Rescue / shelter group
Pennsylvania, United States
Posted Jul 03, 2013
I'll be reviewing donkeys from a different perspective, from that of keeping a beast of burden in a developing country that still relied on their use well into the 1990s. They were not viewed as pets here, but as working animals. However, the one I keep is now a pet.
Liza is the end of an era for us -- the last donkey on an island that received the modern luxuries of paved roads and electricity in 1982. About 35 years old at the time of this writing, she is retired and still in excellent health. I acquired Liza when her former owner (who worked her as a riding and carrying animal) could no longer care for her.
Donkeys differ from horses in that donkeys can survive almost entirely on graze as long as they are not worked too hard (and supplemental feed such as grain is only needed if they are worked hard). This will sound surprising to anyone managing a donkey as a pet or in a zoo, but it is the reality for the majority of the world's donkeys, and has been throughout their 3000 years of domestication.
Where timbers are eaten by termites and fences are impossible to maintain, donkeys are usually pastured by tethering. A collar or bridle is clipped to a 30-40 foot rope and tied to a stout tree in an area with suitable feed, and a bucket or tub of water is placed at the end of the rope's reach. Every few days when their feed is finished in that area, they are moved. Again, this is not a conventional pet system but it is the way many donkeys are successfully kept. We visit Liza everyday. Donkeys dislike being alone and although Liza has shown very clearly that she dislikes the company of other donkeys, she demands (loudly) visits from people. Tourists love seeing her and frequently stop to take photos with her.
In her old age, Liza has become a finicky eater, preferring guinea-grass, corn blades, papaya leaves, shepherd's needle (Bidens alba), and several other weeds and grasses. She will take dry corn but it makes her irritable. Her favourite treats are apples, pears, and mangoes -- she will not touch carrots, contrary to cartoon lore! She has also shown an appreciation for jelly beans, but we keep those to a minimum.
Liza gets curry-combed every few weeks but doesn't like it much. Burr grass and other stickers are cleaned our of her mane and coat as needed. She won't tolerate hoof-picking at all; this is not something that was traditionally done and when I tried to clean her hooves, she was very happy to try to kick me in the face. They will dust-bathe at any opportunity. Donkey-wallows are common on our islands that still have feral donkeys and can be encountered on walks through the bush. Located in sandy or dusty dry soil, and in muddy areas, they are used communally. Liza signals her desire to dust-bathe by dragging her lips through the dust and then scratching the ground with a hoof. She will roll on one side, occasionally flipping over. No other donkey owner I have talked with has yet confirmed this, but Liza becomes explosively flatulent when dust-bathing, much to the amusement of field trip kids and tourists who get to witness (and hear) it!
Donkeys can bite and kick, especially old cranky ones. The lore here goes that donkeys raised by donkeys kick less, because they're taught by their mothers that it is unacceptable; and that human-raised donkeys kick more because they learn they can get their way by doing it. I don't know how true that is, but Lia was hand-reared and she is definitely a spoiled brat who kicks as soon as she's even remotely not getting her way. On the other hand, she is extremely affectionate, preferring to be in a person's lap than anywhere else.
Donkeys aren't for everyone, but their long record of domestication and utility makes them very suited for companionship. I hope this review might help someone else who has acquired a formerly worked donkey, to understand how a working animal may be accustomed to a different lifestyle from a pet animal.