Donald Shephard

When someone does something we consider to be particularly stupid , we say "You silly ass." Or if we want to sound more erudite, we say, "What an asinine thing to do." This is, of course, insulting language…to people too. Often when we have more knowledge of a peculiar behavior we gain understanding and tolerance. So, today, I want to help you understand the much maligned donkey, and in so doing, perhaps we will learn something about ourselves.


ORDER PERISSODACTYLA the odd-toed, hoofed quadrupeds, including tapirs, rhinoceroses, and horses. FAMILY EQUIDAE includes Equus caballus, the domestic horse, Equus asinus the donkey or burro, zebras, hemiones, onagers and kiang.

Donkeys originated from several races of African wild ass, the Algerian, the Eritrean, the Nubian and the Somalian. The most prominent of these is the Nubian Wild Ass, Equus africanus africanus. It comes from the mountainous, semi-deserts of Nubia and East Sudan from the Nile to the Red Sea. There is the prominent stripe down its back and another across its shoulders. Unlike other races, it does not have stripes on its legs.

This origin in the desert is significant. It accounts for several characteristics of the donkey. Sparse vegetation meant the herd spread out to eat. It meant not wasting food or water. It meant calling long distances hence loud braying voices and large ears. You may make similar observations about west Texans. It also meant an extended gestation period. Finally, it meant far sightedness rather than near-sightedness.

All species of equids will interbreed, including zebras. Viable offspring are produced but they are rarely fertile except the cross between the Wild African Ass Equua africanus and the domestic donkey Equus asinus which are fully fertile. Their chromosome numbers are the same - 62. The chromosome number for the domestic horse is 64.

The mule is the perfect example of hybrid vigor. The donkey's greatest contribution to the economy is as the father of the mule. The mule as a beast of burden has more stamina and endurance, can carry heavier loads and is more sure-footed than the horse or the donkey. Mule is a cross between a Jack and a mare.

Hinny is a cross between a stallion and a jenny.


By the fourth millennium BC, the ass was being bred by ancient Egyptians. By 2500 BC donkeys were often shown in Egyptian art carrying loads or with saddle-cloths. The Romans used mules for riding, plowing, drawing carts, carrying army baggage.

When you understand these things you understand apparently stubborn or stupid behavior. I had a beautiful white Jenny called Threnody - an excellent name for a donkey it is a type of funeral music. Threnody would pull a little cart I made down the street. Children would come out of the houses and stand, silently, wanting a ride. And they all got one.

Each time I harnessed her up she stood quietly, she walked on when told and she crossed to the middle of the road ready to turn left down the tree-lined avenue. And every single time she stopped at the center-line in the road and jumped over it. Now what was that all about? Recall she is far sighted. She thought there was something in the road and jumped over it. She cleared it almost every time. For the same reason she went around every shadow of every tree of that lane. Once when I had entered her and the cart in the Lodi Grape Festival Parade it occurred to me that she had never been across a railroad line. She might balk and hold up the entire parade embarrassing us all. Late in the evening, I rushed her into harness and sped down the road at 3 or 4 miles an hour. She crossed the track wheeled around and crossed them again. She had passed with flying colors. But the cart was wobbling. Since it was getting late, my wife led Threnody back and ran for help from a close neighbor, also English. He fixed the needle- bearings which had jeopardized the trip and we both set off for home pulling the cart between us. Sean O'Farrel, my neighbor, and as Irish as his name suggests, saw us, and leaning over his gate and pointing down the road, he said, "I saw one donkey pulling the cart that way and now I see two donkeys pulling it this way!"

My point is this. Be careful how you judge behavior. It helps to look for understanding. I will leave you with a quote from Robbie Burns, “Would to god the gift to gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

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