Donkey Dynamics

Q. I have four donkeys: two males and two females that are parents and offspring. The parents are maybe 6 years old, the offspring 3 and 2 years old. The males have been housed in a pasture together for about a year, with the females together across the street. Four months ago we put them all together. Everything has been fine, everyone is happy to be together, and they are always together.

Four days ago, seemingly overnight, there was a split of some sort. The young male is no longer with the group. They had always stayed together previously. I didn’t see him with the others all day, so I searched the 60 acres they are on and found him over in the back 40 on the other side of a creek. This is odd and not an area they would usually spend time in. I called to him, he was all excited and came running to me. I walked back to my truck, and he followed just fine.

Since then, I am seeing him very little, and he is never with the others. I found him again last night hanging out with some of the cows, grazing. His health seems fine.

All I can think is it is mating-related, but that seems odd as it has been a happy four months and there’s been plenty of mating play during this time. I’m both worried and curious about what this could mean. My husband keeps saying, “They are farm animals.” I get that, but donkeys are so social that I worry about him. Any thoughts?

Kim, via e-mail

A. Donkeys, like other asinine equids and Grevy’s zebras, have evolved to have a territorial social organization, rather than the harem breeding social structure we see with horses. The breeding males don’t guard females but mark and guard an actual territory and then breed any jennies that are in estrus as they wander through. Young males wander with their dams for a year or so. Then, as the young males mature, they tend to avoid challenging the breeding males. They stay on the periphery of those males’ territories or move to an area that is not guarded by a breeding male. Some eventually establish their own territory, marking it with fecal piles, and they breed passing females that are in estrus.

These social patterns may not be as conspicuous in assemblages of domestically managed donkeys, but that would be my best guess at what might be going on with your young male. To gather some evidence as to whether this is the case, you might try to have your young male follow you back toward the other donkeys. If my guess is correct, I would expect that the youngster will start to show signs of nervousness or hesitation as he approaches the group. The older male might also show some threat behavior toward the younger male. 

Your question didn’t say whether these males are still intact, but geldings can often retain remnants of natural male social behavior.

You might also check to see if the older male has marked his territory boundary with a series of fecal piles, more or less in a line somewhere between his hangout and the youngster. If he has done that, I would expect that as you lure the young one back toward the others, he will seem especially hesitant as he approaches those stud piles.