Domestic donkeys, members of the order Perissodactyla, are large single-hoofed horse-like mammals with elongated heads. Donkeys usually stand between 9.5 and 11 hands high measured at the withers, that is, 38-44 in (95-110 cm) tall. Because of the large amount of interbreeding among different donkey species, donkeys differ markedly in appearance. They can be brown, gray, black, roan (a mixture of white and usually brown hair), or broken colored (a combination of brown or black and white markings). Also known as asses, donkeys originated in Africa and are very well suited to hot dry climates, but are sensitive to the cold. Donkeys are intelligent, calm, and require little food in relation to the amount of work they are able to perform.
Members of the order Perissodactyla, the odd-toed ungulates, are medium-sized to very large animals. The third digit of their limbs is the longest, and all four of their limbs are hoofed. These fast-running herbivores have a life expectancy of around 40 years. Today, there are only three families of odd-toed ungulates, the tapirs, the rhinoceros, and the horses.
Donkeys belong the horse family Equidae, which has only one genus (Equus) and six species. The African wild ass (Equus africanus) is thought to be the ancestor of donkeys.
The domestic donkey can be traced back to three subspecies of African wild ass. The first subspecies, the Nubian wild ass, used to be found throughout Egypt and the Sudan. Today, these asses are very rare; in fact, only a few survive in zoos. The Nubian wild ass is a small yellow-gray animal with a dark strip across its shoulder and one long stripe down its back. The two stripes together are known as the cross, and can be found in many of its ancestors. The second subspecies, the North African wild ass, is now extinct. The third species, the Somali wild ass, is larger and taller than the Nubian wild ass. These asses are grayish with a pink hue and have stripes on their legs. Their manes are very dark and stand upright, and these asses have a nearly black tassel on their tails. Like their cousins, they are declining in numbers. Indeed, there are only a few hundred of these animals in Somalia and a few thousand in Ethiopia.
In around 4000 B.C., inhabitants of the Nile Valley of Egypt first domesticated descendants of the donkey, specifically, Nubian wild asses. Thus, donkeys were domesticated a long time before horses were. Later, Nubian wild asses were domesticated in Arabia and throughout Africa as well.
Eventually, the Somali wild asses were also domesticated, and the two subspecies of asses were mixed. Human use of donkeys as pack animals during wartime and for transporting tradable goods during times of peace accelerated the breeding of various subspecies of donkeys. Today's donkeys have characteristics of both Nubian and Somali wild asses.
It is thought that the Etruscans, traveling from Turkey to Italy, brought the first donkeys to Europe in around 2000 B.C., and that donkeys were brought to Greece by way of Turkey. In Greece, donkeys were commonly used for work in vineyards because of their sure-footedness. Soon, people throughout the Mediterranean used donkeys to help cultivate grapes. The Romans used donkeys throughout their empire, for pack animals and for grape cultivation, which they promoted as far north as France and Germany. The Romans also brought donkeys to Britain when they invaded.
Donkeys and horses existed in North America before the last ice age, over 10,000 years ago, but then became extinct. These did not reappear in North America until the Spanish brought them on their explorations in the 1600s. One hundred years later, the Spanish brought donkeys to South America.
Donkeys have a long work history. Aside from being used as pack animals and for grape cultivation, donkeys have been used to draw wagons, pull water from wells, and help grind grain. These animals were popular because of their efficiency and hardiness. In fact, few domestic animals require as little food as donkeys for the amount of work they can accomplish. Their diet is relatively simple; they survive very well on grass and hay. Furthermore, they can work into their old age, about 40 years. Contrary to popular myth, donkeys are cautious, brave, and very intelligent. Like their ancestors, donkeys can be aggressive if the need arises. When they are attacked, they form a circle and fend off predators by kicking and biting.
Interestingly, the name "donkey" is the word that most English speaking people have for asses. It is derived from the Old English word "dun," referring to the animals' gray-brown color, and the "ky," a suffix for small. Thus, the early English people used the word "dunky" to describe the pony-sized dun-colored animal.
Svendsen, Elisabeth D., MBE. The Professional Handbook of the Donkey. Devon, England: The Sovereign Printing Group, 1989.