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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The donkey or ass, Equus asinus, is a domesticated animal of the horse family, Equidae.


Donkeys grazing in central Texas.
Donkeys grazing in central Texas.

Most wild donkeys are between 102 cm (10 hands) and 142 cm (14 hands) in height. Domestic donkeys stand under 91 cm ( 9 hands) to over 142 cm (over 14 hands) tall. The Andalucian-Cordobesan breed of southern Spain can reach up to 16 hands high. Donkeys are adapted to marginal desert lands, and have many traits that are unique to the species as a result. They need less food than horses. Overfed donkeys can suffer from a disease called Laminitis. Unlike horses, donkey fur is not waterproof, and so must have shelter especially when it rains. Wild donkeys live separated from each other, unlike tight wild horse herds. Donkeys have developed very loud voices, which can be heard for over three kilometres, to keep in contact with other donkeys of their herd over the wide spaces of the desert. Donkeys have larger ears than horses to hear the distant calls of fellow donkeys, and to help cool the donkey's blood. Donkeys' tough digestive system can break down inedible vegetation and extract moisture from food more efficiently. Donkeys can defend themselves with a powerful kick of their hind legs.


The word donkey (and its equivalent, ass) 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; and 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 assigning its meaning to ass.

The incorporation of horse into sawhorse, referring to a wooden frame which supports work in progress, can be compared to the donkey-related etymology of the English word easel, from the Dutch ezel and German Esel. In both languages, the word refers to both the animal, and to an easel (as in painter's easel) as well.aha


For the Greeks, the donkey was associated with the Syrian God of wine, Dionysius. The Disney film Fantasia (1940) features a Dionysian character on a donkey. The Romans also valued the ass and would use it as a sacrificial animal.

The donkey makes a number of appearances in the Christian Bible. In fact, the most common Greek word for ass, Hamor, appears roughly 100 times in the Biblical text. In the Old Testament, God chose to speak through a donkey to show Balaam the folly of his ways. In the New Testament, Christ rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Legend has it that the cross on the donkey’s shoulders comes from the shadow of Christ's crucifixion, placing the donkey at the foot of the cross. It was once believed that hair cut from this cross and hung from a child's neck in a bag would prevent fits and convulsions. The Bible often specifies if a person rode donkeys, since this was used to indicate a person's wealth in much the same way as ownership of luxury cars do today.

In 1495, the ass first appeared in the New World. The four males and two females brought by Christopher Columbus bred to horses gave birth to the mules which the Conquistadors rode as they explored the Americas. Shortly after America won her independence, President George Washington imported the first mammoth jackstock into the young country. Because the Jack donkeys in the New World lacked the size and strength he required to produce quality work mules, he imported donkeys from Spain and France, some standing over 16 hands tall. One of the donkeys Washington received from the Marquis de Lafayette named “Knight of Malta" stood only 14 hands and was regarded as a great disappointment. Viewing this donkey as unfit for producing mules, Washington instead bred The Knight to his Jennets and, in doing so, created an American line of Mammoth Jackstock.

Despite these early appearances of donkeys in American society, the donkey did not find widespread favor in America until the miners and gold prospectors of the 1800s. Miners preferred this animal due to its ability to carry tools, supplies, and ore. Their sociable disposition and fondness for human companionship allowed the miners to lead their donkeys without ropes. They simply followed behind their master. Sadly, with the introduction of the steam train, these donkeys lost their jobs and many were turned loose into the American deserts. Descendants of these donkeys can still be seen roaming the Southwest in herds to this day.

By the early Twentieth Century, the donkey became more of a pet than a work animal. This is best portrayed by the appearance of the miniature donkey in 1929. Robert Green imported miniature donkeys to the United States and was a lifetime advocator of the breed. Mr. Green is perhaps best quoted when he said “Miniature Donkeys possess the affectionate nature of a Newfoundland, the resignation of a cow, the durability of a mule, the courage of a tiger, and the intellectual capability only slightly inferior to man's.” Standing only 32-40 inches, many families were quick to recognize the potential these tiny equines possessed as pets and companions for their children.

Although, the donkey fell from public notice and became viewed as a comical, stubborn beast who was considered “cute” at best, the donkey has recently regained some popularity in North America as a mount, for pulling wagons, and even as a guard animal. Some standard species are ideal for guarding herds of sheep against predators since many donkeys have a natural aversion to canines and will keep them away from the herd.

During the 1828 United States Presidential Election, Andrew Jackson's opponents referred to him as a "Jackass." Jackson liked the name and used the jackass as a symbol for a while, but it died out. However, it later became the symbol for the Democratic Party.[citation needed]

Economic use

Classic British seaside donkeys in Skegness used for donkey rides on the beach.
Classic British seaside donkeys in Skegness used for donkey rides on the beach.

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. They are many times fielded with horses due to a perceived calming effect on nervous horses. If a donkey is introduced to a mare and foal, the foal will often turn to the donkey for support after it has left its mother.[1]

Once a person has earned their confidence they can be willing and companionable partners and very dependable 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 donkey 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.

Types of donkeys

Poitou Donkey
Poitou Donkey

Domestic donkey breeds

An incomplete list of domestic donkey breeds includes the:

  • Mammoth Donkey
  • Poitou Donkey
  • American Spotted Donkey

The Poitou Donkey breed was developed in France for the sole purpose of producing mules. It is a large donkey breed with a very long shaggy coat and no dorsal stripe.


Adopted wild burro
Adopted wild burro

The Spanish brought burros to North America beginning in the late fifteenth century. These burros were used as pack animals, but also for riding and pulling carts. These pack animals were prized for their hardiness in arid country and became the beast of burden of choice by early prospectors in the Southwest United States. The wild burros on the western rangelands descend from burros that escaped, were abandoned, or were freed.

Wild burros in the United States are protected by Public Law 92-195, The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. 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.

Donkey hybrids

A male donkey (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. This is North American nomenclature; in the United Kingdom, the word hinny is not used. A female donkey in the UK is called a mare, or jenny and the word jennet is more commonly applied to the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse, regardless of whether the foal is female or male.

Horse-donkey hybrids are almost always sterile because horses have 64 chromosomes whereas donkeys have 62, producing offspring with 63 chromosomes. Due to different mating behavior, jacks are often more willing to cover mares than stallions are to breed jennets. Mules are much more common than hinnies. This is believed to be caused by two factors, the first being proven in cat hybrids, that when the chromosome count of the male is the higher, fertility rates drop (as in the case of stallion x jennet). The lower progesterone production of the jennet may also lead to early embryonic loss. Although it is commonly believed that mules are more easily handled and also physically stronger than hinnies, making them more desirable for breeders to produce, it is simply that mules are more common in total number.

The offspring of a zebra-donkey cross is called a zonkey, zebroid, zebrass, or zedonk,[2]; Zebra mule is an outdated term. The foregoing terms generally refer to hybrids produced by breeding a male zebra to a female donkey. Zebra hinny, zebret and zebrinny all refer to the cross of a female zebra with a male donkey. Zebrinnies are rarer than zedonkies because female zebras in captivity are most valuable when used to produce full-blooded zebras. [3] There are not enough female zebras breeding in captivity to spare them for hybridizing; there is no such limitation on the number of female donkeys breeding.

For at least the past century, a few donkeys and burros in Mexico have been painted with white stripes to amuse tourists. These are not hybrids.

An animal which may look like a zebra-donkey hybrid because of its distinctly striped hindquarters and hind legs is the okapi, which has no relationship to either of those species. Okapi are most closely related to the giraffe. In addition to the rear stripes, okapi have some striping near the top of their forelegs.

Wild ass, onager, and kiang

With domestication of almost all donkeys, few species now exist in the wild. Some of them are the African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) and its subspecies Somalian Wild Ass (Equus africanus somaliensis). The Asiatic wild ass or onager, Equus hemionus, and its relative the kiang, Equus kiang, are closely related wild species.

There was another extinct subspecies called the Yukon Wild Ass (Equus asinus lambei). In the wild the asses can reach top speeds equalling zebras and even most horses.

Cultural references

A donkey in Santiago, Chile
A donkey in Santiago, Chile

The long history of human use of donkeys means that there is a rich store of cultural references to them.

Religion and myth

  • The ass may have been the symbol of the Egyptian god, Seth
  • Several were buried in Hor-Aha's tomb [4]
  • The ass was a symbol of the Greek god Dionysus, particularly in relationship to his companion, Silenus.
  • 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 (chamor) in the Hebrew Bible, including Numbers 22:22-41 where the "Lord opened the mouth of the donkey" (vs. 28) and it speaks to Balaam and Judges 15:13-17 where the hero Samson slays Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Additional references can be found in Deuteronomy 22:10, Job 11:12, Proverbs 26:3 and elsewhere.
  • In the Gospels, Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1 in which colt refers to a donkey colt).This has given rise to legend explaining the origin of the cross on a donkey's shoulders.
  • Traditionally, Mary is portrayed as riding a donkey while pregnant although this is not verified in the Bible.
  • Donkeys are also used in the common children's game of "pin the tail on the donkey," often played at birthday parties in America and across the world.

Fable and folklore

  • European folklore also claims that the tail of a donkey can be used to combat whooping cough or scorpion stings.
  • 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.


  • Eeyore, the gloomy Donkey from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Proverb and idiom

  • 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",
    • "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").

Pub Names

  • The Jack and Jenny is a common pub-name in Britain. A pub by this name has existed in Witham, Essex for many years.
  • The rather more unusually named Donkey and Buskins is the name of a pub in Colchester, Essex.

Insult and vulgarity

  • 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 A 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. On the other hand, referring to someone as a smartass means that they are somewhat intelligent, but smart-alecky and irreverent.
  • In contrast, to refer to someone as a jackass in modern slang provides a connotation of being obnoxious, rude, and thoughtless, with or without the added connotation of stupidity. This usage is also considered vulgar. A less vulgar substitute is donkey itself, as in, "He is such a donkey; he dances to Abba's 'Dancing Queen' in his underwear."
  • The unmodified word ass has entered common use in the English language as a term used to describe a person who resembles a donkey in some way, such as appearance, stubbornness, foolishness, etc.
  • In football, especially in the United Kingdom, a player who is considered unskilful, and to rely overly on his physical attributes to cover up his technical shortcomings, is often dubbed a "donkey."
  • Term for bad poker players that play hands when the odds are against them. "Wayne is such a donkey, he put all his chips in drawing dead" (also sometimes referred to as a fish)
  • in Egypt, Donkey or homar is a derogatory term that refers to someone of very limited intelligence. Another usage is "Work Donkey" which means a very heavy worker, usually in routine non-creative work; for example, someone might say "Give that job to Ali, he's a Work Donkey anyway and he won't mind."
  • In Italian football, Chievo Verona (currently in Serie A) are nicknamed the "Flying Donkeys". They took the name when fans of rivals Hellas Verona claimed that Chievo had taken their name, colours and stadium from them and would say that donkeys would fly if Chievo ever made the top flight. But now they've embraced the nickname, they have a flying donkey next to their badge on their website and even sell stuffed donkeys at their club shop!
  • In Mexico, a student who is unintelligent, doesn't earn good grades or doesn't like to study is called a burro.

Politics in the U.S.A.

A donkey at Clovelly, North Devon, England
A donkey at Clovelly, North Devon, England

The donkey is also the symbol for the Democratic Party of the United States, originating in a cartoon by Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly (Nast also originated the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party (United States);

Donkey trivia

  • Donkey is also the name of a fictious donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) in the animated movies Shrek and Shrek 2, both from DreamWorks Pictures.
  • There are no actual donkeys in the video game Donkey Kong; the term "Donkey" was used to indicate that the main character was stubborn. [citation needed]


  1. ^ Donkeys
  2. ^ American Donkey and Mule Society: Zebra Hybrids
  3. ^ All About Zebra Hybrids
  4. ^

See also

  • Buridan's ass
  • Jennet
  • Hinny
  • Mule
  • Ponui donkey

External links

Commons logo
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Equus asinus
  • Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, Tehachapi, CA
  • The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon The UK's largest Donkey Sanctuary
  • – Online Donkey & Mule Community and Resource Directory
  • Freshfields Donkey Village, home of The Michael Elliott Trust
  • Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary in Oxfordshire
  • The American Donkey and Mule Society
  • American Donkey and Mule Society Zebra Hybrids
  • National Wild Horse and Burro Program
  • Breeds of livestock - Poitou Donkey
  • Asian Wild Ass facts and photos - Wild Animals Online encyclopedia
  • Yankee Donkey and Mule Society
  • Donkey (in Polish)
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