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DONKEY

Most British people find donkeys irresistible, regarding them more as pets than the widespread view, in the Third World in particular, of a tough, utilitarian beast of burden.

We can pride ourselves on wonderful developments for mankind - electricity, cars, the internet, to name just three - but for a Middle Eastern donkey life has changed little since a heavily pregnant Mary was carried into Bethlehem on the back of a donkey 2000 years ago and, later, another donkey carried Jesus himself. A donkey's lifespan is on average a maximum of thirty years; many hundreds of donkey generations have come and gone, yet their lot in the arid desert areas of the world is still one of unrelenting toil.

Of course, it is no accident donkeys can withstand treatment that would quickly incapacitate a pony or horse. British animal lovers, witnessing callous treatment to donkeys combined with an indifference to their suffering, are frequently enraged. Yet when you see photographs of literally hundreds of donkeys for sale at a North African horse fair - some of which are lame or carry huge scars - it is difficult to know what to do or where to start.

A number of leading animal welfare charities carry out tireless work in this field. Abroad, the International Fund for Animal Welfare springs immediately to mind, but there are local societies in countries like Egypt also. In the UK, there are two large sanctuaries specialising in donkeys: Fluffsfield, near Aberdeen, with the Donkey Sanctuary based at the opposite end of Britain in Devon. Both are at times almost overwhelmed with the numbers of animals offered to them. Both operate a policy of no breeding, except for animals already pregnant on arrival.

That epitomises the dilemma for donkey owners. Being quiet and steady, not given to making a fuss, individual donkeys are often kept with highly spirited horses of thoroughbred background. Frequently they become lifelong friends. Where donkeys are kept as pets or in farm and wildlife parks, the temptation to breed a foal most years for the 'Ooh-ah' factor is irresistable. Yet, what is to be the fate of that foal, facing a potentially quite long life? No-one can be sure they can guarantee a good life, especially for thirty or more years. Donkey sanctuaries choose to avoid this dilemma by not breeding any more donkeys. There are more than enough being bred in that famous donkey home - Ireland - to supply any and all demand in Britain each year, and for that matter probably Northern Europe as well. Many of these donkeys have not been well treated either, as a visit to any place where imported donkeys arrive will soon demonstrate.

Donkeys are kept in Ireland, and in many other Celtic countries as well, for use carrying things, usually transported in panniers slung on each side of the animal's body. Before mechanisation, Irish donkeys were incomparable for carrying blocks of peat from the peat bank or bog back to the crofter's house; with mechanisation, most people choose to have the peat brought back in trailers pulled by a car or tractor.

This very specific use of donkeys resulted in their development with distinct, localised differences. For hundreds of years donkeys in a given area were selectively in-bred, not necessarily by design; people didn't travel much in those days, and neither, as a generalisation, did many of their animals. The economic value of horses, especially in mainland Britain, was such that they were frequently 'improved' both here in Britain and in many countries on the continent of Europe by the use of travelling stallions, but donkeys never rated this treatment. As a result there are now numerous donkey breeds.

In a wild, non-domesticated animal these would be described as 'sub-species', but not so in a domestic animal, where they are referred to as 'breeds'. Each of these breeds has its supporters and breeders, and often its own breed society. There is a substantial colour magazine available in France, entitled L'Ane, which is entirely devoted to donkeys; numerous, main French-based breeds are described, often accompanied by photographs.

If that was not enough, donkeys are often crossed with horses to create a mule, or a hinny, depending on whether the donkey was the mother or the father. Mule breeding, where the animal combines the best features of both parents, has a long and noble tradition, over many centuries, with some districts in Europe and the United States being famous for the quality of their mules. The secret is the size and quality of the female horse or pony (mare) selected as the mother. The French/Belgian heavy horse breed - the Percheron - produces superb large mules, frequently reaching 15 or more hands (a hand is 4 1/2 inches or 114 mm) at the shoulder (withers). These were ideal for drawing heavy artillery guns in war-time in the pre-automobile days.

Smaller, more nimble mules were used by the Spanish to transport silver and other precious metals from the Central American silver mines. Mules possess what is known as 'hybrid vigour', a phenomenon seen in many species. When two species are crossed, the offspring is usually - though not always - infertile. However, the resultant hybrid frequently out-classes both of its parents in strength, alertness and longevity.

At the Zoo we have one mule - Muffin - who is completely white with blue eyes. He was conceived by accident, his mother (a piebald Shetland pony mare) sharing a field with a donkey stallion. Although sterile, there is no loss of libido - and it pays to be aware of this when deciding which field or enclosure to put him into.

Sanctuaries

ENGLAND:
The Donkey Sanctuary
Sidmouth
Devon
EX10 0NU
www.vie.gla.ac.uk/donkey/

IRELAND:
The Donkey Sanctuary
Knockardbane
Liscarroll
Co. Cork