We have been having a busy week in the vet projects department as a research study that we have recently published has caught the attention of the media, including BBC Radio Devon and BBC News Online.
I was lucky enough to be invited on to BBC Radio Devon to talk about a study that was carried out here at the Sanctuary to look at the intelligence of mules and their parent species, donkeys and horses. As part of the interview I was asked if I could tell if a donkey was intelligent by the sound of its bray - of course I told them - if it's a donkey, they're all intelligent as far as I'm concerned!
We carried out the research project in collaboration with Dr Britta Osthaus and Leanne Proops of the University of Exeter using mules, donkeys and ponies that are residents here at the Donkey Sanctuary. The trial involved selecting 6 donkeys, 6 ponies and 6 mules and seeing how quickly they could learn to choose the correct symbol which led to them being rewarded with a small piece of carrot. The mules excelled themselves at these tests and were much faster and more accurate than the donkeys or ponies that tried the same tests.
You may ask yourselves why we carried out this study? The first reason was that it was an ideal opportunity to give some of the animals something different and stimulating to do and secondly we wanted to dispel the myth that mules are stubborn and stupid! All of us that work with mules know that this is simply not true and that they are very fast learners. Unfortunately mules can learn from bad experiences as quickly as good ones and unless handled sensitively and consistently can become bored and confused.
The mule has often received bad press in the UK and Ireland but is a highly valued animal in the USA and many developing countries where they are used for riding, driving, jumping, farm work and even racing. Anything a horse can do a mule can too, even better in many cases! Mules are known as hybrid species - that is they have a horse or pony mother and a donkey father. It has long been known that mules exhibit a trait known as hybrid vigour where the best genes of the parents 'mix and match' to produce hybrids with superior traits. This can lead to mules exhibiting the sure-footedness, stamina and stoic nature of a donkey combined with the vigour, strength and size of a horse. This is the first study to show that hybrid vigour is able to improve their thinking and learning abilities too. The mule truly is a fantastic example of hybrid vigour and with sensitive handling and training can be an excellent working and pleasure animal.
We had a great time working with the animals here at the Donkey Sanctuary and hope that the results of our research will convince others of what we already know - mules rule!