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The Donkey

( Originally Published 1918 )



YOUR uncle's partiality, you have already been able to see, my friends, is for the weak, the ill-treated, the unfortunate. I did not try to eulogize the horse, the valiant animal commending itself sufficiently to our esteem without that; but very gladly will I enumerate the good qualities of the ass, sad victim of our brutality despite the service it renders us. To give my words more authority I will add Buffon's testimony to my own.

'The ass,' says the illustrious historian of animals, `is not a degenerate horse, as many imagine; it is neither a foreigner nor an intruder nor a bastard; like all animals it has its family, its species, and its rank. Although its nobility is less illustrious, it is quite as good, quite as ancient, as that of the horse. Briefly, the ass is an ass, nothing more, nothing less.

" 'This initial fact is of no slight importance. In considering the ass as a degenerate horse we are led to compare it with its assumed origin, and the comparison is not favorable to it: the long-eared donkey makes but a pitiful showing beside the brisk and noble courser. But as it is in reality a separate animal let us expect of it only the qualities of its species, the qualities of the ass, without depreciating the animal by comparisons with others that are stronger and better endowed. Do we despise rye because it is not so good as wheats We thank Heaven for both, the first as the valued crop of the mountains, the second as that of the plains. Let us not, then, despise the ass because it is inferior to the horse. It possesses the good qualities of its species, and cannot possess others. We fail to recognize that the ass would be our foremost, our finest, our best made, our most distinguished domestic animal if there were no horse in the world. It is second instead of first, and for that reason seems as nothing to us. It is comparison that degrades it. We look at it and judge it, not on its own merits, but relatively to the horse. We forget that it has all the good qualities of its nature, all the gifts belonging to its species, and remember only the beauty and merits of the horse, which it would be impossible for the ass to possess.'

`Buffon asserts that the nobility of the ass is as ancient as that of the horse. I will venture even further than the master and maintain that it is certainly more ancient in the sense that the ass was domesticated before the horse. It was the first to serve the Asiatic shepherds in their migration in quest of better pasturage. It carried the folded tent, the dairy utensils, the new-born lambs, the women and children. What animal did the ancient patriarchs ride? What did Abraham ride on his journey into Egypt? The ass, my friends, the peaceful ass. On nearly every page of Genesis the ass is mentioned; the horse does not appear there until Joseph's time."

"The ancient origin of the ass could not have nobler credentials," said Jules.

"Why then, asks Buffon, such scorn for the ass, so good, patient, sober, useful? Should men scorn, even among animals, those that serve them well and at so little expense? We educate the horse, take care of it, teach it, train it; while the ass, left to the rough handling of the lowest servants or to the mischievous pranks of children,. far from improving in quality, can only deteriorate. If it were not fundamentally of excellent character, it would lose all its virtues from the way in which it is treated. It is the laughing-stock and the drudge of boors who beat it, overload it, and wear it out without consideration."

"Oh, how many of these poor donkeys I have seen," Jules exclaimed, "overwhelmed with their loads and beaten unmercifully because they hadn't strength enough to go on!"

"What can become of the poor animal thus de-graded by bad treatment? An intractable, brutalized, bald-headed, mangy, weakened creature, object of pity for any one who has not a heart harder than stone. But let us consider the ass as the Orientals know how to raise it in all the comfort and content of careful home treatment. We shall find an animal of fine appearance, gentle looks, glossy coat, distinguished and spirited bearing, trotting briskly along the streets of the large towns, where it is habitually used as mount for going from one quarter to another. Its gait, without fatigue for the rider, makes it preferred to the horse; the greatest ladies, in making their calls, do not disdain its richly ornamented pack-saddle. The city of Cairo alone, in Egypt, uses some forty thousand of these graceful trotters. In such society would our shameful don-key dare to show itself? Ah! let us pity the poor creature : its wretched lot has made it what it is.,,

"I should willingly agree with the people of Cairo," said Emile. "I should prefer the donkey for a mount. At any rate, if one gets a fall the danger is not so great."

"The donkey is just the mount for invalids, children, women, and old people; it is naturally gentle, as quiet as the horse is spirited, mettlesome, and impetuous. Since, by endowing it with a patience that is proof against everything and with a small size which makes a fall from its back not at all dangerous, Heaven has created the donkey expressly for you, show the good beast by your care that you are not forgetful of your servant.

"The ass is patient; it suffers punishment and blows with constancy and perhaps with courage. This fine virtue is, as it were, written on its coat. You will often see on the donkey's back a long black stripe and another shorter one crossing the first on the shoulders. The two dark bands form the image of the cross, divine symbol of resignation to suffering. I know very well that this peculiarity in the animal's coat has not the least significance in itself; but still it is worthy of remark that the donkey, the innocent victim of our brutality, bears the cross on its back.

"The ass is temperate in both the quantity and quality of its food. It is contented with the toughest and least palatable pasturage, which horses and other animals disdain to touch. Along the roadside it browses the prickly tops of thistles, branches of willows, shoots of hawthorn. If afterward it can roll on the grass a moment, it counts this as the very summit of earthly happiness. But it is very dainty about water : it will drink only the very clearest and from streams that it knows. It drinks as temperately as it eats, and does not plunge its nose into the water, from fear, as they say, of the reflection of its ears."

"That 's a funny sort of fear," said Jules.

"Therefore I don't believe the saying is well founded. The ass is not so silly as to be frightened by the reflection of its ears. If it drinks merely with its lips, without plunging its nose into the water, it is because, like the cat, it fears getting wet. It does not, like the horse, wallow in mire and water; it shrinks from even wetting its feet, and will make a detour to avoid mud. Hence its legs are always dry and cleaner than a horse's. Its aversion to wet explains sufficiently its manner of drinking, without attributing it to any silly fear of the reflection of the animal's ears."

"Why do people speak of that fear, then?" "Simply for the malicious pleasure of adding one more example of stupidity to the donkey's account. Is it not agreed that the unfortunate beast has every possible whimsicality? Has not its very name be-come the favorite term to denote stupidity? All this is pure calumny; far from being the idiot it is called, the ass is a cunning beast, prudent, full of circumspection, as is proved by the care it takes in not drinking except from known springs already tested by use."

"Why make such a fuss about drinking?" was Emile's query.

"Why? Alas, my friend, evil sometimes befalls us for not exercising the donkey's prudence in the choice of our drinking-water. The unknown spring whence we draw water may be too cold, unwholesome, full of injurious substances. Better advised than we, the ass will put its lips only to water known by experience to be wholesome."

"And the ass is a hundred times right," Jules declared.

If I dared to, I should blame the ass for the passion it has for rolling on the ground, sometimes, alas, without any thought of the load it carries. But is it really the animal's fault? Since nobody takes the trouble to curry the ass, to relieve the itching of its skin, it rolls on the grass and seems thus to reproach its master for neglect. Let the curry-comb and the brush keep its back clean, and the donkey will cease trying to rub itself, all four legs in the air, against the prickly foliage of the thistles. It is the accumulation of dust and dirt that torments it, not parasites, for of all hairy animals the ass is the least subject to vermin. It never has lice, apparently on account of the hardness and dryness of its skin, which is in fact harder than that of most other quadrupeds. For the same reason it is much less sensitive than the horse to the whip and to the sting of flies.

"When overloaded, it lies on its stomach and refuses to move, determined to let itself be beaten to death rather than get up. `Oh, the stubborn brute ! Oh, the stupid ass!' cries the master; and down comes the stick. Is it stubbornness on the animal's part to refuse to work? Listen first to a short story. In the old days of the Roman Empire a man of profound wisdom, Epictetus, was a slave in the house of a brutal master. One day the latter beat him unmercifully with his cane. 'Master,' said Epictetus to him, 'I warn you that if you keep that up you will break my leg and your slave will lose in value.' The brute struck all the harder, and a bone broke. With sublime resignation the slave uttered no reproach except to say: `I told you you would break my leg.'

"To return to the ass laden beyond its strength, if it could speak it would certainly express itself thus in imitation of the sage : 'Master, I assure you very humbly the load you are putting on me over-taxes my strength and I cannot carry it.' But the man inconsiderately continues augmenting the bur-den until at last the animal's back bends under the weight. The donkey first inclines its head, lowers its ears, and then lies down. That is its way of saying, 'l told you I couldn't carry such a heavy load.' Any one but a boor would hasten to lighten the load, instead of unmercifully beating the animal, and the donkey would get up as soon as the weight became suited to its strength."

"They won't make the donkey any stronger by beating it," was Jules's comment.

"And, what is more, they will turn a docile animal into an obstinate, ill-tempered one. In its early youth, before it knows the hardness of life, the don-key is gay, playful, full of pretty tricks ; but with the sad experience of age, with crushing fatigue and ill-treatment, it becomes indocile, slow, obstinate, vindictive. Is not that, however, our fault? How many injuries has not the unfortunate beast to avenge, and what a host of good qualities must it not have to remain in the end as we find it? If the donkey harbored ill-will for blows received, its master would become an object of hatred and it would be constantly biting and kicking him. On the contrary, the animal becomes attached to him, scents him from a distance, distinguishes him from all other men, and can if necessary find him amid all the confusion of a fair or market.

"With passable food and, above all, with good usage, the ass becomes the most submissive, faithful, and affectionate of companions. Let it be saddled or harnessed, loaded with pack-saddle, panniers, farm tools, or what not, it shirks no labor. If there is any fodder for it, it eats; if not, it crops the thistles by the side of the road; and if there are no thistles it goes hungry without letting its fast diminish in the least its good will. It is a philosophical beast, neither humiliated by bearing the poor man's pack-saddle nor puffed up by the rich man's elegant housings, and anxious only to do its duty everywhere and always.

"The ass has good eyes, keen scent, and excellent ears. From the quickness of its hearing and the length of its ears the inference is drawn that the animal is timid. I am willing to assent to this, the ass never having earned a reputation for prowess or daring. Moreover, its quickness of hearing and length of ears are shared by many other animals that do not surpass it in courage, as, for example, the hare and the rabbit, which are even more richly endowed than the ass in respect to length of ears. Their weakness and defenselessness expose them to a thousand dangers and make their life a continual state of alarm. To be warned in time of peril and save themselves by speedy flight, their surest dependence is the excellence of their hearing, which is partly due to the enormous size of the external ear, movable in every direction so as to receive sounds from all sides.

"Merely because the ass has the long ears indicative of timidity shall we charge the animal with poltroonery? That would be unfair, for if it does not court danger it at least knows how to face it when peaceful means of safety are out of the question. The horse is warlike, the ass prefers the gentle ways of peace and consents to the arbitrament of force only when no other course is possible; but then its courage rises to meet the danger. If in its wild state it is surprised by an assailant, it hastens to rejoin its companions of the pasture; and, all grouping together as do wild horses in their war tactics, they begin to kick and bite with such fury that the enemy decamps as quickly as possible, with jaw-bone fractured by a flying hoof."

"After such an exploit," said Jules, "let no one tell me the donkey is a coward."

"I fancy," put in Emile, "that after routing the enemy the donkeys do not fail to chorus a song of victory."

It is not to be doubted that, to congratulate one another and to celebrate their triumph, the donkeys sound a few clarion notes, such as they so well know how to give. The horse neighs and the donkey brays, the latter cry being very loud, very prolonged, very disagreeable, and composed of a succession of discords ranging from sharp to grave and from grave to sharp."

"And the last notes," added Emile, "are hoarser and gradually die away."

I see Emile is well acquainted with the donkey's voice. Let us go on to some of its other peculiarities. From time immemorial the ass has had the reputation of being stupid : its very name is synonymous with stupidity. There is a whole vocabulary of abusive epithets that we bestow on the ass, and these epithets nearly always allude to its stupidity. We call it a numbskull, a ninny, a jackass, a woodenhead, and I don't know what all; and, as a crowning slander to the animal, the dunce of his class at school is made to wear a cap with donkey's ears. Never has calumny been more flagrant. The donkey a dunce? By no means ! Is it not the donkey that, with a prudence worthy of imitation, refuses to drink from unknown springs? Does it not, when lost in the crowd at market, knew how to find its master almost as easily as the dog, and does it not begin to bray with joy at sight of him? But there is something better than this to prove its intelligence. Recall to mind the wagoner's long team of horses on the highway. There are four, six, eight of them, sturdily tugging at the enormous load. Between the two shafts, the most arduous position of all, is the massive shaft-horse, while at the head of the team proudly marches a donkey, harnessed very lightly. What is this little creature doing at the head of those robust companions? First, it pulls with vigor, so far as its strength will admit; and, secondly, it has a still more important function to fill. Its part is to guide the equipage and keep it in the middle of the road, to avoid ruts, get around difficult places, and, in general, pick the way. While the heavy horses work only with their shoulders to draw the load, the donkey, to lead the way, works at the same time with its head. This post of honor, this position as leader of the file-would it be assigned to the ass if the animal were not recognized as the most intelligent of the team?

"I should like to show you also the donkey traveling in mountainous countries in company with horses and mules. It is the one to direct the band, showing the others the turnouts to take to avoid a dangerous place. If the path gets too bad, the donkey foresees the peril with an astonishing sagacity; it turns aside a moment from the beaten track, finds a way around the difficult spot by a cleverly calculated bend, and takes the regular road again farther on. Any mule or horse that disdains to follow the donkey's intelligent leadership runs the risk of getting into trouble whence it will be very hard to get it out."

"As far as I can see," said Jules, "the donkey is more intelligent than the horse, since it acts as the horse's guide."

"That is my opinion, too, in spite of the reputation for stupidity that it has acquired, I don't know why. The donkey walks, trots, and gallops like the horse, but all its movements are within a smaller compass and much slower. Although it can start out at a brisk enough pace, it cannot cover great distances or continue on the road for a long time. Whatever gait it takes, if the animal is urged to go faster it is soon exhausted. It is especially suited to mountainous countries. Its small, hard hoofs en-able it to follow stony paths with the greatest ease; its prudent gait and firm and circumspect step give it access to rough places and the steepest slopes.

"The donkey is very robust. In proportion to its size it is perhaps of all animals the one that can carry the heaviest load, but as its body is small the burden placed on it ought not to exceed moderate limits. What a useful servant would one not have in an animal having the qualities of the donkey and the vigorous development of the horse ! Such a creature does not exist in the natural order, but man has obtained it by the intervention of his art.

"The species of the horse and that of the ass are unmistakably distinct from each other and never cross in the wild state. Nevertheless, since they are very nearly related, as their close resemblance in form proves, cross-breeding between them is possible with careful management. From this unnatural union comes the mule, of which the father is the ass and the mother the mare. The mule then is not a separate species of animal having its own independent existence; it is not an ass nor a horse, but a bastard creature intermediate between the two. To its father, the ass, it owes its large head, long ears, narrow and hard hoofs, thick skin, rough coat, generally dark in color and sometimes ornamented with the two black stripes in the form of a cross on the back. To the ass it also owes its temperate habits, its tenacity in work, its robust constitution, and the sureness of foot so necessary in mountainous countries. From its mother, the mare, it gets its powerful equine frame, its quick gait, its freedom of limb. Its rude strength, moderation in supplying its animal wants, power of enduring the utmost fatigue, indifference to extreme heat, make it one of the most useful animals, especially in hot climates where there are long spells of drought."



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