“Poor little foal of an oppressed race!
I love the languid patience of thy face:
And oft with gentle hand I give thee bread,
And clap thy ragged coat, and pat thy head.” – Coleridge
The German TV channel Deutsche Welle (DW) currently hosts weekly episodes of Tierisch Kölsch (Zoogeschichten/Zoo stories). Each episode features moments from the lives of many animals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians of Kölner Zoo (Cologne Zoo) in Germany – and is highly rated for being quite interesting, educational and inspiring. Amongst the inhabitants in that controlled environment are a couple of hairy Poitou donkeys (Poitou-Esel in German) tenderly looked after by the Tierpfleger (animal-carers) of the Kölner Zoo.
The Poitou donkeys (Poitou ass/Poitevin donkey/Baudet du Poitou), the breed from the Poitou region of France are notable for a number of unique characteristics. The two tenderfoots were brought to the Kölner Zoo: the female and smaller Jeanette, born in 2007, originated from the Heidelberg Zoo; the stallion Michel was brought over from Wilhelma (Der Zoologische-Botanische Garten) Stuttgart where he was born in 2013. Contrary to our know-how, the way by which Jeanette and Michel responded to the kindness, words, strokes and reassurances of the Tierpfleger specialized in equine behaviour was amazing.
Here we live in a place where animals of that species cannot be easily seen. Looking back I could remember having first seen them a long, long time ago when one of the Circus shows came to our city. But then, the couple of weak donkeys that the Circus paraded with colourful ribands tied to the stump of their tails were unexciting elements to cast a spell over our attention amidst a group of more fascinating animals attached to that Circus.
That was a time when traveling entertainers could be found on the pavements of Cochin: sword swallowers, acrobats, singing groups, snake charmers, … Bar a few, all seem to have disappeared like most of the birds that flew over Cochin before the city set on the path of development. Once upon a time, you could see huge light-coloured oxen with enormous horns pulling covered carts through the streets, bringing in heavy loads of trade ware for merchants at the Broadway. You could find them resting in an area behind the back wall of the Police camp near the market bridge leading to the Broadway.
You could see cows, goats, cats, dogs, hen, duck, frogs everywhere while pigeons, sparrows, crows, butterflies, etc, flew around freely. How wonderful it felt to hear the chirping of the swallows and the song of the lark; to look up and see the eagles soaring in circles overhead, not far away. Now, most of them have relocated to the ecologically sensitive area of Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary or away to the hilly areas in the suburbs – with no chance to restore them to their old habitats. The stray dogs seem to have taken over to atone for their absence. Occasionally one could even see the odd elephants being taken somewhere. As for us, fortunately, we have a couple of purple-rumped Sunbirds (Leptocoma zeylonica) nesting by the air-ducts near the window-sunshade outside our dining room – their incessant happy chirping would gather momentum whenever our presence is known to them – joyous as though some little breeze had made their hearts light.
Donkey, the animal that was once part of the drawing periods of our beginners’ classes at school together with rabbit, elephant, cow, birds, swan, etc and always present in the illustration books of alphabets to represent “D” is also known under the scientific name of Equus Asinus. If names are anything to go by, they are also called a moke, a burro, a cuddy. Always part of many legends and jokes, like many animals, the donkey was even regarded by the ancient Egyptians both as a god and a devil.
As an avid traveller, I have seen them labouring in the agriculture and laundry sectors, and pulling carts in various parts of India. Browsing the web, I had seen them on building sites or at brick kilns of some countries where they are engaged to work long hours to transport heavy load of bricks to and from the firing ovens.
In different cities of Yemen, there are quite a few of them used as pack animals, but not quite as much as I have seen in different parts of Europe where you could find them in all shapes, sizes, colours and coat texture.
The smaller types with woollier coats I saw in the London Zoo (reputedly the donkeys came to England with the Romans during their invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD) is believed to have ancestors who were exported to the United States (along with mules) by settlers who would later venture to improve the situation in the U S with good quality Spanish and Maltese stock.
The ancestors of donkey stock in Europe owe their settlement in Europe to the Romans while some might have entered through the close accessibility of Spain to Northern Africa. Crete, where Europe, North Africa and Middle East intersect in sea communication, could have had some linkage to the Europe-bound Roman cargos which also included donkeys. But, whatever the reason could be, the island of Chrysi of Crete is known as Gaidouronisi (Donkey) Island”.
No sooner they were put to use as pack-asses or harnessed four-abreast to draw wagons, they spread throughout the Mediterranean islands where wine was produced, owing to their reliability, narrowness and delicacy of surefooted steps to till the land between the rows of vines on steeply terraced hillsides. While many of them found usage as working animals in French vineyards in the harvest of grapes, in Spain, they also became popular in tourism, festivals, pilgrimages and agriculture.
Patient, sure-footed and persistent, not only the army found them useful, they are used for riding, for carrying passengers and luggage, to work in agriculture and farms, to carry water, maize, construction materials, crush sugarcane, pull giant hamster wheel to draw water from a well, recyclable rubbish materials, trekking, etc.. Beginning from a time when the ancients had only their own muscle power and that of their donkeys and oxen, the efforts of donkeys can be traced through the construction sites of the great pyramids, Basilica di San Pietro, Taj Mahal, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, etc.
Some also developed an appetite for donkey meat which was one of the reasons they were initially domesticated by mankind counting also the facts that they are easy to control, eat less than a horse and live longer to about 40 years. I remember an old story about a couple of successful/unsuccessful Iberians engaged in the manufacture of chicken sausages. When the impoverished manufacturer was baffled about how the prosperous one sold his chicken sausages cheap and still made profit, he was secretly advised by the prosperous one to add donkey meat to chicken at 50-50 ratio as dead donkey meat came cheap. Yet, the impoverished one was appalled that he could not generate profit even after mixing the meat half-and-half with the chicken. He had done precisely as he was advised and certainly, their sausages were of same length and thickness. The mystery is soon unravelled. Well, the prosperous one did not mean to mix the meats half-and-half. He meant 50-50 – one donkey to one chicken. The penny has dropped.
Save for turning up on dinner plates and in salami, donkey milk, in which Egyptian Queen Cleopatra reputedly bathed, was also used as an infant feed replacement and supposedly good for premature babies, delicate children, people with asthma, eczema and psoriasis.
According to recent reports, the donkey population in India has suffered the highest downfall among all livestock during the last many years. Proper donkey care education, creating specialists in equine behavioural problems, availability of barns and bales of haylage, proper usage of their manure to produce compost, are major aspects for the welfare improvements of these gentle-natured creatures. Equally vital are the conservation of indigenous breeds of donkeys by perfecting artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology and ensure their genetic purity. Simultaneously, to learn patience to cope with their stubbornness and stupidity that can also be interpreted as part of donkey’s intelligent and naturally cautious attitude for not being pushed into situations of danger.
Of some of the other common problems of donkeys I have heard of are the long hours they are made to work in soaring temperatures without adequate food, water and rest; the poor quality of saddles and bridles ignoring safety guidelines which could risk the rider as well; deficiency of support to donkey sanctuaries and donkey owners; lack of adoption opportunities; dietary issues; bad breath; skin problems; eye infections; blindness; and abandonment.
Abandonment is a misfortune always facing pets. Many years ago I had come across donkeys, some stray, amidst the throngs of people in the dusty streets of the valley town before one heads through the magnificent groves of tall slender areca nut palms for the Ghat road in Tamil Nadu which twists and climbs through the fertile valleys and tree-cladded mountains and slopes of the Nilgiris to Ooty (Ootacumund/Udhagamandalam), the Queen of the Blue Mountains. I am not particularly sentimental about places just because they are familiar, but Ooty is a place of many memories. Stray or not – those donkeys occasionally found luck with food from the hand outs of locals or by their owners, but are generally left alone to find a living on their own. I have not seen anyone brutalize or abuse these dear creatures although there were stories of how they frequently suffered from the hasty temper of their masters. At any rate, I had seen them resting by the road side, or standing in the middle of the intersection or even right in the middle of the road, deaf as a post – from time to time shaking their ears or tail – sometimes looking almost divine but mostly with a brooding look on their face. Very rarely have I found them nickering for joy.
For the locals in the vicinity, these less sociable animals than horses are just a regular sight (1), their braying adding a steady undertone of sound though, at times, they are subjected to a good bray which they find a misfortune to hear at close range. But for the travellers and tourists passing through the valley, uninterested in the sights of the street cows, the sight of donkeys kindled curiosity, prompting some to convulse with laughter: “Oh, a donkey!” which often drew their accompanying kids to curiously gaze at them through the windows of their vehicles for a fine pastime.
The locals normally ignored with disgust anyone who mocked the donkeys. That is something old-fashioned they have learned from the donkey’s modesty to shut out the flattering comments which occasionally reached its over-sized ears. Probably being mocked at is a cross of misfortune they are always bound to carry – indeed, like the cross on their shoulders. (Continued in my next post) Jo
- The last time I passed through that valley by sunset, none of the donkeys were there.
- The pictures of Jeanette and Michel are courtesy of Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, Aktiengesellschaft Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany
- Many thanks to Ms. Pippa Hockin of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon, England for sharing the picture “Grazing” featured in this post.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)