Cousins With Contrary Characters
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
ALTHOUGH a hardened big-game hunter, Michael Mason found it difficult to aim his rifle at a Nubian wild ass. Why? “To any person who has only seen tame donkeys,” he wrote, “the sight of a wild ass in movement across its native ground is a revelation. They are the poetry of motion! The ease and grace and swiftness with which they crossed or climbed or descended those terribly rough naked rocks, where we saw them, . . . would have made a thoroughbred horse look like some rheumatic old screw. On the level plains . . . they are so swift and tireless that no mounted horse or racing camel can ever catch them.”
It is feared that this beautiful specimen has become extinct in the wild, not being able to withstand man’s modern weapons. There are other varieties of wild asses, but they are also endangered. The Syrian wild ass of Bible times was last seen in 1929, at Schönbrunn zoo, Vienna.
The situation is a lot better for the domestic ass. As a beast of burden, it continues to play an important role, especially in lands where life has not reached a hectic pace. An estimated forty million donkeys and ten million mulesa are still used in different parts of the world for agricultural and transportation needs.
Perhaps you are wondering, Who domesticated the donkey? And how does it compare with its cousin, the wild ass?
Did Man Domesticate the Donkey?
Zoologists say that man domesticated the donkey from the African variety of wild ass. What evidence is there in support of this claim?
“Almost everything connected with the ancestry of the donkey is guesswork,” admits The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Although African wild asses—Nubian and Somali—look more like the domestic animal than the Asiatic kinds, there are definite differences. “It seems to be generally agreed that the Somali wild ass has had little or no effect on the domestic ass,” states an authority on the subject, Dr. Colin Groves. Regarding the Nubian wild ass, viewed as the most important ancestor, he says: “There are many differences: the shoulder-cross, even in the Nubian race, is not the boldly marked, long stripe of the donkey, and the backs of the ears are pale off-white rather than cinnamon. It is much larger, of course, and there are still differences in the skull. . . . I am very dubious whether the Nubian wild ass can really be the ancestor of the donkey.”
Is there no reliable authority, then, that can explain the characteristic differences? What about the Bible? It explains why these cousins have contrary characteristics in these words: “God proceeded to make the wild beast of the earth according to its kind and the domestic animal according to its kind.” Yes, Jehovah God, the Creator, is to be credited with the making of domestic animals, including the donkey. He lovingly did this for man’s benefit.—Genesis 1:25.
Characteristics of Wild Asses
The most significant difference between wild and domestic asses lies in their character. Children love to stroke or ride donkeys. Could they do so with wild asses? In his book Animals of Africa, Dr. Felix wrote: “Wild asses are extremely wary and shy, and it is difficult to get close to them. At the slightest hint of danger, they rush away in all directions, adroitly climbing up and down the steep rocky slopes.”
Those that have been caught and cared for by man do not lose their wild nature. This is how the director of the Vienna zoo described the now extinct animal mentioned earlier: “Fiery and always ready to attack . . . with its teeth and hooves . . . the Syrian wild ass is a picture of unfettered wildness.”
This harmonizes with the Creator’s description of the wild ass as recorded in the Bible: “Who loosened the very bands of the wild ass, whose house I have appointed the desert plain and whose dwelling places the salt country? It laughs at the turmoil of a town; the noises of a stalker it does not hear. It explores mountains for its pasturage and after every sort of green plant it seeks.”—Job 39:5-8.
Does this fit present-day habitats of wild asses? The book Wild, Wild World of Animals says: “African wild asses live in desolate, stony regions where temperatures may rise to 122°F [50°C].” The great Salt Plain in the Danakil depression of northern Ethiopia is an inhospitable desert where few humans can be found. Here, the magnificent Somali wild ass thrives, salt being a welcome part of its diet. The largest of wild asses, the kiang, dwells in the mountains of Tibet at an altitude of 4,500 meters (15,000 ft). In spite of freezing winters and heavy snows, it survives in these mountains seeking “after every sort of green plant.” On this, the book Horses, Asses and Zebras in the Wild comments: “Kiangs feed on grass and low-growing plants, particularly the tough, sharp swamp grass, rich in silicic acid, which would cut and lacerate the more sensitive mouths of any other equid.”
Can wild asses be tempted away from these regions by man? “They keep well away from human habitation even when suffering from thirst,” states The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. All of this is quite contrary to the character of domestic donkeys.
Mr. Long Ears—Man’s Willing Slave
Slow by nature, he willingly carries heavy loads for men. After a hard day’s work he is satisfied with a little dry grass and some clean water. Because of his patient endurance, some despise him—hence, the derogatory expression “you stupid ass.” But is the donkey stupid? “No,” authorities claim. “The donkey’s occasional obstinacy in refusing work too heavy for it has become proverbial, but its equally proverbial stupidity has probably become legendary through its reaction to brutal treatment and neglect. It is naturally patient and persevering, responding to gentle treatment with affection and attachment to its master.”—Encyclopædia Britannica.
Actually, donkeys are considered more intelligent than horses. To some extent they are a reflection of their masters, responding to kindly training. (Proverbs 12:10) An experienced breeder, Averil Swinfen, wrote: “The donkey’s accomplishments are mostly what its master chooses to teach it . . . Its range of perception is acute and its enurement [becoming accustomed] to man is easily established. The behavioural chain in the animal will, therefore, reflect to a great extent that of its human owner or instructor.”
The donkey’s excellent memory is proof of its intelligence. After traveling a route for the first time, he will not forget it. Letting go of the reins, some owners take a nap in the cart as their donkey pulls them home. One man recalls how his donkeys would pull him to school while he sat in the cart doing homework.
The strength of the donkey varies according to breed. Some authorities say that donkeys carry an average load of 75 kilograms (165 lb) and can pull up to two and a half tons. Unlike the horse, it has an elliptical shape that is ideal for bearing burdens.
This weight-carrying ability, together with its surefootedness, makes the donkey invaluable in mountainous country. Donkeys are prized possessions in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, southern Africa. With few roads, people in these mountains depend on their donkeys to carry loads from fields and shops. This brings to mind the wealthy man Job who apparently lived near mountainous Edom. He surely appreciated the services of his thousand she-asses.—Job 42:12.
With advances in technology the donkey has become obsolete in many parts of the world. What future, then, is there for Mr. Long Ears, man’s willing slave?
We can be sure that man’s loving Maker will take timely measures to save not only asses but His entire earthly creation from extinction. He has promised that this earth will be transformed into a global Paradise. Contributing to the beauty, wild and domestic animals will be able to fulfill their roles according to their God-given characters. What delight this will bring to obedient mankind!—Genesis 1:28; Hosea 2:18; Revelation 11:17, 18; 21:3-5.
a The cross between a male ass and a female horse; normally sterile. The mule combines valuable qualities from both parents.
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The horse is handsomely built, but the donkey is better designed for bearing heavy burdens
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Because of their surefootedness and their ability to carry burdens donkeys are prized possessions in the mountains of Lesotho