Mini Donkey History: Where Do Mini Donkeys Come From?

Mini Donkey History. When you look at your miniature donkey, you may not be aware that this is an animal with quite a lengthy history.  Where does your mini donkey come from? What kind of life did its ancestors lead? What is the history of mini donkeys?  This article will help clear a lot of those questions up!

Miniature donkeys hail from Italy. They came to the United States in the late 1920s, when they began to reproduce. There may be as many as 10,000 to 20,000 mini donkeys alive in the US today.

Populations in Italy continue to decrease. 

Want to learn even more fun, fascinating facts about the history of mini donkeys? Then this is the article for you. In it, we’ll cover the history of miniature donkeys, where they come from, how they’ve been domesticated, and what they’re used for. Keep reading! 

What Is the Mini Donkeys History?

Evolutionary Basis 

Miniature donkeys, like full-sized donkeys, belong to the Equus genus in the Equidae family. This family is part of the Perissodactyla order, the Mammalia class, the Chordata phylum, and the Animalia kingdom. Other animals in the Equus genus include zebras and horses.

This genus may have come from the Dinohippus, a Greek word that means “terrible horse.” The Dinohippus is long since extinct and may have become that way some 6.7 million years ago. It’s also thought that donkeys may have adapted from another species of extinct horse, the Plesippus

The first donkeys were the Equus simplicidens or the Hagerman horse. This was like a mix between a donkey and a zebra, in that the head resembled that of a donkey, but the body was closer to a zebra’s. The fossils on record from the Equus simplicidens may be about 3.5 million years old.

Some ancestors of the donkey that followed the Equus simplicidens include African zebras like the E. Hippotigris and the E. Dolichohippus, with the former referred to as Grevy’s zebra or the imperial zebra. It’s a modern zebra species along with the mountain and plains zebras. Of the three, Grevy’s zebra is at the most risk of becoming extinct.

Other ancestors of the Equus simplicidens are the kiang, onager, and kulan, three E. Asinus or Asian hemiones. A kiang is a species of wild ass that’s much closer to today’s donkeys and miniature donkeys than the E. Hippotigris and the E. Dolichohippus.

The kiang or Equus kiang comes from the Tibetan Plateau and lives on the Tibetan border, northern Nepal, Kashmir, and Jammu. It tends to stand upwards of 55 inches tall if measured at its withers. 

The onager or Equus hemionus is also called the Asiatic wild ass or hemione. It outsizes the African wild ass by about 650 pounds. It’s also about seven feet taller. The main differentiating factor between the onager and other similar species is its coloration.

You can spot an onager by its dorsal stripe, which is typically quite large, and its yellowish or reddish fur. Also, onagers are always wild.

Then there’s the kulan, which is short for the Turkmenian kulan. The Equus hemionus kulan also goes by names like the Turkmenistani onager and the Transcaspian wild ass. The animal only lives in Central Asia and is unfortunately on the endangered list as of 2016. 

The African wild ass’ Somalian and Nubian subspecies are the closest ancestors to the donkey. 

As you can see, Mini Donkey History is more in-depth than you might have originally thought!

Early Days: Early Mini Donkey History

Donkeys that look closer to what we know them as today may have existed sometime in the fourth millennium BC. That knowledge is due to some remains of early donkeys that were found in parts of Lower Egypt.

The donkeys were said to have been domesticated, which occurred so some cultures could travel off own their lands to others. Goats, sheep, and cattle were supposedly domesticated long before donkeys, with the domestication of the former having happened in the seventh or eighth millennium BC.

As for those responsible for domesticating the first donkeys, it’s believed to be Nubian pastoral peoples. The animals were soon traded and the popularity of the donkey grew. In Egypt’s Dynasty IV era, the richest people owned not hundreds of donkeys, but thousands of them.

A tomb belonging to either King Hor-Aha or King Narmer, major pharaohs in Egypt, was unearthed in the early 2000s. The tomb was found to have 10 donkeys buried in it! 

Egypt wouldn’t be the only part of the world to enjoy the humble donkey. Southwest Asia had its share of donkeys late into the fourth millennium BC. Then, in 1800 BC, Mesopotamians had adopted the animal. Also, in Syria, its capital Damascus became known for white donkeys that were ridden in the streets. 

Syria played an integral role in mini donkey history and the general history of the donkey as we know it. Breeders there created several donkey breeds, about three, maybe more. Arabians bred the Yemen ass, which is also known as the Muscat ass. 

The donkey continued its world tour, arriving in Europe during the second millennium BC. They spread through Greece, Spain, France, and Italy. 

Arriving in the Americas

Christopher Columbus brought full-sized donkeys to the Americas. This was back in 1495 when the donkeys arrived by ship to Hispaniola, a Caribbean island. Juan de Zumarraga, a Mexican bishop, introduced donkeys to North America by 1528. Then, in 1598, Juan de Onate traveled across the Rio Grande with donkeys. 

As the 19th century got underway, donkeys and burros found a natural home being used in mines, especially during the Gold Rush. Unfortunately, once that rush ended, most of these donkeys ended up with no owners. They rebounded, making their population of wild donkeys. 

A Mini Adventure in Mini Donkey History

That brings us to the more modern days in the miniature donkey’s history. Robert Green came with these animals to the US back in 1929. Seven mini donkeys arrived in all, one male or jack and six females or jennets. Three of the jennets died soon thereafter. Since the jack was still alive though, reproduction could occur, and it did.

There are many more full-sized donkeys than miniature ones. As of 2006, there are roughly 41 million full-sized donkeys across the world, but that’s likely dropped since. That’s because China was reported to have 11 million donkeys in 2006, but in 2017, it was only three million.

Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan are other parts of the world with large populations of full-sized donkeys. However, Africa may have lower populations than the 2006 data originally suggested as well, mostly because of trading pressure with China. 

There are well over 100 donkey species scattered across the planet. Africa has 26 breeds of donkey, Asia and Pacific countries 32 breeds, Europe 51 breeds, the Caribbean and Latin America 24 breeds, the Middle and Near East 47 breeds, and Canada and the US five breeds. 

What about the population of miniature donkeys? It’s more like 10,000 to 20,000, but that’s only in the US. There could be more in other parts of the world, but it’s unknown how many. What further complicates things is that you can’t import mini donkeys anymore. That’s due to the dwindling levels in their home country. 

Where Do Mini Donkeys Come From?

Where exactly is the home country of the miniature donkey? Mini Donkey History is quite extensive – They’re not from the US, but rather, Italy. As you recall from the last section, donkeys spread across Europe sometime during the second millennium BC.

In Sardinia, Italy, what are believed to be the first miniature donkeys appeared. Historians don’t quite seem to be sure how or why the donkeys were the size they were, but they have theories.

One theory is that the Somali and Nubian wild asses migrated to Sardinia sometime around 2000 BC or 1500 BC. With no other donkeys around, there was no need for the resulting mini donkeys to grow any bigger. Again, this is just a theory and not a fact.

Donkeys were very big in Sardinia, assisting with product transport, small-scale farming, and agriculture. Now, when we say the donkeys were very big, we don’t mean it literally. These Sardinian donkeys may have been 31.5 inches to 39 inches tall at the withers. 

When the Punic War occurred in 238 BC, Sardinia was absorbed into Rome, as the Romans won. This went on for nearly 700 years. The Sardinian or mini donkeys were still favored by the Romans, as the donkeys would carry supplies like grains, coal, and wood. They also assisted in agriculture, moving waterwheels and grinding down some supplies. 

While donkeys still do live in Sardinia and other parts of Italy today, as we said before, there are not nearly as many as there once were. Data from a 1965 report states at least 27,000 Sardinian mini donkeys were registered in Italy through the Italian Association of Breeders. By 2002, that number dropped drastically to 430 mini donkeys.

It’s only gotten worse, as the Sardinian donkey is considered critically endangered today. While a few advocates have struggled to save this Italian animal from complete extinction, only time will tell if their efforts are successful. 

What Were Mini Donkeys Used For? 

The many unique uses of donkeys across history have come up a few times in this article. Let’s dig a little deeper into the purposes both full-sized and miniature donkeys have served.

Healing and Transport in War

The involvement of donkeys in war dates back to at least World War I. It was during this conflict that a stretcher-bearer named John Simpson Kirkpatrick said that donkeys would aide him in helping injured soldiers get medical attention.

He’s not the only one who reports this, as Richard Alexander Henderson, who worked with the New Zealand Medical Corps (as did Kirkpatrick), said he used donkeys for the same purpose. 

Much more currently, when the Afghanistan war happened, donkeys could transport explosives. This wasn’t the first time donkeys would travel with war gear. Matthew Dort, a UK writer, says the Italian Army’s Mountain Fusiliers favored donkeys for gear transport. They also sometimes ate the donkeys if food rations ran out. 

As Food Sources, Including Meat, Dairy, and Gelatin

Over time in mini donkey history, sadly, the above history is not the only time donkeys have been used for food. China regularly consumes donkey meat, which they view as a delicacy.

Many restaurants across that country will serve parts of the donkey in meals, including their genitals. China also makes gelatin using the skin of donkeys (called Ejiao) or their hides. Ejiao especially is very expensive. For each kilo, you may pay up to $388USD.

China isn’t the only country doing this. Italy, even as a beloved home for miniature donkeys, does eat the animal. In 2010, they killed about 1,000 donkeys for this purpose. Around the world, about 3.5 million will die for food, including some mules.

Besides their meat, donkeys are also used for milk. Their byproducts may also appear in cosmetics and soaps, especially in China. 

Mini Donkey History: Agricultural and Manual Labor 

Above all, donkeys have always been workhorses. Well, work-donkeys in this case. Since they’re the most inexpensive labor option after humans, their role in agriculture is major. Donkeys can mill, raise water, thresh, or transport items. They can be a pack animal or transport people. 

Sicily, which had its mini donkeys at one point, used to tie up their donkeys to gorgeous carts called carretto Siciliano. These decorative vehicles were wooden with only two wheels. While the carretto Siciliano started as a means of keeping the wood from warping by painting it, they later became their Sicilian trademark.

As ornate as these carts were, they didn’t serve any grander purpose than any other animal cart. Sometimes they appeared in festivals, which they were perfect for, given their bright, vivid colors. The carretto Siciliano was also passed down among generations.

As for the Sicilian donkeys? They weren’t all that different from the Sardinian donkeys. For that reason, when they came over to the US, any distinctions between the two were lost. 


Miniature donkey history is extremely long and interesting. Over a variety of countries, cultures, and centuries, donkeys have existed as companions and working animals. Sometimes they were regarded very highly, like in early Egypt, and other times they weren’t cared for at all, such as after the Gold Rush.

The home of the mini donkey is Italy, where these small animals roamed Sicily and Sardinia. Today’s modern mini donkeys are descendants of these Italian donkeys, which were directly imported over to the US in the early 1920s.

It’s a good thing, too, as Italy has fewer mini donkeys than ever. That said, here in the US, we maintain a pretty good population of these sweet, lovable donkeys.

The next time you go out and see your mini donkey, keep all this cool mini donkey history in mind! It’s certainly great to know.

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