The donkey of the Pyrénées
by Michael Brady
It is difficult not to notice the donkey ranking high among the animals of the Pyrénées-Orientales.
Racks of post cards show donkeys against scenic backdrops, or the Catalan flag. Donkeys in silhouette feature on the backs of cars, often against the red and yellow Catalan stripes, in an oval like a national identity emblem. T shirts, towels, sweat shirts, plates and mugs, sliding glass doors to prevent you bumping into the glass….. The donkey emblem is everywhere.
What lies behind this display of affection? Isn’t the donkey the most stubborn animal ever domesticated? Well, no. The donkey isn’t stubborn; it just acts in its own self-interest. Among those who understood that well were the Romans, who introduced donkeys into France.
Special breeds were developed, including the shaggy Pitou Donkey, the oldest approved breed in France, and the Gascon and Catalan breeds of the Pyrenees. By 1913, there were more than half a million donkeys in the country, one for every 76 people.
Distinguishable by their height of 1,45m – 1,60m, a dirty black or brown colour, with a white circle around the eyes, white nose and belly, they are known to be stubborn, solid and agile, therefore perfect for the mountains.
With the increasing mechanisation of transport, their numbers dwindled, to less than 20,000 at the end of the 20th century. Yet, donkeys are well suited to the hot, dry summers of the Mediterranean climate, which is why they persist in rural areas of Spain and Mediterranean France, including the Pyrénées-Orientales.
There are no donkey counts, but according to the stud book kept by the Association Nationale des éleveurs d’Anes et de Mules des Pyrénées, there are 50 to 100 sires in the Pyrénées-Orientales. That’s enough to maintain the population now used as pack animals, to pull carts in terrain unsuitable for vehicles and for giving rides to children in holiday centres.
Utility aside, the symbolic significance of the donkey is simply that it is not a bull, a symbol of Spanish pride. Affection for the donkey springs from both what it is and what it is not.