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 many donkey breeds worldwide. Unfortunately, while some of these breeds were imported to North America, many have been diluted along the way. There are still a few breeds with their own registries in North America. This includes:
Miniature Mediterranean Donkeys - a breed under 36" which originated from Sicily and Sardinia. The breed standard usually includes the well known "cross", a shoulder and dorsal stripe.
Poitou - A large donkey, from the Poitou region of France. They are well known for their extremely long coats and are usually over 50"
American Mammoth Jackstock - A breed developed by George Washington as both a working animal and a mule producer. These are large donkeys who either come from AMJR pedigreed animals, or meet certain criteria including height of over 56" for jennets and 58" for jacks, which was reduced to 54" and 56" to widen the gene pool. They usually do not bear the "cross".
You may hear the term "Jerusalem donkey", which is not a breed but is usually in reference to donkeys with the "cross". As well, due to breed standards and characteristics, not all mammoth donkeys are American Mammoth donkeys, not all miniatures are Miniature Mediterranean donkeys, and not all wooly long coated donkeys are Poitou!
A significant part of the donkey population in North America, which includes wild burros, is without breed designations. If your donkey is not registered, and is without known pedigree it is considered "grade", and is classified solely by height. For description purposes, donkeys are grouped according to their height at the withers:
Miniature - up to 36”, and ideally no smaller than 28", but typically starting at 30"
Standard - 36” - 54", which is divided by small standard under 48", and large standard over 48"
Mammoth - over 54”
As for colours, you will usually see shades of grey, brown, red, "white" and black donkeys, with dark or light noses, and spots or no spots! That's due to some interesting colour genetics. Donkeys come in three base colours with an assortment of dilutions and modifiers. The base colours are black, red and, bay (brown). Dun is a very common dilution which can produce grey and the very common lighter brown we usually see. Dun is also responsible for the darker trim and primitive markings such as the cross, and leg barring. Ivory is another dilution which causes lighter coats which usually appear "off-white". As well, there is cameo which is a very new, very rare dilution only found in Australia and South Africa at this time.
There is also a definition each donkey has, as to whether it has light points (pangare) such as the nose and belly, or does not which is referred to as "no light points". NLP donkeys have dark noses that usually match their coat colours, but can still have stars on their foreheads in some cases. This gene is recessive.
There are also two types of spotting in donkeys. The most common is your simple spotting. It is simply called spotted, in donkeys. It is seen most often in miniatures. The donkey is whatever base colour is visible, and the patches of white are the spotting. There is also a roan variation, which results in even roaning throughout the coat, or "frosting" where the animal loses its base colour over time and can eventually look "white". Roaning is seen in all sizes of donkey. Spotting can "hide" in some animals, and show only as a white face and white belly, which is referred to as masked spotting factor. Spotting does not tend to mix with red as the usual patches, and usually becomes this masked spotting factor, or frosts or roans out to looking "white"!
Donkeys should have what is called good conformation. This means things like their legs should be square and straight, their necks should be set at a good angle to their body, their backs and heads should be proportionate to their body, and their backs should appear very level. They should present a good picture overall. Conformation faults can result in difficulties and health problems if they are extreme. It is very important to be aware of these things. If their mouths are not in alignment they can have difficulties eating, if their legs are turned too far in or out, they may experience leg troubles, if their hooves are "clubbed" they will have issues staying sound. Being aware of these faults can allow you to better care for your animals!
Most importantly, they are not horses with long ears as they are most often compared. They can appear "pointier" than horses, having noticeable hips, spines, and shoulders. They should not look overly round, like horses. Being sure to understand that these differences are okay, and that your donkeys are not "too skinny" because they aren't as round as horses, is important for providing them the best care. Fat donkeys are not happy donkeys! They can experience very serious problems related to their weight. It is our duty to provide each animal what they require to maintain an ideal, lean, healthy weight. This may involve different feeding regimes for each individual animal.
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, zebras, and horses can interbreed. Mules are a direct byproduct of donkeys, and are genetically half donkey.
When a male donkey (jack) is bred to a female horse (mare), the foal is called a mule.
If it is a male horse (stallion) being bred to a female donkey (jennet), the foal is called a hinny.
In either case, if the foal is a female it is often referred to as a Molly, and a male a John. The johns should still be gelded regardless of being sterile, because they can still exhibit dangerous stud-like behaviour otherwise.
There is a myth that hinnies look more like horses, and mules like donkeys. However, this is not true and unless you know the parents, you aren't likely to ever know which mix it is! If you observe the hybrid in a mixed herd you can take a guess, as the animal will likely gravitate to whichever species its mother was. For this reason, most are called mules unless proven otherwise. This is due to mules being more common, both because fewer people breed hinnies, and because hinnies are harder to breed for due to the chromosome difference between donkeys and horses.
Donkeys can be bred to zebras as well, although this isn't incredibly common. Their offspring are playfully called "zonkies" or "zedonks". These are not to be confused with regular donkeys and mules that have heavy leg striping, known as garters.
Did you know, that while all male hybrids are infertile, there have been a handful of cases throughout history of female mules having foals? In fact, in 1923 a female mule named Old Beck, bred to a horse stallion, produced a full horse foal named Pat Murphy Jr. He went on to sire two foals, as his DNA was all horse. She had previously been bred back to a jack which produced a female mule foal, who was infertile. These incredibly rare births should not be confused with the modern practice of using female mules as surrogates to carry horse foals to term. Mules, as it turns out, make incredible mothers!
If you are unsure what type of equine you are looking at, as mules can look very horse or donkey like at times, there are a few tricks. Donkeys have short, less full tails, and typically have short, upright manes. There are also certain colours that are and are not present between donkeys and horses. Looking at these two aspects can usually help you narrow it down!
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: Donkeys make excellent pets, and partners. While some people just enjoy their very therapeutic company, others give them "jobs" they can do together. This can be anything from taking them on walks, doing in hand obstacle courses, teaching them to pull a cart, or riding them, and beyond! In some parts of the world donkeys are still a big part of everyday life, pulling carts and carrying packs. In North America, some still carry packs, whether it's for camping, or hunting, or pack races. You will see all sorts of classes at donkey and mule shows, including coon jumping, driving, and riding!
Donkeys are very intelligent animals and if they get bored, they can seek out entertainment wherever they can find it. This often involves damage to buildings, tools, opening gates etc. Giving them toys, along with "jobs" can prevent this, by finding ways to put their minds to work. They really do enjoy working with humans, and experiencing novel things.
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.