Discovering the delights of that equine enigma, the donkey

MISUNDERSTOOD: Donkeys' comical looks conceal intelligence and curiosity.
MISUNDERSTOOD: Donkeys' comical looks conceal intelligence and curiosity.

One of the greatest injustices in the animal kingdom would have to be that donkeys are stupid with the second greatest misconception that they are stubborn.

It's a myth perpetuated no doubt by their appearance and the notion they are simply beasts of burden.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Donkeys are in fact, highly intelligent, highly social and delightfully curious animals with great problem-solving capacity.

Just ask any donkey owner that doesn't have a complex lock on the paddock gate or the stable door.

When they want out, they will always find a way, often leaving their human companions scratching their heads as to just how they made good their escape.

Fiercely loyal, they will bond with their best donkey buddy for life and herds have been known to use the power of numbers and a military-like strategy to defend the younger members from canine predators.

This natural protective streak has resulted in them being employed as effective defenders of sheep flocks here and overseas.

They can be fiesty and very, very funny, but they are incredibly gentle and loving too.

They also know their own mind, which has gained them the undeserved 'stubborn' moniker.

Their intellect means they do not meekly follow along, so if you understand your donkey, respect his or her intelligence and work with them rather than against them, handling is relatively stress-free.

And a donkey isn't just a donkey ... there is a whole secret language which accompanies this underestimated species.

A male, ungelded donkey is a jack and unless you are going to breed donkeys, you really, really don't want a jack in your little herd.

Fuelled by testosterone they can be incredibly aggressive (think a stallion on steroids) and indeed in the wild jacks will fight to the death over breeding females and have been known to kill females during mating.

But miraculously once gelded, all of that aggression just disappears and you are left with a gentle and adorable fellow who makes a wonderful companion.

The female equivalent of a jack is a jenny.

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and female horse while a hinny is the product of a female donkey and male horse.

Due to the difference in chromosomes between horses and donkeys, both these offspring are sterile and unable to reproduce.

Donkeys are in fact, highly intelligent, highly social and delightfully curious ...

Donkeys are descended from the African wild ass, now endangered, and have diversified into numerous breeds.

They also come in standard and miniature.

Their African origins have given them many of the attributes of desert animals, although the sweet little piebalds are far more at home in rolling green paddocks than endless, shifting sands.

Nevertheless, they have particular traits which owners need to be aware of in their care.

For example, their hooves grow very quickly because their ancestors wore them down rapidly in harsh desert landscapes.

As a result contemporary donkey hooves need trimming every six weeks or so by a qualified farrier who understands their particular needs.

Unlike horses, donkey hooves need to be trimmed and shaped on a slight angle, something an experienced donkey farrier can achieve.

When it comes to diet, they enjoy a high degree of roughage and will often munch away on bark and sticks they pick up in the paddock while grazing.

Oh and that saying about donkeys' years?

Entirely true.

They live up to 40 years, with some reaching 50 and beyond, so it really is a lifetime commitment for you and them.