You would think that many of us would know exactly what a donkey is, however, after spending time with Lesley Bayne, Executive Director of The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada in Guelph, ON, I realized there was so much more to these incredible animals.
Here is this beautiful organization’s mission statement:
“To provide a lifelong home to donkeys, mules, and hinnies that are unwanted, neglected or abused, or whose owners can no longer care for them; and to promote the responsible stewardship of all animals through humane education.”
As we began our tour of the Sanctuary, Lesley was quick to point out that when it comes to these animals, education is crucial to understanding and caring for this member of the equine family. “The reason why we have so many donkeys that need a place like this sanctuary is mostly because not every owner knows how to properly care for their donkey. They sometimes treat them like a horse, feed them like a horse, and expect them to act like a horse. The reality is that the two are very different” explains Lesley.
Here is some great donkey information that everyone should know, direct from the DSC’s website:
“Donkeys are good guard animals”
This is a popular myth that has been perpetuated throughout history due to the donkey’s fight response and natural aversion to canines. Donkeys are not inherently guard animals but will fight a predator if they feel threatened. They will only guard another animal if they have bonded with him/her; however it’s unlikely that a donkey will bond with a different species. If a donkey is simply placed with a flock of sheep that it doesn’t know, it is possible that it will not protect the sheep against predators.
Many of the donkeys at the sanctuary were purchased with the intent to have a guard animal, and when they did not perform their guarding duties as expected, they were neglected and/or abandoned.
“Donkeys are good for calming a herd of horses or calves”
This practice is not in the donkey’s best interest. Most livestock are fed an extremely rich diet full of grains and lush pasture. If a donkey is fed a rich diet, it can become extremely obese, which can cause hoof problems and lameness. Also, donkeys are most content with their own kind. There is little, if any, reason for them to bond directly with cattle, and in our experience, horses tend to push donkeys around because they have a herd mentality that donkeys do not. There is a significant risk that a horse will not get along with a donkey amicably.
“Donkeys are stubborn and stupid”
Donkeys are not flight animals like horses, so you cannot as easily scare them into certain action or behaviour. This is usually the reason that people believe that donkeys are stubborn. Horses evolved on plains where they have lots of space to run and many resources to choose from, whereas donkeys evolved in mountainous desert areas. The desert doesn’t provide an abundance of resources such as food or shelter, and the mountains didn’t give them much space to run away. A donkey had to take the time to assess the situation to decide if it was dangerous enough to run, or if they should stay and fight. This cautiousness has led to a very developed sense of self preservation. If a donkey is unsure of where they’re being led, it will stop and consider the situation before proceeding. Some call this characteristic stubbornness or stupidity. We call this naturally analytical behaviour “common sense”.
“Donkeys are horses with long ears”
Donkeys and horses evolved in very different environments, giving them different anatomical characteristics. For example, the donkey’s long ears are an evolutionary example of their desert-walking ancestors. Their ears give them the ability to hear the call of another donkey up to 60 miles away. Their large ears also help to keep them cool by using them as a fan. The digestive tract of the donkey is also different from a horse. Because food is scarce in the desert, donkeys utilize 95% of the nutrients in what they eat. Their digestive system can break down inedible vegetation and extract moisture from food much more efficiently than a horse.
“Donkeys are incredibly strong”
Donkeys have a reputation for being strong ‘pack’ animals and while this is true, they are not stronger than another animal of the same size. Donkeys can only hold up to 20% of their weight. Unlike horses, donkeys did not evolve as herd animals. Instead, donkeys traveled in small groups of around five or so and wouldn’t have a true leader like a herd of horses. While a herd of horses will run from a predator and the slowest of the herd will be killed, donkeys are more likely to stay and fight. Fight animals cannot show vulnerability to their opponents and so donkeys do not show their pain until they are very sick or critically injured. If you notice that a donkey is in pain or sick, it has likely been this way for some time and might not recover.
Here are some other interesting facts we learned through our research that we wanted to share:
- Donkeys in a group will groom each other in the same way as monkeys and chimps do.
- The health of a donkey is directly related to their hooves. It’s essential to their health that their hooves are properly cared for, or their health can deteriorate quickly and possibly lead to death.
- Donkeys cannot eat hay. Hay is too rich for them, so they eat “barley straw” or “oat straw” that is rich in fibre and low in sugar.
- With proper maintenance and care, a donkey can live for more than 40 years.
- Donkeys hate rain. Their coat is not waterproof and staying out in rain for a long period can damage their health.
- Donkeys can be well-trained, however it requires a good deal of patience. Actions that will help them to realize that humans mean to protect them will actually earn their trust, and eventually they’ll lend themselves to training.
- There are around 200 known breeds of donkeys.
- Donkeys and horses are often crossbred. The baby of a female horse and a male donkey is known as a Mule.
- The baby of a male horse and a female donkey is known as a Hinny.
We were certainly struck by how many assumptions are often made about donkeys, but now have come to understand why there is such a need for this wonderful Sanctuary, a rolling farm that boasts a “forever home” to over 100 of these kind animals.
So how did this GFAS Accredited Sanctuary become a reality, right here in Wellington County? Well, it all begins with their Founder, an animal lover named Sandra Pady.
“Sandra and her husband David purchased a 100-acre farm outside of Guelph, Ontario, where she could make her childhood dream of rescuing animals a reality.
Sandra contacted the Joywinds Farm Rare Breeds Conservancy Inc. to learn about rare breeds in need of conservation and began to educate herself about the fundamentals of farming. She read books and spoke with other farmers and breeders of livestock to become familiar with modern farming techniques. She also made arrangements with a neighbour to rent out their eastern pasture, and soon their land was dotted with grazing sheep.
Then one day, Dudley, their youngest standard poodle, inadvertently killed one of the lambs while playing. Sandra was devastated. Concerned about the welfare of the remaining sheep, she telephoned Jy Chiperzack, founder of the Rare Breeds Conservancy, who told her that some donkeys have been known to be effective guardians of sheep if they’ve bonded with the animals. As a result, Sandra agreed to foster three of the Conservancy’s donkeys.
From the first day that Riley, Bronwyn, and Apache trotted into her life, Sandra was captivated. She could not get enough of the donkeys’ gentle stillness, and soothing, restful presence, and found herself spending more and more of her time with them.
Sandra’s first opportunity to rescue a donkey came unexpectedly. A neighbouring farmer had bought a donkey to guard a herd of goats. When the little donkey proved to be an ineffective guardian, the farmer saw no use for him and confined him to a stall, where he remained, lonely and despondent.
When Sandra learned about the donkey, she arranged to purchase him. Thus, Sebastian became the first donkey to be rescued by what was to become The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada (DSC). He was not, however, to be the last. Shortly after, she was informed about nine donkeys slated for an equine auction. When Sandra was told that these donkeys would be sold to a slaughterhouse if no other buyer appeared, she took them in as well.”
To read more about Sandra’s journey, please visit their website: www.thedonkeysanctuary.ca
Lesley was adamant to mention the incredible staff and volunteers that help make up the team at the Sanctuary. “We rely so much on volunteers and donations in order to keep this place running, and we’ve been very lucky to have some of the volunteers we do, and some regular donations that help us keep these donkeys healthy and alive.”
It would be impossible in one article to tell you everything about this incredible, inspirational place, but know this; if you’re an animal lover of any sort, The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada is a place you must visit.
From the residents in the ‘vulnerable’ section, where you just might find one of these beautiful creatures wearing pants …. yes that’s right, pants, lovingly made from a volunteer to protect his skin, to the stunning, and very grand “Kingston”, a mule that not only is strikingly beautiful, but is being lovingly rehabilitated and painstakingly trained to bring out his gentle soul.
It was difficult to leave this spot. We will be back, and we hope you will be too!
WRITTEN BY: KELLI M. MADDOCKS | PHOTOGRAPHY: CORY BRUYEA
RESOURCES: LESLEY BAYNE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of THE DONKEY SANCTUARY of CANADA