In today's world, donkeys tend to get little to almost no respect.
However, there was a time when they were the best mode of transportation, and it was not uncommon for a king or his high ranking officials to ride on ceremonially attired donkeys.
Unfortunately, in modern times, they have become a popular icon denoting stubbornness and stupidity, and in many languages and cultures the word for donkey, or ass, is used as an insult.
The donkey is a domesticated member of the horse family. Horses and donkeys are genetically close enough to be able to breed and produce viable offspring. A female horse crossed with a male donkey (jack) produces a non-fertile mule. Donkeys have long, floppy ears and tend to be stockier than their cousins, horses and zebras. They tend to be very friendly, intelligent, and rather tidy in their habits.
The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African wild ass. This species is found in the dry and hot deserts of northern Africa. They are very hardy and resemble camels in their ability to tolerate a considerable degree of dehydration. They are able to quickly take in enough water at one drinking to replenish any water loss. This ability, along with their hardiness, has made them a valuable asset in dry regions of the world. It is difficult to know for certain when humans first domesticated the wild ass.
The first captivity of the wild ass is thought by some to have been in Egypt and western Asia as early as 2800 B.C. to 2500 B.C. However, others put the date as far back as 4000 B.C.
The donkey is most likely the first animal ever used by humans for hauling heavy goods and riding. The horse probably didn't come into use in the ancient Near East until after the donkey, and the camel came on the scene much later than the horse.
Domesticated donkeys vary in size, depending on how they are bred. There are at least eight recognized different types of domesticated asses. They typically weigh from 400 to 500 pounds and stand 36 to 48 inches from hoof to shoulder.
Today, in developed countries, the use of donkeys as beasts of burden has basically disappeared. They have been relegated to such functions as being used to sire mules, for children's rides, pets and to guard sheep.
China is currently in the grip of a massive donkey shortage. Their skins are being harvested to produce e'jiao, a traditional medicine made by boiling donkey skin. The demand for e'jiao has doubled since 2010 and shows no sign of letting up. E'jiao is one of traditional Chinese medicine's three great treasures, along with deer horn and ginseng.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.