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Welcome to the American Donkey Association
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Quick History Overview
Welcome to the American Donkey Association

 

History of the First Donkeys

Prior to the domestication of certain animals, donkeys were a source of food for man. As man recognized the value of donkeys as a vehicle of transportation to and from work, the African wild ass began being exported to other continents. There are two recognized donkey species; the Asiatic and the African Wild Ass. The African Wild Ass (Equus Africanus) is divided into two subspecies; the Nubian Wild Ass and the Somali Wild Ass.

When the trade of product among territories expanded throughout Europe and Asia, donkeys were used as pack animals to carry goods from various destinations. The journey was difficult and often donkeys were exchanged at various villages resulting in diverse bloodlines.

Donkeys were frequently used by the Romans for wagons based upon their ability to handle large loads and considered superior to horses and oxen. The Romans also fancied donkeys for their ability to produce mules. The wealthy Roman women bathed in donkey milk to preserve their beauty.

Donkeys continued to be a valued animal for transportation and agricultural use, until the industrial revolution made them less important.

 

The Miniature Donkey

Since the island of Sardinia is isolated, it is not known how a smaller species of donkey was established in this remote location. Early on, donkey breeding was quite popular since these animals were used and bred for agricultural purposes, such as working waterwheel equipment for pumping water for farmers, working in grinding mills and the transportation of product. Excavations in the area have shown common heights of these small donkeys being 32” – 34” and in some cases up to 37”.

The Sardinian donkeys were well cared for and recognized as having an important role in society.

There is a purely Sicilian donkey and it is different from a Sardinian donkey.

Excavations on the island of Sicily indicate donkeys in that region measured 49” to 55” at the withers. It is believed that over time, Sardinian donkeys were exported to Sicily and eventually inter-bred with stock on that island.

With the industrial revolution bringing tractors and gas-powered equipment to the small farms, the Miniature Donkey is on the verge of extinction in its homeland.

In 2002, there were only 430 registered donkeys on the island of Sardinia per The Italian Association of Breeders.

As wealthy Americans traveled to Italy, small Miniature Mediterranean donkeys were imported to the United States. During the early part of the 20th century, various Hollywood celebrities took a fancy to these small donkeys and brought them to the US as pets.

The industry has given credit to a wealthy stockbroker, Robert Green, as one of the early importers of Miniature Mediterranean donkeys. Mr. Green initially imported seven Sardanian donkeys in 1929. Three of the jennets were killed by dogs shortly after their arrival. The surviving jennets (Suzanne, Palermo, and Miranda) and the jack (Impheus) became the foundation stock of the Green herd.

Miranda gave birth to Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, October 12, 1929. He has been credited for being the first Miniature Donkey born in the U.S. Mr. Green was followed by two early importers, Powel Crosley, Jr. (Crosley Motors) and the August Busch, Jr. (Busch/Budweiser Beer). The August Busch Jr. herd is known by their prefix “Belleau”.

Christopher Columbus, the first donkey born in the United Stated
"Christopher Columbus" - The first Miniature Donkey born in the U.S. from the 1929 Original Imports.
 

Other early importers included Walter Erman, Richard Sagendorph of Massachusetts, Harry T. Morgan (owner of Ken-L-Ration) and the actress Helen Hayes. It wasn't until the late 30's that Miniature Donkeys began to be sold to the general public.

Belleau donkey and a clydesdale.
A Belleau donkey and a Clydesdale horse.
 

History of the Mammoth Donkey

 
Mammoth Donkey
The famous Kansas City Chief, World Champion Jack, at the World's Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915 in San Francisco. Still the model for the Mammoth Donkey Breed today.
 

The American Mammoth Jackstock was developed beginning in the earliest days of the United States, and it has been an integral part of American agricultural history. George Washington was one of the leading agricultural innovators of his day. Among his many interests was the improvement of livestock, including the development of an American ass breed that could be used to produce strong work mules. Washington, with Henry Clay and others, obtained by gift and purchase a small number of jacks and jennies of the finest European breeds in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Interest increased quickly; Washington was offering his jacks for stud service by 1788. The Catalonian ass from Spain was of primary interest to American breeders, but the Andalusian (from Spain), Maltese (from Malta), Poitou (from France), Majorcan (from Majorca), and Italian strains were also used. Breeders blended these strains together, selecting the offspring for size, soundness, and strength and thus creating the American Mammoth Jackstock breed.

Large breeds of asses were found in Kentucky by 1800. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri became the primary mule-producing states around this time. Between 1830 and 1890, several thousand large asses were imported from Spain and other parts of Europe, broadening the genetic base of the breed. The substantial investment in these imports demonstrates the significance of the mule industry at that time. A registry was established in 1888, and a second registry in 1908. These merged in 1923 as the Standard Jack and Jennet Registry (SJJR), which continues today under the name of the American Mammoth Jackstock Registry. The population of American Mammoth Jackstock peaked in 1920, with an estimated five million animals in the national herd.

During the 1950s, in response to the dramatic decline in the number of American Mammoth Jackstock, the Standard Jack and Jennet Registry (SJJR) lowered the breed’s height requirements to 14 hands (56") for males and 13.2 (54") for females. When the American Donkey and Mule Society (ADMS) established its registry for American Mammoth Jackstock in 1967, it followed the SJJR breed standard. Ironically, in the 1980s, when breed numbers were again increasing, the SJJR raised its height standard back to the original criteria. This is the origin of the difference in breed standards between the two registries. The genetic effect of the lowering of the height standard is not documented, though it is true that animals which would not have been tall enough historically have been admitted into the breed in the past 40 years. Better documentation of today’s population would be useful in understanding the effect of these policy changes on the breed’s genetic status and conservation needs.

Mammoth Jacks are sturdy and tall, with massive legs and large, well-made heads. The ears are especially long, often measuring 33" from tip to tip. Selection has always been made for size and substance. Traditionally, males were expected to stand at least 14.2 hands (58") high at the withers and females 14 hands (56"). Many animals were taller than this. The weight varied with the height and ranged between 900 and 1,200 pounds. Black used to be considered the only suitable color for the breed, as black Jackstock bred to Percheron mares produced dark colored mules that were easy to match as teams. For the last few decades, however, the market has favored sorrel draft mules, produced by breeding a sorrel Jack and a Belgian mare. As a result, the predominant color of the American Mammoth Jackstock has also become sorrel. With this change in color has come a change in type as well, as the sorrel animals tend to be more coarse in conformation than the blacks.

The primary function of American Mammoth Jackstock has always been to produce draft mules. Today, mules are as likely to be used in recreation as in agricultural work. The market for riding mules is also increasing, but this trend may or may not benefit the American Mammoth Jackstock breed, because Large Standard donkeys, which are lighter boned and more refined, are often used to produce these riding mules. The American Mammoth Jackstock is found in the United States, with a small population in Canada. Within the breed, very few of the historic-type black Mammoth Jacks remain, and conservation of these strains is a priority for the breed.


 

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