Quit horsin’ around: 10 top facts you probably didn’t know about donkeys

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This week is special for more than 44 million equines in the world – it is Donkey Week, and it was kicked off on Tuesday, International Donkey Day.

Donkey Week has been running every year since 1983, and this year The Donkey Sanctuary, whose founder Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE created the celebration, is sharing 10 interesting and defining facts about these gentle and highly intelligent animals. 

Donkeys bond and form lifelong friendships. Bonded donkeys enjoy doing lots of activities together, from mutual grooming to keeping watch while the other one sleeps. Donkeys can become distressed when they are separated and some bonds are so strong that even separating them over a stable door can cause them stress and upset.

Donkeys come in all shapes, sizes and colours. There are more than 44 million donkeys worldwide and 186 breeds – from a Miniature Mediterranean donkey standing at 31 inches tall to the long, matted haired Poitou donkeys standing at 63 inches tall. The most common colour of a donkey is grey and the rarest colour is pure white.

Donkeys come in many shapes and sizes, including the Poitou, who stand up to 63 inches tall.
Donkeys come in many shapes and sizes, including the Poitou breed, which stand up to 63 inches tall. © The Donkey Sanctuary

The six sounds of the donkey. The bray is one of six sounds made by a donkey. The other sounds are a growl, grunt, squeal, whuffle and snort. The bray is the loudest and can travel over several kilometres and is individual to each donkey.

Donkeys don’t smile they ‘flehmen’. Donkeys curl up their top lip and expose their front teeth, known as a ‘flehmen response’ when they find a new or interesting smell. The flehmen response helps transfer smells to an organ just above the roof of the mouth that processes new smells.

A donkey displaying the "flehmen response", a reaction to a new or interesting smell.
A donkey displaying the “flehmen response”, a reaction to a new or interesting smell. © The Donkey Sanctuary

The legend of the cross. Most donkeys display a cross of dark coloured fur on their backs. This is a combination of a ‘dorsal stripe’ along their spines and a ‘shoulder stripe’ across their shoulders. Some believers see the cross-shaped marking as a symbol of the animal bearing Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Donkeys help children to learn. In places like Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Colombia donkeys bring education and spread the joy of reading to children by pulling makeshift mobile libraries, when otherwise books might not be accessible.

The bond between humans and donkeys may be closer than you think.
The bond between humans and donkeys may be closer than you think. © The Donkey Sanctuary

In times of war. Donkeys have worked on the frontline carrying wounded soldiers and supplies. Their presence can mean the difference between life and death. John Simpson Kirkpatrick was enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and worked as a stretcher bearer in Gallipoli in Turkey. John found a stray donkey on the beaches, which helped to carry 300 casualties from the front line. The donkey, named Murphy, was awarded the RSPCA Australian Purple Cross for animal bravery, a representative of all the donkeys used by Simpson for their exceptional performance while under continual fire during the First World War.

Eco donkeys. In desert areas, feral and wild donkeys dig to access groundwater, providing a vital lifeline for smaller animals such as birds and chipmunks.

The bond between donkeys and humans is closer than you think. Research has shown that a donkey’s heart rhythm can synchronise with, and even influence those of a human when they interact. Because these heart rhythms reflect how we’re feeling, a donkey’s calming mood can reduce a person’s anxiety. The limbic system, the part of a donkey’s brain associated with emotion, behaviour, motivation and memory, is the same size as that of a human.

The white van. In many parts of the world, donkeys are the equivalent of our white van, family car, school bus, ambulance and tractor, all rolled into one. Owning a donkey can be a lifeline to families, and a donkey can even support entire communities by helping with essential daily tasks – from fetching water for the village to transporting goods to market.

Miniature donkeys Chip, Spud and Wedge.
Miniature donkeys Chip, Spud and Wedge. The Donkey Sanctuary. © The Donkey Sanctuary

From Tuesday May 8 to 15, The Donkey Sanctuary is hosting its 35th Donkey Week at its international headquarters in Sidmouth, Devon. Hundreds of people from as far away as Italy, France and the USA will be attending the unique donkey-themed holiday. Daily activities include donkey grooming and walking, tractor and trailer rides, informative talks and evening entertainment.

Donkey Week came about when The Donkey Sanctuary’s founder Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE, decided to create a holiday that brought people together from around the world who shared the love of donkeys.

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