The New International Encyclopædia/Ass

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ASS (A. S. assa, Goth. asilus, Rus. oselŭ, Lat. asinus, probably of Eastern origin; cf. Heb. āthōn, she-ass) or Donkey, when domesticated. A member of the family Equidæ, and genus Equus, of horses, zebras, etc. Two species are recognized by Blanford and other specialists — one Asiatic and the other African. Asses resemble zebras rather than horses, in their less size, the presence of callosities on the forelegs alone, and the shortness of the hairs of the mane and tail, the latter (rather long) bearing mainly a terminal tuft. They differ from the zebras in color, in not having stripes (except as hereafter mentioned) and in having somewhat longer ears — but never so long as in the donkey. Both species roam desert regions in small bands, and are extremely hardy, agile, and swift. Their colors are pale, harmonizing with their surroundings, and their voices are between the neighing of the horse and the braying of a donkey. Both are killed for food, and occasionally captured, but are intractable.

Asiatic Ass. The Asiatic ass (Equus hemionus) is distributed over all the arid interior of Asia, from Syria to eastern Mongolia and northern India, although more restricted now than formerly by the encroachments of civilization. It was well known to the ancients, who called it onager, hemionis, etc., to which more recent writers have added confusing native names. There appear to be three local varieties of this wild ass. One is the kiang, koulan, or dziggettai, of Tibet and Mongolia, which is the largest, reaching 4 feet in height at the shoulders. It is dark-reddish in color, and has a narrow black stripe from (and including) the mane along the spine to the top of the tail; it inhabits mountains up to the snow-line. The second is the ghorkhar, or onager, frequenting the plains of northwestern India, Afghanistan, and Beluchistan, which is smaller and paler, sometimes silvery white, and has a comparatively broad dorsal stripe. The third variety, less well marked, is that of Persia and Syria. All are white underneath, and are likely to show obscure bars on the lower legs. This last-named variety, no doubt, is that known to the writers of the Old Testament, who use it as a type of wildness and freedom — “Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. . . . The range of the mountains is his pasture” (Job xxxix. 6, 7, 8). It is, indeed, one of the freest, most agile, and perhaps the swiftest of wild quadrupeds. The kiang will rush over broken, rocky ground in an astonishing manner, and those of the plains are beyond the power of a single horseman to overtake. “In the Bakanir Desert the foals are captured during the summer by parties of mounted Baluchis, who, by relieving one another, hunt them till they fall from sheer exhaustion, when they are taken and bound.” These foals bring high prices in India, but are kept more as curiosities than for service. Another plan is to lie in wait at night by a drinking-place, and then run the animals down when heavy with water; but their keen scent and wariness make this difficult. Among the Persians, the pursuit of asses with greyhounds is a favorite sport, and their flesh is esteemed by many and said to resemble venison. The kiangs of the mountainous wilderness of Tibet are less shy, and will often approach one closely, with manifest curiosity, and even mingle with the horses of a train, or enter the camp. “The food of these wild asses,” says Lydekker. “consists in the lowlands of different kinds of grasses, which are frequently dry; but in Tibet it is chiefly composed of various woody plants, which form the main vegetation of these arid regions. In the hills to the west of the Indus these animals are to be found wandering pretty well throughout the year; but in the early summer, when the grass and the water in the pools have dried up from the hot winds, the greater number, if not all, of the ghorkars migrate to the hills for grass and water.”

African Ass. The African wild ass (Equus asinus) is very distinct. It is larger than the Asiatic species, reaching 4 feet 8 inches, or 14 hands, in height, and in color is always bluish or else creamy, with no tinge of red; the muzzle, throat, and belly are white; and a dark stripe extends from the shoulders along the spine to the tail, and also down the withers, while the legs are barred; but the last two markings vary greatly. The ears are very long, and the mane and tail-hairs are comparatively short and indistinct in color. This species ranges throughout the open regions of northeastern Africa, from Somaliland to the Ked Sea, and westward throughout the Desert, where its food and habits are much like those of the ghorkhar, except that its small troops do not congregate into herds. Sir Samuel Baker describes them in western Abyssinia as follows:

“Those who have seen donkeys in their civilized state have no conception of the wild and original animal. Far from the passive and subdued appearance of the English ass, the animal in its native desert is the perfection of activity and courage; there is a high-bred tone in the deportment, a high-actioned step when it trots freely over the rocks and sand with the speed of a horse. When it gallops freely over the boundless desert, no animal is more difficult to approach; and although they are frequently captured by the Arabs, those taken are invariably the foals, which are run down by fast dromedaries, while the mothers escape.”

The Donkey. The domestic ass is undoubtedly, in its origin, the tamed African species. Its prevailing color is gray, varying to pure white or full black, and with the shoulder stripes and leg-bars more or less preserved. It was known in Egypt long before the horse, and probably was first domesticated in that region, where it is still a favorite animal, not only for riding, but for its milk; nevertheless, it is said to have been hated and abused by the ancient Egyptians in their flourishing period, and the prejudice against it was carried among the Romans. From Judges iv. 10 we learn that at a very early period the great were accustomed to ride upon white asses, and a preference is given to white asses in the East to this day. Fine large breeds exist in Syria and Turkey now. In Europe, choice breeds are to be found in Italy, Malta, and especially in Spain. The animal seems not to have come into general use in Great Britain until after the time of Elizabeth, and now is chiefly employed there by pedlars and the poor, or for children's carriages. Its price is scarcely one-twentieth that of a good horse, and it call be kept at one-fourth of the expense, delighting in the coarse herbage which other animals reject, and satisfied with comparatively scanty fare. The obstinacy ascribed to the ass seems to be very generally the result of ill treatment; and proverbial as it has become for stupidity, it is probably quite equal in intelligence to the horse. It was early brought to America, and the finest donkeys in the world are now said to be those in the United States, where some 60,000 are owned upon farms, chiefly in the Southern Central States, and used for the propagation of mules and hinnies (see Mule), the useful hybrids between the ass and the horse. Consult: V. Hehn, Wanderings of Plants and Animals. English translation by Stallybrass (London, 1891).

The milk of the ass contains more sugar of milk and less caseine than that of the cow, and is therefore recommended as a nutritious diet in cases of weak digestion. Its usefulness in cases of consumption has long been known, and it was often prescribed as a kind of specific when that disease was treated on principles very different from those which regulate its treatment now. In some parts of the Sudan, large herds of she-asses are kept for milking alone.

The leather called shagreen (q.v.) is made by a peculiar process from the skin of the ass, which also affords excellent leather for shoes and the best material for drums. The bones of the ass, which are very solid, were used by the ancients for making flutes. See colored plate of Horses, and Plate of Equidæ.