The modern domestic donkey- South Africa

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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.

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.”

Donkeys 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.

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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.

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. 

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.  

Plaastoe- Written by  Dr Nicolene Swanepoel.