How To Be Safely Around A Donkey

Three donkeys standing near a fenceline.

Donkeys can be incredibly affectionate, mindful, and playful beings, but there are times when they would prefer to be left alone. Even the most docile donkey in your sanctuary might decide they need some alone time, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset donkeys can easily cause catastrophic injuries and fatalities.

Ask An Expert

If you are not used to being around donkeys and are bringing one into your sanctuary, you should have an expert give you hands-on training in donkey behavior if at all possible. There are many nuances in their actions that can not be conveyed through words alone! And always remember that donkeys have unique differences from horses.

Signs A Donkey Wants To Be Left Alone

Although they tend to be more subtle than horses when it comes to giving cues, a donkey will use many different tactics (typically in combination depending on their discomfort) to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Generally, donkeys will stand their ground more often than a horse, and will be much more cautious and appear “stubborn” when being asked to do things that they do not feel comfortable doing. Each donkey has their own personality and may display different body language cues, but some signs that a donkey is uncomfortable include:

  • Walking Away From You
  • Distressed braying
  • Pinning their ears back close to their neck
  • Holding their head high (could indicate that they might be spooked or ready to bolt)
  • Lightly to moderately pawing at the ground or stomping (can indicate anxiety or irritation)
  • Raising one of their legs
  • Flaring their nostrils or snorts a lot
  • Tightening their mouth and muzzle muscles
  • Squinting or darting their eyes
  • Rapidly swishing their tail
  • Full body trembling or shaking

If a donkey does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:

  • Rapidly swiveling their ears back and forth (a sign of high anxiety or alertness)
  • Pawing angrily at the ground (can indicate they are ready to charge)
  • Cocking their hind hoof with ears pinned back (avoid their hind area in cases like these)
  • Openly baring their teeth at you or biting you
  • Having widely open eyes to the extent that you see the whites of their eyes

If a donkey tells you their discomfort through these signals, you must immediately demonstrate that you mean no harm by backing away slowly from them if appropriate. If a donkey seems intent on removing you from their space, find a way to put something between the two of you, be it a tree, a wagon, or even other donkeys. If at all possible, don’t turn your back and run away from an uncomfortable donkey unless you are in immediate danger and need the extra speed. Conversely, make sure that an uncomfortable donkey has a generous escape route as well! Typically they would rather leave the situation than become confrontational.

Things That Make A Donkey Uncomfortable

Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a donkey less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and how they may react to a disruption:

Daily Habits

Donkeys find a lot of comfort in daily routines, and can become annoyed or afraid if their routine is disrupted, so be extra gentle and allow extra time if you’re asking a donkey to do something they aren’t used to doing, like going to a new pasture or barn. Although they tend to react much less dramatically than horses in these cases, donkeys can also be spooked by seeing something they’ve never seen before, like balloons or even flapping paper, so be wary when conducting novel activities around donkeys.

Flight Zone

Like most herd animals, donkeys have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different donkeys will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish donkey might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a donkey’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a dangerous scenario. You should be aware that due to their natural history, donkeys are more prone to a “fight” rather than a “flight” response than horses tend to be, so always be cautious, especially with donkeys that you don’t personally know!

Don't Get Cornered

If you are cornered or in a tight space with a donkey who is frightened and cannot leave the area on their own terms, there’s a good chance that they might become confrontational, so it’s absolutely crucial that both you and the donkey always have an appropriate escape route, and take your time approaching the donkey to gauge how they’re going to react as you get nearer!

Hearing

Donkeys can be sensitive to loud noises. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and charge responses in wary donkeys. Try to be very cautious with volume around donkeys and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.

Herding

Donkeys prefer to naturally herd together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. If you need to single out or separate a donkey, it’s likely that the isolated donkey might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious. If you do need to separate a donkey, move them slowly and quietly, limit their alone time, and keep their herd nearby if at all possible. Be aware that the stress resulting from separating a donkey from their companion, if unmitigated, can quite literally cause their death.

Maternal Instincts

If you’re caring for a mother donkey with a foal, they may be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and foal, never going between the two of them when possible. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and foal, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating the two of them, and anticipate quite a bit of displeasure or distress from the mother.

How Not To Be Kicked By A Donkey

Donkeys have both binocular (two-eyed) and monocular (one-eyed) vision due to their physiology, which gives them excellent wide angle view, but have a blind spot directly behind them and have quite poor vision directly in front of their faces. They have evolved to reflexively defend their hind area with a powerful rear leg kick that can easily incapacitate a predator or well-meaning human that unintentionally snuck up on them. They can also kick outward to the side with their rear legs as well. This means that a half circle shaped area with up to a six foot radius around the rear of a donkey should be typically avoided if possible, unless a donkey is given a generous heads up about your presence there.

If you need to get near a donkey, speak to them calmly and clearly to get their attention, and approach them by their shoulder rather than from behind or directly head on to give them ample clues of where you are and that you are not a threat. Gently touch their neck and continue to touch them as you walk around their body to keep them aware of your location around their personal space. If you need to be near their hindquarters, staying very close to their body will prevent them from being able to give a full-forced kick if surprised or as a response to pain.

If a donkey appears to have an injury or affliction on either side towards the rear of their body, be very cautious in approaching the afflicted area, as injured donkeys have a tendency to be very defensive in these cases to deflect opportunistic predators.

Safely Handling A Donkey

Because of the importance of regular health examinations and hoof trimming, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of the donkeys in your care. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom donkeys to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies and legs when they’re relaxed. Some donkeys may never be fully comfortable with humans and may need to be examined by an expert with assistance every time.

SOURCES:

The Donkey Sanctuary Care Handbook | The Donkey Sanctuary

Being Safe Around A Donkey [Video] | The Donkey Sanctuary Of Canada

Understanding Donkey Behavior | The Donkey Sanctuary

Approaching The Nervous Or Unhandled Donkey [Video] The Donkey Sanctuary

Working With Donkeys Who Do Not Like Their Feet Touched | Donkey Welfare Symposium

Donkeys | The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 4, 2020

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