A Brief History of the Domestic Donkey

A Brief History of the Domestic Donkey

African Wild Ass
African Wild Ass Photo: San Diego Zoo

Ancient Egypt

African Wild Asses were first domesticated in Egypt around 4000 BC. As the only riding, pack and draught animal available they played a vital role in the expansion of trade throughout Africa and Asia.

They provided transport and draught power and drew water from wells. They excelled at working for long periods in hot, dry conditions and were highly valued. From Africa, donkeys spread across the ancient world, to Syria, the Middle East and Siberia.

donkey rice mill
Donkey and Chinese women husking rice, Chan-Tong, China Photo: Mills Archive

The Roman Empire

As the Romans conquered large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, they relied heavily on donkeys to carry valuable goods along vast trade routes, known as the Silk Road. When they reached Europe, donkeys were also used to cultivate vineyards and turn grain and water mills.

1st Century

The Roman invasion in 43 AD brought donkeys to Britain.

Ancient Donkey Art
Ancient Donkey Art Images: Quatr.us

The Middle Ages

Donkeys had been domesticated in the Indian sub-continent and continued to spread throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.

15th Century

The first donkeys came to the Americas on ships of the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495. Spanish explorers continued to bring donkeys to Spanish-held lands.

17th Century

Donkeys began to be used in Ireland when the removal of horses for cavalry by Oliver Cromwell forced the Irish to turn to donkeys as a source of power for working the land.

Donkeys in Australia
Donkey Team at Wyndham circa 1928 Photo: State Library of Western Australia

19th Century

From 1866, Thomas Elder imported donkeys into Australia where they were used as pack and haulage animals until the 1930s. Once replaced by motorisation, large numbers became feral.

Donkeys were essential during the American Gold Rush era, carrying gold and miners across mountainous areas.

In France, donkeys made excellent draught animals for small farmers and often worked in fields and vineyards. Towards the middle of the century they replaced humans to pull barges on the canals.

In the UK donkeys became indispensable. They were used on farms and in towns, transporting goods to market, pulling lawnmowers and rubbish carts, carrying miners to the collieries and ladies to the spa and giving beach rides to children. In Ireland they carried peat from the bogs, potatoes and flax for linen.

Gallipoli history of the donkey
Simpson and his donkeys, Gallipoli 1915 Photo: Australian War Memorial

First World War

Donkeys carried packs of artillery shells, equipment and provisions to the front line and rescued wounded soldiers from the battlefield.

Second World War

The Australian army trained wild donkeys to carry heavy loads over boggy land and through creeks and rivers that motor vehicles and pack horses could not manage.

history of the donkey
Smoke the therapy donkey with Marines, Iraq Photo: smokethedonkey.com

“On a U.S. military base near Fallujah in war-torn Iraq, Col. John Folsom woke up one morning to the sound of a small, scruffy donkey tied up outside his quarters. He was charmed by this scrawny animal with a plaintive expression. Folsom and his fellow Marines took in the donkey, built him a corral and shelter, and escorted him on daily walks. One night, hanging out with the Marines as they relaxed after work, the donkey snatched someone’s lit cigarette and gobbled it up, to the laughter of all. Suddenly, the donkey had a name: Smoke. More than a conversation topic for troops connecting with families back home, Smoke served as mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy.” – ‘Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend’, Cate Folsom 

Donkeys have been used in conflicts throughout history. They can still be found transporting weapons and explosives across rough terrain in Afghanistan to this day.

donkey trekking
Driving and traction donkeys, Ranch Margherita, Arezzo, Italy

1930s – 1950s

Engines began to replace the need for donkeys as working animals in industrialised countries and many donkeys were neglected.

In the poorest parts of Asia, Africa and South America, donkeys continued to be a lifeline to millions of families, carrying essential building materials, food and water.

history of the donkey
Donkeys Photo: Sanctuary Care News

1960s – 1980s

Donkeys suddenly became popular as pets in the UK. The Donkey Breed Society and The Donkey Sanctuary were founded, Elisabeth Svendsen published the first Professional Handbook of the Donkey and The Slade Centre was set up, providing donkey-assisted therapy for children with special needs.


The National Federation of Donkey Trekkers was founded in France. Donkeys that are no longer needed for agriculture now carry pack saddles for tourists who want to enjoy walking with donkeys.

Donkeys gained huge popularity as pets in the U.S. where baby boomers had disposable income. Owners learned about breeding and care and donkeys began participating in shows, visiting schools and nursing homes, taking part in parades and working as therapy animals. This continues today.

Baudets du Poitou
Poitou Donkeys, Asinerie de la Baie, Brittany, France


The worldwide donkey population was now believed to be shrinking for the first time.

In Europe, some breeds faced extinction following decades of decline due to rural depopulation and the mechanisation of farming. New breed societies were formed and programmes were started to protect breeds such as the Amiatina, Bourbonnais, Poitou and Ragusano.

The global economic crisis of 2008 had an impact in developed countries, with many owners no longer able to care for their donkeys and sanctuaries receiving record numbers of rescue cases.

family donkey Tanzania
A family with their donkey in Tanzania Photo: Alex Mayers, The Donkey Sanctuary

A New Threat

Since 2010, donkey populations in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia and South America have become victims of the Ejiao trade.

Donkeys are being stolen and abattoirs are being built to meet the high demand for donkey skins, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There is much concern for donkey welfare and numbers worldwide.

Families in Africa that depend on donkeys for their livelihoods have been badly affected and several African countries have now banned donkey exports to China. To support The Donkey Sanctuary in their fight to halt the trade, click here.


The Complete Book of the Donkey Dr Elisabeth D Svendsen MBE

The Donkey Companion Sue Weaver

The Origin of the Miniature Donkey Quarter Moon Ranch

Donkeys of Australia Facebook Page

Feral Donkey Government of Western Australia Website

Donkey Wikipedia

Copyright Amy Swift 2017

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