A study published this month reveals that mules are among the best problem solvers amongst domestic animals and demonstrate learning skills far in advance of our other four-legged friends.
The study is the result of collaboration between The Donkey Sanctuary and Dr Britta Osthaus of Canterbury Christ Church University and looked at the ability of mules, donkeys and horses to problem solve to obtain a small food reward. The results were also compared with previous studies carried out on dogs.
During the tests the animals needed to work out the shortest route through a gap past a barrier to get to a food reward. The position of the gap changed after a set number of repetitions meaning that the animals needed to re-evaluate their route. On the first detour task, mules were able to take the shortest route from the start point and head straight through without hesitation. Donkeys took slightly longer to solve the problem and horses longer still. After a change in the set-up mules and donkeys proved to be far more flexible than horses and dogs who got stuck behind the barrier, not realising the gap had been moved.
The results proved that mules are as clever as dogs at problem solving and that they also show potential to ‘learn to learn’ – applying flexibility to their thoughts and actions in response to their environment. The study also demonstrated that mules and donkeys were significantly more flexible in their approach to problem solving than horses or dogs – debunking the common myth of these animals being ‘stubborn’.
Dr Faith Burden who assisted with the study on behalf of The Donkey Sanctuary says: “All in all the study really backs up what we have all known but not been able to prove until now: donkeys and mules are thoughtful when presented with a problem and are accurate and fast learners. They certainly put their shorter eared cousins in the shade in this study.”
This study supports previous work carried out by the team which shows that mules not only demonstrate their ‘hybrid vigour’ physically but that this also extends to their intelligence.
The Donkey Sanctuary provides sanctuary to over 167 mules who have been rescued from neglect, abandoned or relinquished to the charity when their owners could no longer look after them. Mules are intelligent and very trainable; however they are careful and will not easily be over worked. Their instinct for self-preservation means they will not readily put themselves in danger, or be over-worked which has led to the misconception of stubbornness.
During International Donkey Week (8-13th May 2013), hundreds of visitors to The Donkey Sanctuary’s Devon Farms will be able to meet many of the rescued mules and learn more about these intelligent and fascinating animals.