Research is the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. The Donkey Sanctuary is a centre of excellence in its field of donkey care and welfare. We are only able to continually raise our standards of care, and improve our levels of expertise by increasing our knowledge base. Non-invasive research is one of the ways through which we can advance our learning on the vast topic of donkeys. Unlike horses which are somewhat glamorous, the majority of donkeys around the world are quite literally beasts of burden and so there is no comparable ‘donkey industry’ pushing forward research and development. Drug companies are not interested in developing donkey specific products as the market is considered to be too small, and there are no big sporting events to generate sponsorships. As a result of this, historically very little has been produced in the way of donkey specific data. So we have been working hard to try in our own way to redress this balance as much as we can.
When we describe our projects as ‘non-invasive’ this means that we do not carry out any research that could cause pain or distress to the animals involved. For example we do not take blood samples or other tissue samples for the sole purposes of research and we do not place animals under stress (for example by removing a companion animal) for such purposes either. All of the research that we engage in makes use of measurements and samples taken as part of treating or monitoring disease or through behavioural and environmental observations. All of the research that we support or fund is designed to improve our knowledge of donkeys with the goal that we are able to improve their welfare. Our research has to meet strict ethical criteria and projects undertaken in collaboration with universities must pass our own ethical approval and that of their university’s ethical committee also.
Research is widely described as being either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research is broadly speaking subjective, often unfolding with time and reported in a narrative way. Quantitative research is more objective, following strict design protocols and having conclusions drawn from statistical calculations. Sometimes the line between the two methods may not be quite so clear cut.
Depending on the location and nature of the project we may use either qualitative or quantitative methods, or we may draw aspects from both and use as appropriate; ensuring that we get the best quality results which can be extrapolated out to the wider donkey population.
Due to the lack of donkey research, in the past donkeys have often been treated as a small horse. We now know that donkeys have significant differences from other equids, not only their behaviour and appearance, but also in their metabolism, nervous system and gut function to name but a few. As you can imagine this has a knock on effect on how we feed and manage our herd and how we respond to illness in our donkeys. Treating them as a smaller version of a horse can be inappropriate, even dangerous at times.
We are working to put what we’ve learnt into practice on our sites, as well as sharing this knowledge with other organisations and donkey carers around the world.