Donkeys: How We Got Here

Three young donkeys standing close to each other outside.

Burro Buddies

Donkeys are wonderfully thoughtful, intelligent animals. Stubbornness is often associated with the donkey, but their seemingly-recalcitrant behavior is due more to their strong sense of self preservation than shear hard-headedness. In fact, people often mistake a donkey’s fear or uncertainty for stubbornness. When faced with a potential threat, donkeys are more likely to stand their ground than horses. However, this doesn’t mean they are not fearful. They simply have lower flight responses to novel or frightening situations and carefully consider the situation at hand, or hoof, as it may be. But how did these modern day jacks (male donkeys) and jennies (female donkeys) come to be?

A History Lesson

Studies utilizing DNA sequencing suggest the modern domestic donkey descended from wild asses in Northeast Africa beginning around 6,000 years ago. There are 2 separate species of wild asses, the African (Equus africanus) and the Asiatic branch (Equus hemious). While there are two subspecies in the African branch, the Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis) and the Nubian wild ass, (Equus africanus africanus), only the Nubian wild ass (Equus africanus africanus) is believed to be the ancestor of the modern domesticated donkey (Equus asinus) as we know them. Interestingly, recent genetic testing reveals that modern Nubian asses are genetically identical to ancient domestic donkeys. This indicates that modern Nubian wild asses may be descended from previously domesticated donkeys. Sadly, the Nubian wild ass and Somali wild ass are now critically endangered.

Domestic donkeys can now be found all over the world. Donkeys were domesticated to produce meat, milk, and as transport of both goods and humans. Around 2,000 years ago, donkeys were used to transport goods overland along the Silk Road, resulting in a variety of donkey breeds and their use in other regions such as, Greece, the Middle East, and Italy. The Roman Army also used donkeys as pack animals and for agricultural purposes, bringing them to northern Europe. Spanish explorers and colonizers brought donkeys to South, Central, and North America.

The Old And New

The modern domestic donkey differs from their historic counterparts in several ways. Domestic donkeys are generally smaller than wild donkeys and have smaller, less sturdy foot bones. The Nubian wild ass has a light grey or fawn colored coat. Somali wild asses have horizontal black stripes across their legs, much like a zebra’s markings. Domestic donkeys come in many different colors (brown, white, grey, black, spotted) and vary in size, depending on how they have been bred. Standard donkeys are between 36-48 inches high from hoof to withers, while miniature donkeys (a separate breed originating from Sardinia and Sicily) stand no taller than 36 inches. On the other end of the spectrum is the largest donkey breed, the American Mammoth. They can weigh between 900-1200 pounds and stand at least 54 inches high, though many are even taller!

Challenges Facing Donkeys

Archaeologists have discovered ancient donkey burials and evidence of damaged spinal columns indicating the use of donkeys as pack animals. Today 95% of donkeys across the world continue to be used as work animals, mostly to transport materials or people in developing countries. These donkeys face numerous welfare issues including lameness, malnourishment, sores, and parasites.

Another more recent threat to donkeys is a growing demand for their skins to produce a traditional Chinese medicine known as Ejiao. It is estimated that at least 1.8 million donkeys are killed for their skin every year to supply the demand for medicine and beauty products containing Ejiao. For hundreds of years, donkeys have been used for milk production in China, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. In Europe, the demand for donkey milk is increasing, bringing along with it a host of welfare concerns for the donkeys used in the industry. While donkeys in the United States exhibit only a fraction of the global population of donkeys, they experience unique challenges. It is estimated that there are nearly 15,000 feral donkeys living in the western United States. Considered an invasive species, their numbers present an issue for the ecosystems in which they are living. This has resulted in government-led donkey round ups, cullings, and, for the lucky ones, adoption programs.

One challenge that spans continents and is especially relevant to sanctuaries is the practice of treating and caring for donkeys like horses. Donkeys are unique, even among other equids. Donkeys have different nutritional requirements from horses and common husbandry practices utilizing horse care guidelines have caused many donkeys harm. Taking time to learn about the unique needs of the donkey will help ensure happy, healthy donkeys!


Out Of Africa: The Origin Of Donkeys | Genome News Network

The Domestication History Of Donkeys (Equus Asinus) | ThoughtCo.

American Mammoth Jackstock | Livestock Conservancy

Regional and world trends in donkey populations | Food And Agricultural Organization Of The United Nations

Donkey Skin Trade | American Veterinary Medical Association

Domestication Of The Donkey: Timing, Processes, And Indicators | Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences Of The United States

Causes Of Welfare Issues in Working Horses and Donkeys | The Brooke

Herd Area and Herd Management Area Statistics | Bureau For Land Management

About Donkeys I The Donkey Sanctuary

The Donkey In Human History: An Archaeological Perspective | Google Books

Dairy donkey: An Alternative Building Layout | Journal of Agricultural Engineering

Updated on August 4, 2020

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