Jan Mitchell - Feeding the donkeys - Te Uku, New Zealand - Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Interview with Jan Mitchell, past Secretary of the New Zealand Donkey Society. How to look after donkeys and what to expect from these gentle animals.

Jan Mitchell recently lost Benjamin — a much-loved donkey and family friend of over 20 years — to leukemia. He was 30 years old.

“I could see he was on his way. We used to let him be around us in the courtyard. He’d stand around where we were close by, and occasionally wander inside and help himself out of the fruit bowl. We didn’t mind,” she said.

NZ Donkey Society Rescue Centre

Mitchell is the former secretary of the NZ Donkey Society and the property she shares with her husband, in New Zealand’s Waikato Region, is one in a network throughout New Zealand which acts as a contact for the Donkey Society Rescue Centre. Rescue Centres provide temporary homes for abused donkeys and re-home them when possible. Mitchell currently has three donkeys, one of which is a rescued animal.

Donkey Darling - Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Donkey Darling – Photo Theresa Sjoquist

“People don’t understand that thousands of years of domestication have made donkeys dependent on human interaction. They positively need it. They’re very gentle and very loving animals. People who don’t understand the nature of donkeys will leave their hooves so they eventually look like periwinkle shoes, and they don’t worm them, and leave them to breed indiscriminately,” Mitchell explained.

Donkeys Extremely Intelligent

Mitchell added, “Donkeys are very intelligent. I have horses too, but the donkeys are much brighter. They learn simply by watching. They only have to see something to learn it, unlike horses which need repetitive training. They have awesome memories. They respond to voice command. They need to see a reason for doing something. Whereas a horse might be frightened into doing something, a donkey can’t be. They’re too smart.”

Donkeys have been domesticated for millenia - Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Donkeys have been domesticated for millenia – Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Get the Best from Your Donkey

Mitchell says that ideally donkeys should be kept outside the kitchen window. “You don’t have to do anything with them – just love them. They need to be talked to every day otherwise they become lonely and very sad. Probably an ideal place for a donkey would be on a touch farm – they like you to have your hand on them. The sheep and the alpacas like you to touch them too, but after five minutes, they’re done. Donkeys could be with you all day long. They make gentle ideal children’s pets.

“They seem to understand kids, and will stand stock still for youngsters while they wander in underneath them and around their legs.

Mitchell’s smallest donkey is a rescue animal. She said, “You can tell he’s been trained. Even though it was many years ago, he hasn’t forgotten after years of neglect. He understands systems and works within them. The two larger donkeys are Australian Teamster breed and the small rescue animal is a Ponui Island donkey bred in the Hauraki Gulf islands from a UK strain.”

Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Photo Theresa Sjoquist


Although a complete devotee of donkeys, Jacks and Jennys alike, Mitchell came to them by chance. “Thirty years ago a friend asked me to look after their donkey, a jenny, for three years while they accepted an overseas post. As part of the deal, I was allowed to have a foal from her. The jenny just wouldn’t fall pregnant but in the end we finally had success with an Irish stud imported for the purpose,” she explained.

Donkeys as Beasts of Burden

According to Mitchell, “Donkeys live up to 40 years. They can be put in harness and used to cart firewood or other tasks around the farm. More recently they’ve been used as ideal rest home animals with a particular compassion for those who are dying. They seem to know death is imminent and will nuzzle the patient. You see tears coming down the cheeks of old people who experience a donkey’s compassion. We empty them out before we take them into the homes so there aren’t any messes to contend with.”

How to Keep Donkeys Safe from Vandalism

Mitchell emphasized the importance of protecting donkeys from the various dangers that are present in everyday life.

She advised, “If you keep donkeys near large public events, try to keep them away from roads. We have so many come to us with their ears damaged, chopped off, all sorts of things. Donkeys are reliant on their ears, more than any other sense, and they have big ears. If they hear something untoward they’ll just freeze into the landscape.”

Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Photo Theresa Sjoquist

Feeding Donkeys

Donkeys are naturally desert animals. Mitchell mows her lush Waikato grass because they’d explode into fat tummies otherwise.

“They like lots of roughage and hay, and we also feed them multi-minerals and oils. They can’t eat protein – it’s poisonous to them – so don’t let them get into the high grade horse tucker. They don’t need much exercise but they definitely need the human contact. The worst thing you can do to a donkey is stick it down in the bottom paddock, away from people,” Mitchell concluded.

To learn more about about donkeys, visit Donkey-Mule.org.

Source: Theresa Sjoquist interview with Jan Mitchell – April 2011.

©Theresa Sjoquist