred-down version of the "normal" animal — its size is natural.

Save the African Wild Ass

  • Support breeding programs, such as the one at Basel Zoo in Switzerland.
  • Learn about conservation legislation.
  • Educate others about the species-wide effects of poaching.