Scientific classification
Binomial name
Equus asinus

The donkey, ass or African ass (Equus asinus) is a domesticated animal of the horse family, Equidae. The wild ancestors of the donkey are African.

Table of contents
1 Appearance
2 Relationship to horses
3 Economic use
4 Cultural aspects
5 Etymology of the name
6 External links


Donkeys are typical equids, generally smaller than the domestic horse, though mammoth jacks can be as large as 17 hands (170cm at the shoulder). They have long ears.

Relationship to horses

A male donkey (jackass or jack) can be crossed with a female horse to produce a mule and a male horse crossed with a female donkey (jennet or jenny) to produce a hinny. These hybrids are almost always sterile due to the fact that horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62, producing offspring with 63 chromosomes.

Economic use

From before the dawn of recorded history, donkeys have been used in Europe and western Asia to carry loads, pull carts, and carry riders. Though not as fast as a horse, they are long-lived, cheaper to maintain than horses, have great endurance, and are agile on poor tracks. They remain of crucial economic importance in many developing countries.

Donkeys have a longstanding reputation for stubbornness, but this is due to some handlers' misinterpretation of their highly-developed sense of self preservation. It is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest. Although formal studies of their behaviour and cognition are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn. Once you have earned their confidence they can be willing and companionable partners in work and recreation. For this reason, they are now commonly kept as pets in countries where their use as beasts of burden has disappeared. They are also popular for giving rides to children in holiday resorts or other leisure contexts.

In prosperous countries, the welfare of donkeys both at home and abroad has recently become a concern, and a number of sanctuaries for retired donkeys have been set up.

Cultural aspects

The long history of human use of donkeys means that there is a rich store of cultural references to them.
  • The ass was a symbol of the Egyptian god, Ra
  • The ass was a symbol the Greek god Dionysus.
  • Greek mythology includes the story of King Midas who judged against Apollo in favor of Pan during a musical contest, and had his ears changed to those of a donkey as punishment.
  • There are numerous references to donkeys in the Hebrew Bible
  • The gospels claim that Jesus Christ rode a donkey into Jerusalem; this has given rise to a legend that this is the origin of the cross on a donkey's shoulders.
  • An Indian tale has an ass dressed in a panther skin give himself away by braying, while one of Aesop's fables similarly has an ass dressed in a lion skin who gives himself away by braying.
  • A German proverb claims a donkey can wear a lion suit but its ear will still stick out and give it away.
  • English proverbs include better be the head of an ass than the tail of a horse, if an ass goes a-traveling, he'll not come back a horse and better ride on an ass that carries me home than a horse that throws me (though all these are now obsolete).
  • European folklore also claims that the tail of a donkey can be used to combat whooping cough or scorpion stings.

The donkey has long been a symbol of ignorance. Examples can be found in Aesop's Fables, Apuleius's The Golden Ass (The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius) and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Etymology of the name

The word "donkey" is one of the most etymologically obscure in the English language. Until quite recent times, the standard word was "ass", which has clear cognates in most other Indo-European languages; no credible cognate for "donkey" has yet been identified, though it is possible that it is a diminutive of "dun" (dull greyish-brown), a typical donkey colour; originally, "donkey" was pronounced to rhyme with "monkey". In the late 18th century, the word "donkey" started to replace "ass", possibly due to squeamishness: "ass" has another meaning that might be considered coarse - although in modern British English, and probably also at the time, it is pronounced differently.

External links

The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, UK