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The following article was supplied courtesy of the » Rare Breeds Trust of Australia which is considering the inclusion of the Australian Teamster Donkey in its heritage list.

The Australian Teamster Donkey

Text and Photos by Pat Emmett

Australian Teamster Donkeys (Photo by Pat Emmett)
Australian Teamster Donkeys
(Photo by Pat Emmett)

      Donkeys have been part of the domestic livestock scene in Australia since 1794 when the Shah brought from Calcutta from among its cargo three Asses (three others having died enroute). Many more were to follow over the years, the donkeys becoming, up until the 1930s, an important part of the history of transport in Australia. They were used in teams of up to 30, sometimes more, and were driven by voice alone, the teamster walking alongside his team. Donkeys and camels worked in the remotest outback areas; the donkey is essentially a desert animal, and has adaptations that suited him to this use. Donkeys have a more efficient use of both feed and water, and the "cooling system" includes fat deposits that act as to insulate, they produce less moisture in dung, can dehydrate to a level that would kill a horse, and then take back in only enough water to exactly replenish the normal hydration levels.

Rare white feral Australian Teamster Donkey shot by hunter(Photo by Pat Emmett)
Rare white feral Australian Teamster Donkey shot by hunter  (Photo by Pat Emmett)

      Sir Thomas Elder had breeding carried out on his stations, many imports were made of the Spanish Donkeys (a superior type of large donkey, up to 15 hands in height; the Spanish had a long history of using the ass and the mule, the early Spanish explorers brought asses to explore the new world). Government agencies also brought in American Jack stock descended from mainly Spanish stock – the Spanish King had lifted an embargo on the export of these fine donkeys, and made a gift of some to George Washington, who started a breeding programme to breed both Jack stock and mules for the plantations and mines, as well as for taking settlers to the west.

      From what can be gathered the majority of animals came from places such as India, Rawapindi, Chile, America, Africa etc. – England did not have the donkey until quite late, and donkeys were not a well regarded working animal there, being small – the donkeys brought to this country needed to be of a good size, and it is quite logical that they would have been sourced from countries with hot climates. Unfortunately for the donkey, in Australia it has never been given the chance to exist in an organised studbook – even though it has been recognised as having developed in its isolation into a superior standard/large standard donkey.

      It may have been only Mother Nature running the stud book, but she had the best of the world's working donkeys brought to her shores. The feral donkey has bred to such numbers that various government programmes have been aimed at eliminating them entirely. Tens of thousands are shot each year, and many areas are now declared free of donkeys. The Australian Donkey Society has never acted to recognise these animals, descended from the teamster donkeys, although many efforts were made, it just never happened, even when there was something of a donkey revival in the seventies and thousands of donkeys were shipped to eastern states, no action was taken to keep these separate to the new imports of Irish/English donkeys – a smaller, rounder cobbier donkey, and in fact while the English experts were exclaiming over the beauty of our tall bush donkeys, Australian breeders rushed to breed the small cuter, English donkey, using smaller Australian donkeys to increase numbers. Although it was recognised that the true Australian donkey was quite different, the society, to this day does not recognise it – and still simply records parents (so long as they are in Australian register) date of birth, colour – so breeders down the line have no knowledge of whether a donkey's pedigree contains stock of 8 hands Irish/Mediterranean, 14 hands mammoth, or anything in between. Because of the Society's history of never allowing type/breed/etc to be assessed, the opportunity has never been there to enable breeders to establish a verification process – but many Australian teamster descendents are still with devoted owners, some taken from feral situations – and it is not too late to find a way.

      All over the world, enthusiasts are gathering together their regional breeds of donkeys, recognising that they have been a long neglected species. Few of these breeds had ever been recognised as far as registration in a studbook, it is more that a region had a particular type, and that became the local donkey – one instance is the Egyptian or Damascus white riding ass, as revered in its time and as carefully bred as the Arab horses. Some were purported to have come to Australia, and the feral herds still often present individuals exhibiting the traits of its forefathers – see example photo. And that's the sad future – it will truly be the end of the line if we cannot allow some formal way of recognising and acknowledging the historical and heritage value of these animals – and allowing interested enthusiasts to act to validate these fine animals – still amongst the best in the world.

The Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand gratefully acknowledges the help
of Katy Brown and Pat Emmett in the compilation of this page.
   See also:
» Australian Teamster Donkey breed page
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