Just like Dr Dolittle, I bet you talk to your animals and some of you may say your animals talk right back! Many of our fabulous staff and volunteers at The Sanctuary can be heard deep in conversation with their donkey friends – who are very good listeners! Up until a few years ago researchers would say such behaviour had no place in science. However, animal welfare science has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades and it is now accepted that, in order to find out what an animal likes and dislikes, one just has to ask. And how do we do this? A simple example is to give an animal a free choice of two environments and observe which one the animal uses the most. You’ve asked the question and the animal has given you the answer.
Up until now our assertion that donkeys need shelter has been anecdotal based upon decades of observing donkey behaviour but with no hard science behind it. And because there was no scientific evidence the various laws and welfare codes relating to horses and donkeys are pretty vague about the need for shelter. In order to try and establish once and for all that our assertion was correct we have spent the past couple of years collaborating with scientists from two UK universities, a South West pony trust and a well known international competitive sport rider to ask horses, ponies and donkeys the question - Do you need shelter and, if so, when?
Our research was based in the temperate climate of the UK. We had to ask a lot of animals to make this study robust and one that would stand up to statistical analysis. 127 donkeys and 73 horses were observed at least weekly throughout the changing seasons and detailed data obtained regarding the weather conditions and behaviour of the individuals in response to that weather. Nearly 14,000 individual observations are being analysed by the research team using very complex maths!
At last the results are nearly in and we will be able to say, with the backing of sound science, that, given the choice, donkeys spend much less time outdoors than in and appear to be significantly more affected by rain than horses. Other areas of the study have focussed on the different characteristics of the donkey’s fur when compared to horses and mules and have assessed how different equines lose heat to their environment.
This is ground-breaking work that we hope will be published before too long will be used to inform decision-makers who are involved with revising and updating UK welfare codes and could bring about real and positive change for the welfare of donkeys.
And you thought we were just a donkey sanctuary!