"...when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again."
-William Beebe

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Asses, also called donkeys, are valuable though often under-appreciated agricultural animals. Hardy, gregarious, and adaptable, asses known for their braying voices and long ears. Their reputation for stubbornness results from a propensity to stand still while evaluating unknown situations. This characteristic was acquired during the species' long evolution in rocky desert habitats in the Middle East and Northern Africa, which did not reward the flight response.

Asses were domesticated from several wild subspecies in the Mediterranean region. They proved useful for draft and transportation. Asses are also used for meat and milk, which is known for its cosmetic properties and still used today in some parts of the world.

The ass species has undergone less elaborate breed development than have the other species, resulting in relatively few standardized breeds. Landraces, shaped chiefly by geographic isolation, are more common. Asses are generally grouped into one of three types, defined by their size and uses.

The largest breeds of asses are the size of horses, standing 14 hands (56") or taller at the withers. These breeds have been developed in many regions of the world, and they have been selected primarily for the production of mules - the sterile offspring of male donkeys and female horses. Mules are superb work animals, combining the hardiness of donkeys with the size and strength of horses. Mule breeding has gone on since antiquity in several parts of the world, especially in Southern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. Where large breeds of asses survive, they are rare and should be considered high conservation priorities.

Medium size asses, often called donkeys, number in the millions globally. Animals in this group stand 9-14 hand (36-56") high at the withers. They are used chiefly for draft, packing, transportation, and other types of work, as well as for the production of medium size mules. Only a few distinct breeds have been developed throughout the world, although some local strains have been highly selected for specific tasks and thus developed the genetic consistency expected of a breed.

The smallest donkeys are the miniatures, which stand less than 9 hands (36") high at the withers. This group includes animals historically selected for working under difficult conditions, including those found on islands where large size would be a disadvantage. The best known population of miniature donkeys evolved in the Mediterranean region. This breed has now become numerous in North America.

Asses in America descend almost entirely from Spanish stocks, though there have also been contributions from other European countries. The earliest imports were of medium size Spanish asses used as pack animals. These donkeys became the basis for feral populations in the Southwest, called "burros." During the late 1700s and early 1800s, larger ass breeds were imported from Spain and other European counties to be used in the development of the American Mammoth Jackstock breed. Miniature strains from the Mediterranean were imported as companion animals beginning in 1929.

The American Donkey and Mule Society (ADMS), founded in 1967, has been instrumental in the promotion of ass breeds and breeding in the United States. The ADMS holds registries for most of the donkey and mule breeds and provides information on issues of selection, breeding, and management.

Excerpted from A Rare Breeds Album of American Livestock, pg 7-8.

For more information: The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, P.O. Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312, (919) 542-5704.