The History of Donkeys in Australia

Although generally unrecognized and forgotten in the Eastern States, donkeys had long been a feature of life in South and Western Australia. They were widely used in Colonial days, and in some areas, right up until the widespread introduction of the motor vehicle in the 1920’s and 30’s. They were primarily used for the haulage of freight wagons in the more inhospitable areas of the country where a horse or bullock team would perish for lack of forage and water. Although an individual donkey could pull much less than a single horse or bullock, they could be hitched up into large teams to make up for the deficiencies. Teams of 10 to 12 animals were commonplace, for heavier loads or rougher conditions up to 30 animals or more could be used in a single team.

With the advent of motor transport, these large, slow teams could no longer compete. Many teamsters, unwilling to shoot their faithful animals, turned them loose to fend for themselves. The animals soon went feral and bred up in large numbers. By the 1960’s and early 70’s they were becoming a serious problem for Graziers, competing for scarce food and water with domestic sheep and cattle. Many were shot or poisoned and left to rot, until the pet food market discovered this large, cheap supply of meat. Large numbers of donkeys were rounded up, loaded onto road trains and transported to abattoirs in the major cities. Poor conditions and a high mortality rate during transport lead to public outrage and the industry was regulated. The plight of the donkeys and the public exposure generated lead to many people in the early 1970’s becoming aware of the donkey’s potential as pets and light working animals. Many were rescued from the abattoirs and started a new life as pets, etc. It is from these ex-feral donkeys of the 1970’s that much of our current breeding stock is descended. Harsh working conditions on the wagon teams necessitated a good quality working animal, when they were released and they started breeding in the wild, this further strengthened the breed – the weak and unfit simply did not survive. Hence today’s descendants of yesterday’s freight teams are generally good specimens of what a donkey should be.

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