Donkey Terms and Information


Ass: Technically, this is the term to be used when referring to a member of the genus equus asinus. The hoarseness of its voice, or bray, depends upon two small peculiar cavities situated at the bottom of the larynx. In groups, we refer to a pace of asses.

Donkey: This term is unique to the English language and was probably derived from the Flemish word donnekijn. Most authorities consider that the word comes from the dun (gray-brown) colour and the suffix ‘key’ meaning ‘small’. Thus ‘ a little dun animal’, a ‘dun-key’. In groups, we refer to a herd of donkeys.

Moke: A term for donkey still in use in parts of Great Britain. It was used by the Romano in the region and is a derivation of the Welsh/Romano term, mokhio, meaning ‘ass’.

Burro: In Spanish, the word for ‘donkey’ is ‘burro’.

Jennet or Jenny: This is the name of a female donkey.

Jack: This term refers to a donkey stallion.

Gelding: This is the term used for a gelded donkey stallion.

Mule and Hinny: These terms are used to describe hybrid animals, each having a donkey parent and a horse parent. In 99.9% of cases, mules and hinnies are sterile. When a donkey stallion is bred with a horse mare, the offspring is called a mule. When a horse stallion is bred with a donkey jennet, the offspring is called a hinny. In groups, we refer to a barren of mules.

Molly: This term is used for a female mule.

John: This term is used for a male mule.

Foal: This term is used for a baby donkey or a baby mule.

The Origins of the Donkey

Asses, zebras and horses make up the equine genus. Since the history of domestication three wild asses have existed: Equus Kiang - its range was in Tibet and the Himalayas Equus Hemionus - known as a kulan or onager, it ranged from modern Syria and Iraq to Manchuria and at least western India Equus Asinus- originally its range was from Morocco to Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.

At some point, a race of wild ass made its way to the Nile Valley, Libya and, eventually to what is now Europe. It is from one of these equus asinus strains that the donkey is descended. Egyptian tomb paintings from 2600 BC depict domesticated wild asses being used for work in daily life.

(For a detailed and engaging overview of the domestication and use of donkeys in recorded history, turn to “DONKEY: The Story of the Ass from East to West”, Anthony Dent, 1972)

Donkeys at Work

The appeal of the donkey to humans derived from the animals’ undemanding natures, surefootedness, relative strength and hardiness. They were easily managed as individuals or in groups and they could be herded easily.

It is these characteristics that have encouraged people over the centuries and around the world to use the ass and the mule for working purposes. They have been used in every walk of life to carry, transport, till, and motorize without end. Then, when that is done, in some societies, unfortunately, they are slaughtered because their meat is considered to be a delicacy.

Current estimates are that there are in excess of 44 million donkeys in the world. 90% of them are living in industrialized countries where their life expectancy is around 11 years. In industrialized societies, their numbers have been declining since they are no longer needed for work. Life expectancy in these societies is around 26 years. (For further statistics regarding the global distribution of donkeys as well as the kinds of work for which they are still used, turn to “The Professional Handbook of the Donkey”, published by The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon, UK).

Donkeys in Canada

In general, due to the coldness of the climate, Canada is an inhospitable place for a donkey living in the wild. Its coat is not waterproof and its ancestor, equus asinus, had passed thousands of years in mountainous desert regions of the world where much warmer weather and dryer climates prevailed.

Almost certainly, the introduction of the donkey to Canada was a result of its appearance and spread in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. There it had been imported from England and Europe, and it had been brought north from Latin America through what are now Texas and California by Spanish traders and prospectors.

It was in the Rocky Mountains where donkeys and, especially, mules were used as pack animals in the early twentieth century. They were used to haul loads from Alberta to BC and some were used on the Dawson Trail, the torturous pathway to gold in the Yukon. To a very limited degree they were used in farming as well.

Today, in the 21st century, donkeys and mules in Canada are raised and live primarily as pets. They do some work as pack animals for tourism companies located in the mountainous regions; they are raised for show and trained to pull carts; and some are intended to be protectors of flocks of sheep, herds of goats and herds of cattle.

For many reasons, the use of donkeys as guardians against predators like coyotes and wolves is of questionable effectiveness. In the first place, the cattle diet is much, much too rich for a donkey and, when given it, the animal can become quickly obese and develop hoof problems. In addition, when a donkey is ‘guarding’, it is in fact protecting the one or two animals in the group to which it has bonded - if it has bonded - and not necessarily the entire flock or herd. Over the years, for every successful story that one hears about donkeys as guardians, there are many that are unsuccessful. Essentially, a donkey is a reserved, gentle creature, more suited for companionship than guardianship.

Donkeys - Appearance

There are no specific donkey breeds like there are breeds of dogs. For description purposes, donkeys are grouped according to their height at the withers:
Miniature - up to 36”
Standard - 36” - 54
Mammoth - over 54” for females and over 56" for males.

With regard to colour, one most often sees brown donkeys or gray donkeys. In addition, however, there are white (actually a very light gray unless the animal is genetically an albino in which case its eyes are pink), spotted (brown and white or black and white), black and, rarely, chestnut , oatmeal or apricot.

Often, a black cross will be present on a donkey’s back and, more rarely, black lines can be seen to encircle the lower legs. These are signs that, ultimately, the particular donkey is descended from the wild asses of Eastern Africa, as well as being an equus family member along with the zebra and the horse. There are many legends associated with the black cross, the most common being that, according to Christian tradition, it marks the place where Mary sat when she rode to Bethlehem and/or where Jesus sat on the day he entered Jerusalem.