Monday, November 14, 2016

Dispelling Donkey Myths

I am often confronted with strange and, sadly, common myths that surround donkeys, which can lead to mistreatment or abuse. Donkeys are amazing creatures, full of intelligence and charm, and need to be stripped of these preconceived notions in order for people to treat them properly.

Myth #1: Donkeys are stubborn. Heck, even I like to use the word stubborn when referring to my donkeys. It is funny and sometimes breaks the ice in conversation. As in "I own donkeys, so you can't be more stubborn than they are!" But truly, this is not the case, and I need to cut it out myself! Donkeys are perceived a stubborn by humans who cannot grasp how intelligent they are. Particularly horse people tend to get frustrated easily, since they are very used to how flighty and high energy horses are.

Donkeys and horses evolved in very different types of terrain. Horses evolved out of forests and onto plains where they could run and run in order to escape predators. Hence, their strong flight reflex. Donkeys evolved in arid, desert mountains. If a donkey spooked and ran off like a horse, it would fall and be taken out of the gene pool. Donkeys are much more likely to stop and think, a process often referred to as "baulking". Even the most popular Breyer model of a donkey, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, is sculpted as sitting down in his haunches, refusing to go (or maybe waking up from a  nap?).  I have found that, although some donkeys are higher energy and will run from danger, it is often not to the extent that a horse will, and they usually will stop at a safe distance and look back and decide what to do next.

So, although you can ask your donkey to move forward with a tool like a whip, the moment you overuse it or frighten them with it, they are likely to appear as if they totally are ignoring it. They aren't. They are worried and figuring it out. The bigger you get to try to get them to move at that point, the worse the baulking will get, and the more trust you will lose.

I always say: act like you have 5 minutes, it'll take you all day. Act like you've got all day, it'll take you five minutes.

Myth#2: Donkeys have super strength. Yes, for their size, donkeys are a bit stronger than horses. No, they cannot carry up to 50% of their weight. And even if they physically CAN, does not mean they should. Donkeys, like horses, have delicate tendons and joints, and overburdening them can cause lasting issues that are quite painful. 25% of the body weight of the donkey (this includes any tack like saddle etc, is the most weight that should be on a  donkey. Make that only 20% if packing, including pack gear. Also, what must be taken into consideration is the conformation of the donkey, their backs, legs, hooves, body condition etc. A well conditioned, well conformed donkey can probably carry a little bit more because they are built well and have good muscling. A long backed, cow hocked donkey with no muscling probably can't carry much at all. So, when evaluating donkeys for riding or packing or driving, do take into consideration both their weight/size and other things like conformation, age, conditioning etc.

Myth #3: Donkeys are herd guardians. Now, here's a sticky ball o' wax. Because as soon as I bring this up, ten people will contact me saying their donkey is the best guardian ever, and just killed a coyote the other day.  Donkeys are prey animals, not predators, which means that they are not hard wired to protect anything in the way, say, a dog is. Donkeys do have a very strong dislike for new, smaller, and carnivorous animals entering their areas, and, if they bond with a herd of sheep, may either alert or defend themselves and the others from an attack. However, this is not "fun" for the donkey, it is extremely stressful. While a livestock guardian dog may really enjoy the responsibilities of looking out for their herd or flock, a donkey is just being a donkey, and being on high alert for predators is extremely stressful to ANY prey animal.  Uneducated donkey owners may think their donkey is really peaceful and happy because donkeys are very stoic, and oftentimes don't show stress as clearly as a horse. But it is there. Also, donkeys often get harmed trying to protect themselves from stray dogs or coyotes or other large predators. Minis never are ok to leave as herd protectors, and even a mammoth can be taken down by a determined dog (two of mine were nearly gutted and killed by an uncontrolled pit bull, and amazingly survived). For every person I hear tell me their donkey is an excellent guardian, I have 5 more showing me photos of noses ripped to shreds, tendons bitten, ears torn off. Also, donkeys are really meant to be with other donkeys, not by themselves with a bunch of cows or sheep. So keeping them alone so that they will bond with another species isn't really in the donkey's best interest. Yes, sometimes it works and things are fine...until they are not.  My first donkey I was given because he was supposed to be guarding a flock of goats, and he picked one up by the neck and swung it around to play with it! The same playful and territorial tendencies that people rely on for their guardian donkey to keep predators away sometimes backfires, and newly born calves or sheep etc may also be put under attack. They are new and small and not part of the herd, in the donkey's mind. I have seen SO many donkeys up for sale because of them not working out as guardian animals having killed many of the livestock they were supposed to protect.  Another reason not to keep donkeys in with a herd of cattle or sheep, depending on the area and type of forage available, is that donkeys are desert dwellers with very thrifty digestive systems. They are not meant to eat lush grass and alfalfa, and will get obese and potentially founder, which is a life threatening condition. It's just not a good idea!! Have a fantastic guardian donkey? Great. I do hope it works out for you both. But I wouldn't do it.

Myth #4: Donkeys don't need the same medical care as horses/never get sick. Donkeys need everything a horse does, health wise! They need to have their hooves trimmed at least every 8 weeks (BY A DONKEY KNOWLEDGEABLE FARRIER--and those are rare) unless they self trim on rocky terrain. They need vaccines in the same dosage as horses, to be dewormed either on rotation or per your vet's guidance on a  fecal exam several times yearly. They need dental floats. Donkeys even have some health conditions that are mostly specific to donkeys that need to be watched out for, and their hooves need to be differently trimmed than a horse's. Remember earlier I said donkeys are stoic? It is VERY important to watch your donkeys' normal behavior so that you can sense when they are "off". They hide illness well, which is why people don't think they ever get sick. By the time they are showing symptoms, many times it has progressed pretty far or the donkey has suffered and passed away. Some of the illnesses that affect donkeys more often than horses are: Hoof issues like white line disease, abscessing, and founder, skin issues like rain rot, especially under thick winter coats (donkeys don't slick off water like a horse does, and it drips straight onto their skin--hence the need for shelter or a rain coat when it is really wet out), and obesity issues (from feeding them like a horse). There are many more. I have seen donkeys choke more often than horses on grain...perhaps that is just my experience though. I always wet any type of grains I give to my donkeys now. Donkeys in general usually do not need grain in their diet, I use it to put supplements in, and therefore they get very little, and only the low sugar, low starch, low energy grain. But back to the topic--donkeys do need medical care, and no, they are not always hardier than horses.

Myth #5: Donkeys are just pasture ornaments, they aren't good for anything. Oh, SO not true! Even little mini donkeys can be trained to drive fairly easily. We pack, ride, and drive our mammoth donkeys. They are wonderful trail companions, more like a dog than a horse in personality. They bond closely with their handlers and are very trusting once you earn it. They are super intelligent and can keep themselves and you out of harms way. People even show donkeys! Donkey seem to enjoy having a job. I spend much of my week traveling to different donkeys, training them and their owners to do whatever they would like to learn. I have found that people who actually invest time and money into training their donkeys don't rehome them...they keep them! So it has been my mission to educate, train, and help people enjoy getting out and about with their donkeys. An education, even if it is just being easily catchable, leading, tying, picking up feet, and loading in a trailer, is the best thing you can do for your donkey! Even if you can no longer keep that donkey, it'll have a better chance of finding a good, safe home if it has manners and training. Educate your donkeys...if you truly care for them.

I hope this list, although of course not complete, helps someone, somewhere, dispel a myth that could have brought harm to donkeys. What other myths do you hear regularly?

1 comment:

  1. Thank goodness for someone who can know donkeys and tell it like it is! As a vet tech for over 50 years and a donkey owner since I was 14- am now 73 I could tell you hundreds of good donkey stories- was told by Betsy Hutchins that at one time where she was visiting me I was the oldest and largest breeder of ADMS reg donkeys in the state of Florida and yes I knew where my babies went and did turn down some prospective buyers- I never had any of mine attacked except my best buddy Wildacres Gringo was in a back pasture NOT as a guard donkey but as a baby sitter to some colts we were weaning. He was attacked by a panther, was injuried and none of the colts were-love my donkeys like they were my children- only have two now -bought from a man who was taking them to a plant across the river from me who slaughtered and sold the meat in Japan- bought the colt (now gelding) when he brought him in for a Coggins prior to taking him across the river to slaughter- bought his mother sight unseen a few days later when he called me and told me he had her and was fixing to take her to the same place- he was a horse dealer about 30 miles from me- I shudder to think how many horses he bought from unsuspecting owners and then sold to the killers- any more donkeys he would have called me first- after all I was a sure bet sucker!