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Donkey

The donkey, a.k.a. Annes (Equus asinus, hence also ass), is a domesticated animal of the horse family, Equidae. The word also applies to a type of apparatus. more...

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Etymology of the name

The word "donkey" is one of the most etymologically obscure in the English language. more...

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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; 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 handing over its meaning to "ass".

Relationship to horses

A male donkey 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. These 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 mule are more common in total number.

Economic use

Domestication of the donkey circa 4000 BC is credited to predynastic Egypt (see Domestication). In particular, the donkey has been cited as the most probable beast of burden employed enroute between the First dynasty of Egypt (and perhaps earlier) and turquoise mining camps in the Sinai Peninsula (see Sinai Peninsula), as mention of the dromedary in Ancient Egypt does not appear until far later in the early 2nd millennium BC (see ).

Donkeys were also used in the prehistoric eras of Europe and western Asia, for pulling carts and carrying loads (including riders). Though not as fast as horses, donkeys are long-lived, cheaper to maintain, have great endurance, and are agile on poor tracks. They remain of crucial economic importance in many developing countries.

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.

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

Wild asses

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.

The Wild Burro of the Southwestern United States is the descendent of the beasts of burden used and abandoned by the early prospectors. 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.

Cultural aspects

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

  • The ass was a symbol of the Egyptian god, Seth
  • Several were buried in Hor-Aha's tomb
  • The ass was a symbol the Greek god Dionysus.
  • 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 (chomor) in the Hebrew Bible
  • The gospels have Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem; this has given rise to a legend that this is the origin of the cross on a donkey's shoulders.
  • 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.
  • 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", and "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").
  • European folklore also claims that the tail of a donkey can be used to combat whooping cough or scorpion stings.

Read more at Wikipedia.org


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