One of the most endearing things when we lived in Baja California, San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca City, and Puerto Vallarta was the company of the local burros (known as donkeys north of the Mexican border). This post is all about burros and everything you have wanted to know, and didn't know you wanted to know, about this endearing animal! Please join me in my introduction to the burros of Mexico and I hope you will be fascinated with this species as much as I am.
During our many years living a nomadic life in Mexico and Latin America we have been fortunate enough to learn much about the local cultures and traditions of each of our host countries. One aspect of living this nomadic lifestyle was also getting to know and make friends with the local inhabitants. Not all of the friendships made, however, were of the two legged variety. I admit to having a tendency for also getting to know the native four-legged “locals” much to my husband’s chagrin. And this was especially true of the donkeys (aka burros) which we “met” along the way. In this blog posting I will be sharing much of what I have learned about the donkey and hope you enjoy meeting my burro amigos.
Here is the link for a sneak preview of my photo album for those of you who just can't wait:
THE DONKEYS/BURROS OF MEXICO
Burro is the Spanish and Portuguese word for donkey. In Spanish a burro may also be called burro Mexicano or Mexican donkey. In the United States the term "burro" is used by English speakers to describe any small donkey used primarily as a pack animal, as well as to describe the feral donkeys that live in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah, Texas, and Nevada.
Now for a beginning introductory class in the donkey:
The donkey or ass (Equus africanus asinus) is a domesticated member of the horse family, Equidae. The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African wild ass, E. africanus. Asinus is a subgenus of Equus (single-toed (hooves)grazing animal) that encompasses several sub-species of Equidae commonly known as asses. I hope I haven't already lost you.
Donkeys are characterized by long ears, a lean, straight-backed build, lack of a true withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades of a horse-type animal or dog which is the standard place to measure the animal's height), a coarse mane and tail, and a reputation for considerable toughness and endurance. That’s our boy!
Among donkeys, burros in central Mexico tend to be on the small size in comparison to their counterparts in the United States. Their average weight for males is 269 pounds and 247 pounds for females. They are predominately gray in color and are quiet, shy creatures. In Mexico the donkey population is estimated at three million, mas o menos.
The donkey has been used as a working animal for at least 5000 years. There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as drought or pack animals. Working donkeys in the poorest countries have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years. In more prosperous countries, they may have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.
It is believed that donkeys were first domesticated around 3000 BC most probably in Egypt or Mesopotamia and they have subsequently spread around the world. While domesticated species are increasing in numbers, the African wild ass is an endangered species. As beasts of burden and companions, asses and donkeys have worked together with humans for ages.
Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness, but this has been attributed to a much stronger sense of self-preservation than exhibited by horses. It is considerably more difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it perceives to be dangerous.
Once a person has earned their confidence donkeys can be willing and companionable partners and very dependable in work. Although formal studies of their behavior are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn. Donkeys, however, can definitely be obstinate. They are known to defend themselves by biting, striking with the front hooves, or kicking with the hind legs when provoked.
It is believed that the first donkeys came to the Americas on ships of the second voyage of Christopher Columbus and were landed on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean in 1495. The first to reach North America may have been two animals taken to Mexico by Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, who arrived there in 1528. It is also believed that the first donkeys to reach what is now the United States of America may have crossed the Rio Grande with Juan de Oñate (a Mexican born conquistador from Zacatecas, Mexico) in April 1598. Definitely a lot of traveling for the donkeys of North America!
From that time on donkeys spread northward finding use in missions and mines. Donkeys were documented as present in what today is Arizona in 1679. By the Gold Rush years of the 19th century, the burro was the beast of burden of choice of early prospectors in the western United States. With the end of the mining boom, many of them escaped or were abandoned, and a feral population established itself.
Due to its widespread domestication and use, the donkey is referred to in myth and folklore around the world including classical and ancient cultures. Donkeys (or asses) are mentioned many times in the Bible beginning in the first book and continuing through both Old and New Testaments so they became part of Judeo-Christian tradition.
A lovely Christmas procession with donkey, of course, while we were living in Guatemala.
In Hinduism, the goddess Kaalrati's vehicle is a donkey. Donkeys are also referred to repeatedly in the writings and imagery of the Hindu and Islamic religions. Donkeys also appear multiple times in Indian folklore as the subject of stories in both the Hitopadesha and the Panchatantra.
"The Eloquent Peasant" is an Ancient Egyptian story about a peasant which features a donkey. The above Egyptian panel credited to: Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Panehsi_001.jpg
A male donkey (referred to as a “jack”and hence the derogatory word “jackass”) can be crossed with a female horse to produce a mule. Horse-donkey hybrids are almost always sterile because horses have 64 chromosomes whereas donkeys have 62, producing offspring with 63 chromosomes. Conversely, a male horse and a female donkey bred together produces a “hinny.” The name comes from the fact that a female donkey is called a “jenny.”
The size of a mule and the work it performs depends largely on the breeding of the mule's female parent (dam). Mules can be lightweight, medium weight, or when produced from draft horse mares, of moderately heavy weight. Mules are more patient, hardy and long-lived than horses, and are less obstinate and more intelligent than donkeys.
I hope I have made this donkey/horse/mule thing “perfectly” clear!
Due to their distinctively loud and harsh bray, donkeys are sometimes used as guards for livestock such as goats, sheep and calves. The guard donkey bonds with its stock and becomes aggressive if the herd is threatened. They remain alert while grazing and have a large visual range that assists with detecting predators. The donkey's bray is loud and startling to many predators and which can chase them away before they do any damage. If the predator continues to advance, the donkey may charge, bite, kick or slash at it with its hooves.
In the developed world, donkeys often serve as companion animals rather than pack animals. They are popular for use in therapeutic riding programs, where their quiet demeanor and patience makes them a perfect match for physically or mentally challenged riders. They also live as companions with horses. If a horse is lonely, it is often cheaper for its owner to buy a donkey than it is to buy a second horse.
Some personal closing comments:
We met many burros on the streets of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato when living in this lovely town. Located on the Central Mexican Plateau (aka known as the Mexican Altiplano) this large arid-to-semiarid region was much to the liking of the local donkeys and we were delighted when they came to town to work or visit. Many of the photographs in this posting are in fact my San Miguel burro "amigos."
In comparison to a healthy donkey population in San Miguel de Allende we have definitely noticed fewer and fewer donkeys in recent years in Puerto Vallarta. Although they can still be seen on occasion, burros carrying heavy loads in Puerto Vallarta is no longer an everyday sight. Where the burro is still used and appreciated, however, is in the steep hills that surround the city where only they can navigate the steep and slippery cobblestone streets.
Burros used to be a way of life for Mexico in cities, towns, and farms, but this is definitely changing. Before it was common to see packs of donkeys and mules in the fields when we were driving to Guadalajara or down the long and beautiful "coast highway" to Guatemala. Now they are slowly, but surely, disappearing.
A rumor I have heard is that the officials of Jalisco state are considering the importation of donkeys from north of border (Kentucky?) in order to stimulate the diminishing population of Mexican burros. If so, I’m all for it! I sincerely hope this bring benefits to the rural areas where the farmers still depend and appreciate the value of these lovely beasts of burden.
I also understand that after working for ten years, mas o menos, the burros are usually "semi-retired" and live out their remaining years in relative ease and relaxation. I can only hope that the burros of Mexico, including the hybrid mules, will regain some of the respect they so richly deserve. I take off my sombrero in salute to the donkey/burro and wish them a well-deserved peaceful retirement.
In closing I couldn't resist including the above photo which my husband found on the Internet. How he comes across these things is beyond me, but this zonkey is a cross between a zebra and a donkey.
Zebroids are the offspring of any cross between a zebra and any other equine. Essentially, a zebra hybrid. In most cases, the sire is a zebra stallion. Zebroids have been bred since the 19th century. Charles Darwin noted several zebra hybrids in his works. I couldn't help myself in concluding this post on donkeys/burros without including these darling fellows. I hope you agree!
Wishing you well and looking forward to hearing from you and seeing you again in the near future. Once again, here is the link to my photo album for the Donkeys/Burros of Mexico. Gracias, Laura
THE DONKEYS/BURROS OF MEXICO