10 Facts to Change the Way You Think About Donkeys

Two donkeys side by side

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One of the most under-appreciated animals around is the humble yet utterly lovable donkey.

You may know the long ears, the comedic braying and the history of this hearty working animal, but there's so much more! Do you know about some of the strange breeds of donkey, or that their wild cousins are critically endangered, or that there's a really intelligent reason behind that infamous stubborn streak?

Scroll through these slides and you'll gain a whole new appreciation for these unique and loving animals.

These Ears Were Made for Hearing (and Cooling)

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The first thing most people think of when they picture a donkey is large ears. But the ears aren't there just for comedic value. The extra long ears give donkeys a stronger ability to pick up sounds. Wild asses evolved in arid places in Africa and Asia, where herds tend to be more spread out. The longer ears can help a donkey pick up on the calls of herd mates that are miles away.

Another possible use for the long ears may be heat dissipation, helping the wild asses stay cool in their hot desert environments.

The Ins and Outs of Braying

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The braying of donkeys is a distinct sound, recognizable by anyone who's heard the characteristic hee-haw even once. The sound is unique among the equids because donkeys have an ability that horses and zebras lack: they can vocalize while they’re breathing in as well as while they’re breathing out.

According to research published by the Acoustical Society of America, “significant sound is produced during both air intake (the hee) and air outflow (the haw). Typically these vocalizations, primarily by males, consist of a series of brays, seemingly mechanically produced with little variation, terminating when the animal becomes short of breath — literally a burst of sound.”

It may not always be the most musical of sounds, but it's certainly memorable — and special to this species.

The Hairiest of Them All

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Donkeys were domesticated around 5,000 years ago, and in that time humans have had ample opportunity to create some interesting breeds. A standout is the Poitou donkey. This breed is known for its distinctive long coat, which hangs in thick cords. The breed was prized for this unique cadanette coat, with individuals having particularly long and matted cords valued the most. However, individuals today are often shorn for better grooming and hygiene.

The Poitou donkey was developed in the French Poitou region, and during the 18th and 19th century this donkey was used to breed mules across Europe as well as in the development of other donkey breeds such as the American Mammoth Jack.

Of course, 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, and there was a strong likelihood that the Poitou would die out. Since then, however, private breeders have brought the number up to around 400 as of 2011.

Wild Ancestors on the Brink

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Donkeys were domesticated thousands of years ago from African wild asses and since then, their ancestors living in the wild have gone into steep decline.

There are two species of wild ass, including the African wild ass — which includes the Nubian wild ass and the Somali wild ass as subspecies — and the Asiatic wild ass.

The African wild ass is critically endangered with only about 200 adults left in the wild. It is hunted for food and traditional medicinal purposes, and also suffers from human encroachment, with human-tended livestock outcompeting the wild creatures for what little water can be found in the arid and semi-arid habitat.

The Asiatic wild ass is listed as Near Threatened as it faces illegal hunting and competition with livestock for food and water. One significant problem is fences and railways, which cut wild asses off from migration routes and shrink their habitats.

In a 2011 article noting research on Asiatic wild ass conservation, LiveScience reported, "Wildlife crossing points should be built over or under railroad tracks, [researchers] said, and the border between Mongolia and China should be declared an ecological corridor with fence openings for migration. By linking protected areas, the researchers wrote, humans could provide wild asses with more than 43,000 square miles (70,000 square km) of connected habitat."

Pictured here is the Somali wild ass, which stands out from other African wild asses with the beautiful black bands across its legs.

Sanctuaries for Wild Asses

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Luckily for these threatened and endangered species, there are people working to protect them.

The Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in Little Rann of Kutch in the Gujarat state of India was established in 1972 and is one of the last places on the planet where the Indian wild ass, a subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass, can be found. It's the largest wildlife sanctuary in India.

In a 2015 wild ass census, the population of wild asses in Gujarat rose to 4,451, an increase of 454 individuals since the previous census. “According to forest officials, the wild ass population had increased by 10 percent which is a sizeable jump according to national and international standards,” reports the Times of India.

Meanwhile, a small reserve in the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve in Israel is home to a protected population of Somali wild asses.

Because wild asses are so resilient, if protective measures can be put in place (and enforced) to preserve their native habitat, keep migration routes open, and protect them from hunting, there's a good chance the species could recover.

Hinnys, Zdonks, Mules and More Hybrids

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There's no shortage of donkey hybrids in this world. 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. There has never been a fertile male mule, and there have been only 60 documented cases of female mules producing offspring. Even with such very slight odds of mules having foals, folks still came up with names for them.

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

And we can’t forget the hybrids of donkeys and zebras. They are:

  • 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

And now you're prepared for any pub trivia question related to donkey hybrids!

I'm Not Plannin' on Going Solo

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For anyone who remembers Donkey's "I'm all alone" song from "Shrek," you'll know making a donkey go solo is a bad idea.

Donkeys don't like to be alone. What social animal does, really? And social is just what donkeys are. They evolved as herd animals and form deep, life-long bonds with other donkeys or other animals with whom they share a pasture.

For those interested in owning a donkey, it's commonly advised that you bring home two — or at the very least, place your donkey with friends such as a horse. Companionship is as important to a donkey's happy life as food or water.

According to The Donkey Sanctuary, "Donkeys commonly 'pair bond' and this can lead to problems if trying to separate them from their companion, which may not necessarily be another donkey. Do not separate bonded pairs as it can lead to stress."

Stationing a Guard Donkey

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Speaking of donkeys as herd animals, they are sometimes used as livestock guardian animals. They're naturally aggressive toward canids and can be effective against a dog or coyote that's bothering a herd of sheep or goats.

Mother Earth News writes, “Donkeys make acceptable guardians of sheep, goats and calves. Often the sheep or goats come to see the larger donkey as protective and will gather near it if they perceive a threat. Donkeys can protect against a single fox, coyote, roaming dog and possibly a bobcat.”

The downside to using a donkey as a guard animal is that the donkey may not instinctively guard the herd, their aggression may extend to the farm's dogs, and they can become prey themselves if facing large predators like wolves, mountain lions or bears. Still, they’re notoriously loud brayers and even if they can't fight off an attacker, they may give a rancher enough warning to get out to a pasture to help the flock or herd.

There's Logic to the Stubborn Streak

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Donkeys are known for being obstinate, planting their feet and staying put regardless of how hard a handler pulls. The phrase "stubborn as a mule" reflects the donkey side of a mule's lineage. But just because they have a tendency to balk doesn't mean they're dumb. In fact, the opposite is true.

Donkeys have a keen sense of self-preservation. If they feel they're in danger, rather than running away they'll plant their feet 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, will usually try to flee.

"Often misunderstood for being stubborn or stupid, donkeys are actually extremely smart. When cognitive and perseveration assessments were performed on horses, donkeys, and mules, the donkeys and mules outperformed horses. They were more accurate and faster problem solvers than horses. In addition, donkeys are less inclined to panic. Although they have a natural tendency to freeze when threatened, their quick learning ability make their easy to teach." writes HorseGuard.

So if a donkey is being stubborn, it's usually for a good reason.

Mini Donkeys Are the Tiniest of Them All

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We couldn't conclude this donkey love fest without talking about the tiny wonders that are miniature donkeys.

Native to Sicily and Sardinia, miniature donkeys stand no taller than three feet high at the shoulder, though they can be as miniscule as 26 inches high at the shoulder. The world’s shortest donkey is KneeHi, a jack born in 2007 who stands only 25.29 inches high at the shoulders.

The Miniature Mediterranean donkey is all but gone from its native lands, but the breed is popular pet in the United States. And it’s no wonder. In addition to being cute, they’re also loving.

According to Oklahoma State University, “They love their owners and seek attention. They do this with friendly nudges and brays and funny little sounds designed to get you to pay attention to them. The miniature donkey is extremely intelligent and docile and is easily trained.”

If this is making you consider getting a miniature donkey as a pet, remember that they do best when they have another donkey as a BFF. Luckily they’re small so if you have room for one, you probably have room for two!