What is a Sanctuary?
An animal sanctuary is place where vulnerable animals come to live out the remainder of their lives in peace. Though we encourage visitors to come and experience the animals at the DSC, there are certain limitations in place at a sanctuary that do not exist at zoos. While a zoo has a direct link to the public, sanctuaries are open in a limited way and sometimes not at all. A zoo depends on visitors for funding, while sanctuaries are often working farms of their own. As well, as a sanctuary we are completely dependent on private donations from individual donors in order to continue operating.
One of the main differences between a zoo and a sanctuary is how they acquire their animals. A zoo might buy, breed, sell, or trade animals. Meanwhile, most animals at sanctuaries are relinquished as they can no longer survive in their current habitat. The DSC has admitted animals that have been seized by the SPCA, relinquished from owners who could not train or care for them, or given up due to the owner’s economic or health situation.
Zoos are created specifically to exhibit animals to the public, collecting animals based on market reaction, potential for scientific research, and conservation needs. Sanctuaries promise to take in and care for any animals that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and keep them for life. The priority of the animals takes precedence over everything else on the farm.
At the DSC, our priority is always the welfare of our animal residents exhibited through our gold standard of donkey and mule care, as well as the welfare of donkeys and donkey hybrids beyond our fence through our education programs.
The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada is an Accredited sanctuary with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries; one of two Accredited sanctuaries in Canada and the only Accredited equine sanctuary in Canada. For more information on what it means to be an accredited sanctuary, please click here.
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.
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 nonindustrialized 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. To better serve as guardians of flocks and herds, we suggest the use of sheepdogs, in particular the breeds, Great Pyrenees or Maremma.
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, 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.
Q: What is the difference between a donkey and a mule?
A: A donkey is a vegetarian quadroped and a member of the equine family. The equine family is made up of asses (donkeys), zebras and horses. Since they are in the same family, donkeys and horses can interbreed. When this happens, the foal is called a mule.
Q: How old do donkeys get?
A: With adequate care, in the Canadian climate donkeys can live to be 35+ years old.
Q: Why do people have donkeys?
A: In North America, donkeys and mules are primarily pets. In the western states and provinces, donkeys and mules are often used as pack animals in recreational activities. Donkeys can be trained to pull carts for pleasure-driving, while riding mules is popular.
Q: Could I own just one donkey?
A: Yes, although two donkeys would be much more contented. They are very sociable creatures and are most comfortable with their own kind. We do not normally place one Donkey out on a foster farm.
Q: Are donkeys as stubborn as they say?
A: No. Donkeys are not flight animals like horses are. When a donkey is faced with a strange situation, its instinct is to stand still and to consider what is expected. If it is being asked to do something that is not in its interest to do, then the donkey will remain where it is. Some people call that stubbornness while others realize that it’s just common sense.
Q: Are donkeys really 'guard' animals - do they guard sheep from coyotes?
A: This is a common myth that needs refuting. Donkeys are not, inherently, guard animals. They will only guard a sheep (for example) if they have bonded with the sheep, for example if a jennet and her foal are placed with a flock of sheep, then the foal is likely to develop a bond with the sheep. However, if a donkey is simply placed in a herd of sheep, it will be no more useful a guardian than one of the sheep in the herd. A much better guardian of sheep is the Bernese Mountain Dog, which has historically been used to great success as a guardian of livestock.
Q: Should a donkey be placed with cattle in order to calm the calves?
A: This practice is not in the donkey's interest at all. Cattle are fed an extremely rich diet and if a donkey is fed with the group, then it can become extremely obese. This, in turn, can cause hoof problems for the donkey. Also there is the matter of sociability: donkeys are herd animals, most content with their own kind. There is little, if any, reason for them to bond with cattle.
Compassion and respect for people, animals and the rest of the natural world are vital, as is the recognition of the interdependence of all living things. A visit to the Sanctuary encourages visitors of all ages, either singly or in groups, to appreciate these principles firsthand.
The Learning Centre, with its interactive displays, has been developed so that everyone can better understand donkeys, mules and hinnies, and the natural world in which they live.
The walk around Wild Duck Marsh, on our Interactive Trail, is a great opportunity to experience in depth this complex, fascinating wetland environment.
Donkey Talks, held two times per day on every Open Day, are lively dialogues meant to acquaint visitors with the inner workings of the Sanctuary, along with some of the many stories about the animals in our care and the lives they have lived.
Below, we also have our various educational resources available for download. Please keep in mind that as we do research, we adjust and amend these documents. Please check back often for updated documents.