When we think about farmed animals, we often think of them as being farmed to produce some sort of physical “goods” — such as milk, eggs, flesh, wool, or skin. However, there are some animals who are farmed for their work. Sometimes this is very specialised work (like in sports), but other times is just general physical work (such as transportation, ploughing, carrying cargo, entertaining children, running mills, guarding other animals, etc.). One of such animals is the donkey.
We often forget that donkeys are farmed animals as we do not imagine them in factory farms, but despite they have traditionally been “valued” more alive than dead by those people who exploit them, and despite they may not only be doing the work in farmed fields, they are still farmed animals in the sense that they are domesticated animals mostly exploited in the countryside as commodities for profit. However, in recent years, they have increasingly been farmed in intensive operations for their skin.
We are so used to seeing them working in the background of rural scenes all over the world, even in classical biblical stories, that many people may think that they may be happy enough being exploited the way they are. However, the truth about farming donkeys is very far from the concept of happiness, as they suffer a great deal in silence when exploited around the world.
Who Are the Donkeys
Donkeys (also called asses) are herbivorous mammals of the Order Perissodactyla (even-toed ungulates) of the same genus as horses (Equus), who were domesticated from the African wild ass, Equus africanus, and may be classified either as a subspecies Equus africanus asinus, or as a separate species, Equus asinus (today most domestic species that used to be classed as separate species are now seeing as sub-species).
Donkeys were domesticated in Africa some 5000–7000 years ago for working rather than for food or fibre, which is the same purpose that most of the 44 million donkeys that exist today in the world are bred for (which include 189 different breeds).
People call adult male donkeys jacks or jackasses, and adult female donkeys jennies or jennets. From the 18th century, the term “donkey” gradually replaced “ass” and “jenny” replaced “she-ass”. Jacks that are forced to mate with female horses (mares) produce unfertile hybrid animals called mules. Although the name “Burro” is commonly used in the US to refer to the feral donkeys that live west of the Rocky Mountains, this term is the Spanish and Portuguese name for a donkey.
The wild ancestors of the modern donkeys are specifically the Nubian and Somalian subspecies of African wild ass, domesticated in the seventh and eighth millennia BCE in Nubia ( the region along the Nile River encompassing the area between the first cataract of the Nile just south of Aswan in southern Egypt and the confluence of the Blue and White Niles in Khartoum in central Sudan). It was the seat of one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa, the Kerma culture, which lasted from around 2500 BCE until around 1500 BCE.
The African wild ass still exists today, living in arid areas of the Horn of Africa, in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. However, they are classed as Critically Endangered, with only about 570 individuals left in the wild (which is better than the plight of the ancestors of horses who became extinct). They are 1.2 metres tall and have a short, smooth light grey coat which fades to white on the undersides and legs. On the nape of the neck, there is a stiff, upright mane, the hairs of which are tipped with black. The ears are large and have a black margin, and the tail ends with a black brush.
As they live in very hot areas, African wild asses are mostly active in the cooler hours of the day, between late afternoon and early morning, eating grasses, bark, and leaves. They can run quite fast, reaching speeds of 70 km/h (43 mph). Living in loose herds of up to fifty individuals, mature males defend large territories of about 23 square Km, marking them with dung heaps. However, some intruder males are tolerated and treated as subordinates, and when females are on heat, then the males bray (call) loudly as a territorial display and to attract distant females. The gestation period lasts for 11 to 12 months, and one foal is born during the period from October to February. Their lifespan is up to 50 years.
Although they are prey animals who would flee as a defence mechanism, compared with other ungulates they are not that eager to run and they often choose to fight with kicks from both their front and hind legs or to bite (a behaviour that donkeys have inherited from them).
Through the process of domestication, the size and form of donkeys were changed compared with their ancestors. Donkeys today vary considerably in size and their heights at the withers ranged from less than 90 centimetres (35 in) to approximately 150 cm. The most common coat colour is grey, followed by brown and then black, roan, and broken colour (brown-and-white or black-and-white markings). Donkeys have large ears which may help them to cool down. Most donkeys have dorsal and shoulder stripes.
Working donkeys in the poorest countries have a life expectancy of only 12 to 15 years, and in more prosperous countries they may live up to 40 years. Feral donkeys in dry areas are solitary and do not form harem, with each adult donkey establishing a home range.
Donkeys produce a very loud distinctive call (or bray) which typically lasts for twenty seconds and can be heard for over three kilometres. They use it to keep in contact with other donkeys over the desert territory. Braying can be from excitement, anticipation, loneliness, territorial response, boredom and just keeping in touch with other donkeys.
A jenny is normally pregnant for about 12 months and usually will wait one or two further oestrous cycles before breeding again. Jennies are usually very protective of their foals.
Donkeys are very intelligent (a 2013 study found that donkeys in some situations can learn and problem-solve as quickly as dogs and dolphins), cautious (more than horses, which has given them the unfair reputation of being stubborn), sociable (more than horses), cool (the startle less than horses), friendly (they like affectionate animals who like physical interactions), and playful.
The Roman Army was responsible for the movement of donkeys into Northern Europe, as they used them in wine production. The first donkeys came to the Americas on ships of the Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus and were landed at Hispaniola in 1495. Today they can be found everywhere in the world, especially in developing countries. However, China exploits the most, with 11 million, followed by Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico. Up to 1997, the number of donkeys in the world was estimated to have been continuously growing since they were first domesticated 7,000 years ago, but the recent demand for products derived from donkey skins has changed that.
As working animals, donkeys are exploited in multiple ways. In rural areas, donkeys are often used in farming and as transportation, pulling ploughs and carts, delivering goods to market, or collecting water from wells. In urban areas, they are mainly used in construction, transport of people and goods, and refuse collection.
As an example of the exploitation of donkeys for work, let’s look at Ethiopia, a country with one of the highest donkey populations in the world (4-5 million, in four different breeds). The small-scale farmers and the Highlands have the largest share with 2-3 animals per family, with 70% of them being female donkeys. In the country donkeys are used as pack animals, carrying over fifteen kinds of commodities weighing 60-100 kg and covering distances of 15-20 km for 4-5 hours. In Tigray and the Rift Valley areas, their contribution in terms of firewood trade to the family income was found to be in the range of 156 to 1404 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) annually (US$ 1 = ETB 6.3). In Ejersa, sand is transported in 20-litre containers fitted on the back of a donkey. Each day a donkey makes 80 shuttles from the river basin to the roadside transporting a volume of sand amounting to 4 m² and costing ETB 90.
In small-scale farming operations in Ethiopia donkeys are used to transport the following:
- Grains from fields to farmsteads
- Grains to local markets or pick-up-points
- Agricultural inputs from distribution centres to farmsteads
- Fuel wood, animal dung and charcoal for the rural and urban sectors
- Water for the rural as well as the urban sector
- Relief supplies from distribution centres to farmsteads
- Cash crops such as khat, potatoes, onions and other vegetables from fields to local markets or pick-up points
- Sick, aged, dead, and persons with disabilities
- Threshing cereal crops and beans by trampling
- Building materials such as stones, sand, tree poles and teff straw
- Earthenware such as pots and plates
- Animal food such as hay, teff and wheat straw
- War hardware and ammunition
- Weeding in maize fields
- Ploughing of land in association with oxen
In India, 80% of income generated by the construction industry comes from exploited donkeys. They work in the brick kilns that fuel the country’s building boom around Delhi and Mumbai. Almost every one of the millions of bricks involved in their construction has been transported by donkey or mule.
Around the world, donkeys are also used in the tourism industry transporting tourists or their luggage through difficult terrain. Donkey rides and trekking have become emblematic of some particular tourist spots, such as the island of Santorini in Greece, where donkeys and mules are being used as “taxis” to transport tourists up more than 500 steps to the old town of Firá, even though a cable car has been operating nearby for decades. In the UK, donkeys are a common sight at seaside resorts, giving tourists rides along the beach. The earliest record of donkeys working on beaches in the UK dates back to 1780.
Miniature donkeys are also farmed to be sold as pets and as rides for children in amusement parks and open farms. They are also used as guardian animals (their protective instincts have been exploited to guard sheeps and goats), as therapy animals, and in medical research.
Closer to the idea we may have about how farming donkeys may look like, donkeys have also been used in milk production. Donkey milk has low lactose content, is used widely for cosmetics, and is sought after in the healthcare industry. The global donkey milk market size was valued at $ 26,180 thousand in 2019 and is projected to reach $78,139/-thousands by 2027, registering a CARG of 9.4% growth from 2021 to 2027. Donkeys are also exploited for their meat, as it is considered a delicacy in some countries and is used in products such as salami in Europe.
However, these days donkeys are also bread for their skin to produce Ejiao, the gelatine released from the donkeys’ boiled skins that is used for beauty products, snacks, and candy. Ejiao is also considered one of the most valuable products within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is a commonly used health tonic medicine in China and for those using TCM in other countries. In the three years from 2013 to 2016, the annual production of Ejiao increased from 3,200 to 5,600 tonnes. The US is the third-largest importer of products containing ejiao, after Hong Kong and Japan, with approximately $12 million in annual imports each year. The result of the demand for Ejiao is an increase in the number of donkey farms, and the introduction of donkey factory farming (now we can find farms with 3,000 donkeys in China). It is estimated that 4.8 million donkeys are dying each year to cater to the increasing demand for Ejiao. China can source approximately 1.8 million skins domestically but must import the rest.
Demand for Ejiao has turned Ghana into Africa’s slaughterhouse for donkeys (managed by China). Because of this industry, the donkey populations in Brazil have declined by 28% since 2007, by 37% in Botswana and by 53% in Kyrgyzstan, and there are fears the populations in Kenya and Ghana could also be decimated by the skin trade. The largest donkey farm in Europe is at Montebaducco, Italy, with about 800 animals.
The Suffering of Farmed Donkeys
Donkeys that have been forced to work hard all their lives are often sold for money to the Ejiao industry. As their last exhausting journey to their deaths, donkeys in China are forced to march hundreds of miles without food, water, or rest, or crowded in trucks often with their legs tied up together and piled on top of each other. They often arrive at slaughterhouses with broken or severed limbs and may be killed with hammers, axes, or knives before their skins are exported.
The 2019 report Under the Skin from the Donkey Sanctuary revealed how donkeys, many of whom are stolen from communities, are transported on long journeys without access to food or water, with up to 20% dying on route. Donkeys experience significant stress when they are separated from others. Being placed in novel situations often stresses donkeys due to their cautious nature. The effects on the emotional state of the donkey in the trade may be very profound, with donkeys becoming so depressed, fearful and distressed that they simply stop eating and endure a prolonged death due to metabolic disease.
The way donkeys are handled also causes them suffering. Handlers often kick them or drag them, and use spiked sticks called goads to inflict pain. The Donkey Sanctuary has obtained evidence of the widespread use of these practices including: 1) Video evidence obtained at the Bo Chang Group slaughterhouse in Francistown, Botswana, shows donkeys being dragged from trucks by their ears and tails. 2) Footage from Tanzania’s Shinyanga slaughterhouse, obtained by SPANA in early 2019, shows donkeys being hit repeatedly and hauled around the slaughterhouse, including over waist-high barriers, using chains around their necks. Similar footage was also obtained by The Donkey Sanctuary just two months earlier. Transport is also a problem. Donkeys that are injured, sick and in the late stages of pregnancy are all transported, despite international guidelines recommending such animals are not. A slaughterhouse employee in Zimbabwe disclosed that around 25 donkeys had been found crushed to death in different consignments unloaded at the slaughterhouse. Animals are often brutally slaughtered in full view of other donkeys, adding to the stress of the awaiting animals.
In the last decade or so, due to the increase in demand for Ejiao and the shortest of donkeys, there has been significant investment in donkey intensive farming within China. About 4 million donkeys have been bred in factory farms in China just for their skin. In these factory farms, donkeys will be more susceptible to disease due to the cramped conditions. Diseases such as glanders, stranglers, equine influenza, African horse sickness, rabies, anthrax, and equine infectious anaemia are more likely to occur in donkeys when farmed in intense farming operations. In factory farms, donkeys have fewer chances to express natural behaviours, and as they get very attached to other members of their small societies, living in very large groups where animals are moved around and often separated causes them a great deal of distress.
Also, because donkeys were not domesticated for meat production which would have altered their growth or reproduction rate, it appears that these recent intensive farms are not really living up to the expectations of those who created them. A recent Chinese paper complained about the “slow growth of donkeys” and thus that “profit is for long term”, also noticed that several large-scale enterprises have stopped farming donkeys in these big farms for not being profitable enough. However, a recent survey reports that ‘more than 70% of donkeys in China are now raised under extensive conditions on smallholder farms.
Other Ways in Which Donkeys Suffer
The cruelty of farming donkeys for their skin has already outraged some politicians. On 24th October 2023, US Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) reintroduced the Ejiao Act in the House of Representatives to ban the sale and trade of Ejiao products in the United States (there is a petition to support this Act). However, people often forget that donkeys used for other purposes also suffer their forced-labour captive lives a great deal.
Footage obtained by PETA in 2022 showed that the donkeys exploited by the tourism industry in the Greek island of Santorini still suffer despite complaints in the previous five years led to some reforms. PETA Germany’s undercover investigation revealed that donkeys are forced to carry heavy loads, are given practically no respite from the hot sun, and are denied access to food and water. Images taken in July 2022 also show numerous donkeys with untreated open wounds. Veterinarian Dr Maximilian Pick said the following after seeing the evidence: “The photos and video footage of the donkeys and donkey crossbreeds document that the animals on Santorini are exposed to conditions that are very much a matter of animal welfare: not only do animals exhibit numerous, partly untreated skin wounds, the scar tissue found on the skin on the head, in the girth position, and on the legs is proof of injuries that went untreated. The saddles and bridles are unsuitable for riding and transporting tourists. Having animals stand in the blazing sun without providing water or food is cruel. The animals are usually overloaded when transporting tourists (sometimes two riders on one animal) up the steep stairs.”
In Petra, Jordan, the donkeys and horses carry visitors up a steep path carved from the rock, in a journey that spans about 1.2 miles (2 km), which leads from the base of the city to a monastery perched on the summit of a hill.
In the UK, donkeys used on beaches for tourists require an annual vet check to certify them as fit to work. However, good standards of equine welfare are not always adhered to by UK business owners. The animal welfare organisation The Donkey Sanctuary has had to intervene in instances of severe animal cruelty regarding UK donkeys.
Working donkeys suffer the pain and exhaustion caused by their hard work. For instance, in Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, donkeys are forced to work when they are too young to do so and made to carry loads far too heavy for their bodies, without rest, water or food (and when they weaken, they are beaten or stabbed to force them to continue). In India, not only are donkeys involved in the manufacture of bricks at the kilns, but they also work as “cranes” on-site taking the bricks to upper locations. They carry bricks, sand, and crushed stone for mortar, walking up as many as 12 flights of stairs, carrying 25 bricks at a time (each weighing 2.5kg).
Even the donkeys kept “as pets” or as guardians suffer their captive life, as they end up often with diabetes or hoofs problems as they are overfed (they are adapted to arid areas with not much vegetation, so when they live in temperate areas with lots of plants they eat too much and become obese). Also, these donkeys suffer skin and hoof problems due to the humidity of the countries where they are kept, which they are not adapted to tolerate due to their geographical origin.
Even donkeys that escape their captive life (or were released) and manage to live in the wild in feral populations, cannot totally escape from suffering caused by people. In Australia, authorities cull feral herds to keep numbers down, shooting the animals from helicopters or on the ground. In Brazil, there are around one million feral donkeys, and as for the last 25 years it has been illegal for animals to wander onto federal roads, these animals are picked up and taken to horrific government farms.
Unfortunately, many animal welfare organisations, and specifically donkey protection organisations, not only are not vegan organisations, but they do not campaign against the exploitation of donkeys, almost accepting that such exploitation is inevitable and cannot be stopped. I believe that this only perpetuates the suffering of donkeys, as for each donkey these organisations may help (and it’s good that they help them), many more are born into a life of misery, as their exploitation is indirectly “legitimised” by the silence of these organisations (and sometimes more than the silence, as they may unnecessarily argue, even in front of politicians, about how essential is the work donkeys do). Cynics may say that this situation suits them as this allows them to continue to receive donations in perpetuity, part of which may end up used to pay their staff in developed countries rather than to directly help actual donkeys (which could be seen as another indirect form of animal exploitation).
Exploited donkeys suffer everywhere in the world.