Hi my name is Kristin Hayday, I work as a Research Assistant here at The Donkey Sanctuary. I am lucky enough to have worked here for the past 6 years after completing my BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. I love my job; it has a great mix of office work and going out to the Sanctuary’s farms to help with research projects. Here at the Sanctuary we only carry out non- invasive research and all research is to benefit the donkeys and mules in our care and worldwide.
Very little scientific work has been carried out looking at donkeys so it is our job to learn more about donkeys and mules and promote them and the care they need. As we all know donkeys are not horses but we are still learning so much about this unique and special species.
Back in 2010 I took part in a fascinating project led by Dr Britta Osthaus from Canterbury Christchurch University. Britta has been working with the Sanctuary for many years to help us to understand how donkeys and mules think and to assess their problem solving abilities and provide proof for what us donkey and mule fans already know – they are super intelligent, not stubborn.
This project looked at the problem solving ability of donkeys, mules and horses using something called a detour test. This involved setting up an arena type area at our Axnoller Farm in Dorset. One animal at a time, from a selection of mules and donkeys, were brought into the arena and asked to navigate via an open gate to the other end where they were given a small food reward. The position of the gate moved and the length of time it took for the animals to reach the other end was recorded.
The results were surprising – mules were not only better and faster at problem solving but were as good at the task as dogs when compared with results from a previous study – this debunks the myth that predators will always be better spatial problem solvers than prey animals!
The mules also showed potential to do something called ‘learn to learn’ which shows they are flexible learners. The donkeys were as clever and as fast as the horses! And mules and donkeys were more flexible in their approach, for example less stubborn than horses and dogs. Therefore scientifically backing up what we donkey and mule fans already knew – they are thoughtful when presented with a problem and are accurate, fast learners.
It is such a shame they really do not get the good press coverage they deserve. Maybe the saying should be ‘Clever as a mule’ not ‘Stubborn as a mule’?!