Wild Asses

 

BY THE LATE D. W. MITCHELL.

We are so accustomed in this equestrian land to regard the ass, the ill-used, persecuted ass, with contempt and disdain, that an untraveiled Englishman can hardly bring himself to believe that such noble beasts exist as are sent from Goza at a hundred guineas a-piece to far Virginia, where mules of great stature are invaluable.

The asses of Goza are generally of a deep dark brown, varying to black. In Spain we have a race of splendid animals of every shade of grey to creamy white, which last extend along the African coast to Egypt and Syria, where they are the Mollahs’ favourite hack. In Norfolk there are a few of these white asses, as well as pied, all probably of Spanish origin, like the troop which were formerly at Stowe. Naturalists tell us that the domestic ass is descended from an animal which still roams in Abyssinia, ‘clept the Onager, of which M. Delaporte, the French Consul at Cairo some time ago sent a specimen to the Jardin des Plantes, at Paris. He looks marvellously like an ordinary ass, notwithstanding, and has none of the gallant bearing of the hemiones, not even of the hemippes, which inhabit the same stable.

The hemione, gentle reader, otherwise the dsigghetai, is the wild ass of Western India: the hemippe is the wild ass of Mesopotamia and Syria. We have both Hemione and Hemippe in the Zoological Gardens, and the Gour to boot — the wild ass of Persia. There is another wild ass in Asia, the Kiang, which inhabits the plateau of Thibet, and perhaps other parts of Central Asia. Colonel Hamilton Smith saw in London, many years ago, a wild ass from the Sikkim Frontier of China, which rejoiced in the name of “the Yo-to-tze,” and was probably a kiang. If not, the yo-to-tze comes into our catalogue as Asinus equuleus or A. Hippargus, for he gave it a couple of names.

Add to these the Quagga, the Dauw, and the Zebra, in South and West Africa, with possibly a new species in the East, on the banks of the White Nile, and you have the whole of the asinine family in review.

The qualities of speed, courage, and endurance which the wild asses posses? are astonishing. Their beauty is only second to that of the horse, and in comparative strength they excel him immeasurably.

When we look at them it is a marvel how the ass can have become a by-word and reproach. “Come along, old horse,” is by no means an offensive expression in the Kentuckian parlance, but the slightest comparison to asinus, asne, ane, A. S. S, or any other form of the despised name, is equally a casus belli in all countries.

The seven-year-old zebra bit harder and kicked harder, and was more difficult to hold, than any horse Mr. Rarey ever handled. It took three hours and a-half to reduce him to first submission. Now, this particular zebra is a small zebra, who had been in confinement all his life, and may be said to have never fairly stretched his legs until he was put through his paces in the little theatre in Kinnerton Street.

His entree was wonderful. Although he was delivered to Rarey, [Greek letters], in a box, it was considered prudent by that admirable artist to take up a leg before he came out of it. The bit of heart of oak was put in his mouth as a preliminary to the leg business, and he made a sortie from the box like a lion rushing into tho circus. He had three ropes to his head-stall, and three sturdy aides to guide him, and so accompanied, or rather with these three weights hung on to him, he was transplanted from his debarcadere to the theatre.

As soon as he was landed there, and confronted with his calm antagonist, the ropes were cast off, and he stood astonished in the midst. The struggle had perhaps taken the edge off his vivacity; it was the first time since his colthood that he had been seriously contrarie (except in getting him into the box that same morning), and so he contemplated the Tamer with a look of suspicion yet of defiance, and stood perfectly still. As soon, however, as he felt the gentle hand, which communicated the will of Rarey, communicated through one of the ropes stealthily taken up — the conflict began.

The grooms who had taken up their position in the doorway shot out in double quick time and closed it. In the first round, shrill screams and most puissant kicks, of which a deeply engraved inscription on the wooden barrier still testifies the force, bespoke the perturbation of his mind. Gradually he began to feel that resistance was useless, and in a little while the other fore-leg was taken from under him, and he was on his knees.

The gallant beast resisted even then, and it took some time to get him comfortably down on his side. Then he pretended to be done for, and lay as quiet as a lamb; after a pause, and much clever manipulation, the zebra seemed to have succumbed entirely, and a certain amount of freedom was allowed to him. He bore it very temperately, so much so that [Greek] was himself deceived, and ascended cautiously upon the ribs of his prostrate pupil. Too much, too much, — one vigorous contortion, and Rarey fell athwart his foe, who kicked as equine never kicked before; kicked without drawing up his leg, and in this writhing fight the situation of the Tamer became critical in the extreme; but with presence of mind truly astonishing, and with sang-froid beyond all praise, he grasped the dangerous leg by the pastern, when within an inch or two of his own cerebrum, and threw himself clear of its reach. A masterly escape from an error he seldom commits — over confidence in his own powers.

After this everything had to be recommenced, and at the end of three hours and a-half, and then only, it seemed suddenly to occur to zebra ferox that resistance was hopeless; he was not beaten, though sorely pressed; neither his courage nor his power were exhausted, for his last struggle was as ferocious as the first, and he still evidently had the physical means of continuing the contest if he had chosen. However, he thought it prudent to give up.

Within a quarter of an hour from that conclusion, his legs were free, and he followed his conqueror with much apparent docility round the theatre, went down again almost at the word of command, and began to eat out of the taming hand. He was left to his reflections in the middle of the theatre, and to continue his breakfast. He went out to his stable, when the Tamer returned to lead him, without a kick, bite, or cry, and took up his abode in a loose box opposite to Cruiser — who was so disgusted at having a Kaffir savage brought into his atmosphere that he refused his food for two days.

When the zebra next made his appearance in the arena he was sufficiently under control to follow his instructor wherever he chose, with splendid walking action; and when put into a trot, came out magnificently. The wonderful loins of these wild asses give them immense power, and the quality of their muscle is naturally harder than that of a thorough-bred horse in the most complete training.

M. Ramon de la Sagra has discovered a tradition of the former existence of an animal called zebro and zebre in the mountains which separate Galicia from Castille and Leon, and in the Cordilleras to the south of them. It seems that the notices which fell into his hands relate to the tenth and thirteenth centuries; they occur in some manuscript letters of the monk Fray Martin Sarmiento, who lived in the Convent of St. James of Compostello, about a hundred years ago.

Zampiro, who wrote in the tenth century, speaks of the Mons zebrarum, and the Archbishop of Rodrigo, who wrote in the thirteenth century, quoting the same passage of Zampiro, changes Mons zebrarum into Mon s onagrorum, supposing the animal called zebra to be the onager of the ancients. There are several mountains in Spain which have borne this name, so that, according to Sarmiento, the animal, whatever it was, seems to have been well-known, and widely dispersed from Galicia to Extremadura and Andalusia. This is a curious bit of lost acclimatation; but it is easily credible, as the Arabs might have brought zebras from Western Africa; and if left quiet in the hill country, they would have bred as freely as the horse has bred on the Pampas of South America.

In the last century the Queen of Portugal had a team of eight zebras, which probably came from Angola. M. Correa de Serra, the Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Lisbon, told M. Dureau de la Malle, in 1802, that he had often seen her Majesty about Lisbon with her zebra equipage; and one of the royal stables in Lisbon is still called the stable of the zebras.

The speed of the zebra, the dauw, and the quagga, is well known to every African sportsman. It is difficult to say which is the finest animal: the palm for colour goes perhaps to the zebra, for form to the dauw, and for massive strength to the quagga. The last is particularly docile. The male now in the Zoological Gardens was ridden in Africa before he came into the possession of Sir George Grey; and the female, although never trained, and much teased by the curious public, has never exhibited any vice.

The fourth African species is the Abyssinian wild ass, of which M. Delaporte’s specimen still lives in the Jardin des Plantes. A second example was brought down to Cairo in 1858, by a German collector, who had gone up to the White Nile in search of hippopotami and the balaeniceps, a gigantic tortoise-cracking stork discovered by M. Mansfield Parkyns. This animal certainly is not the onager of the ancients, and much less the onager of Pallas and the naturalists of the last century; for it has of late been believed that the wild original of the domestic ass had disappeared entirely. The Abyssinian wild ass in Paris differs principally from the domestic animal in the narrowness of the shoulder cross, and the strong development of the dark bars on the legs, of which we frequently find traces in the other. His head is coarse, his hind quarters fall off, and he is small in size, so that very little, if anything, can be gained by him as an improver.

When we leave the brilliantly-painted hippotigrine asses of Africa, and turn to the fawn-coloured asses of Asia, we approach more closely to the horse in several points.

In speed these are probably superior to the I zebras; but some years will certainly elapse before Africa and Asia can be pitted against each other in a steeple chase. Mr. Layard has recorded the difficulty of riding up to the Mesopotamian animal, which M. Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire has had the merit of discriminating as a perfectly distinct species. He calls it the Hemippe, Equus hemippus, from an approach to the horse in its shortened ears and better furnished tail. The little female in the Zoological Gardens was sent home by the late Mr. Burckhardt Barker, during his last journey to Syria, and she is probably the only hemippe which has been seen in England. The hemippe is necessarily the wild ass of Scripture.

The tribesmen of Daghestan hunt the wild ass of Persia by relays, just as Xenophon describes the chase of his day in the Anabasis. The Gour is too clever to be stalked, and far too fast to be ridden up to: and so they drive him. The hunting party sally forth to the plains when the gours are feeding, and post themselves one by one on the flank of the line which the herd are most likely to take on being disturbed, and then they are started.

The first horseman gets upon the best terms he can with them, and makes furious running: if he is fortunate enough to give them the right direction, it is taken up by the second man at the nearest point to his station, and so they go at a terrific pace until distress or accident brings the gour within reach of a gun. He is despatched like a driven deer, and they say he makes a famous roast. The Jews were forbidden ass meat, but the loose Mohammedans of Persia make no difficulty about this equine gibier. The gour differs scarcely, if at all, from the wild ass of Western India. His range extends from the western limit of the desert which bounds upon the Culch, through Daghestan to the Mazanderanee shore of the Caspian Sea, and thence he may go eastward we know not how far.

But in Ladak and Thibet we have a perfectly different species, first known probably to Pallas, but rediscovered by Mr. Hodgson, who gives us for it the vernacular name of Kiang, and the scientific Shibboleth of Equus or Asinus polyodun. This has clear demarcations of form, colour, and dentition. Its colour is a deep rusty chestnut with white underparts, which in the living animal afford a brilliant contrast, especially in its close and glossy summer coat. In winter, from the high elevation at which he lives, the kiang grows a longer covering than any of the wild races; and from his extreme hardiness as well as size (for the males stand fourteen hands), he would make a desirable addition to our acclimatable series.

Mr. Thomason, who for many years administered the government of the North-West Provinces of Bengal, once gave a kiang to the Zoological Society. If he had lived, it was his intention to have sent a subsequent supply to begin a breeding stud. The individual kiang in question came into his hands unexpectedly, having been brought down to the great fair at Almorah by a party of Bhootiahs, who promised to bring more in the following year. The kiang was accompanied by a little Bhootiah pony, for whom he had conceived the most extraordinary attachment. The pony was never out of his sight, and being particularly good-tempered, afforded great facilities for controlling him. It was only necessary to lead the pony, to be sure that the kiang would follow. They were shipped on board an unfortunately small vessel at Calcutta, en route for England, and it appears that they bore the inconveniences of life at sea with equanimity, and would in all probability have performed the voyage in perfectly good health had they not encountered so stiff a gale off the Cape of Good Hope that the captain had to lighten his vessel. Finding the kiang and his Fidus Achates rather more inconvenient than his dead cargo, he began by throwing them overboard.

The death of Mr. Thomason put an end to the hope of effecting the more extended importation which he had promised. Major Huy, who contributed largely toward the collection of Indian pheasants in 1857, has now brought with him on his return from India a fine female kiang, which actually figures for the first time in the catalogue of the Zoological Society, and completes their series. This animal was obtained by Major Huy from the Chinese Governor of Rudogh, in Little Thibet.

The herd of Indian wild asses in the Jardin des Plantes is immensely valued there, and not without reason. The paterfamilias is a magnificent beast, perfectly docile, clean-limbed, and of the purest colour. If he had been broken to harness, he would have done good work. He is growing old now. His stock are not quite equal to himself, but under more favourable treatment would probably have attained greater size at their age. The mules between the hemione and the common ass are extremely good animals, taking most after the hemione, and may be very usefully employed, if properly handled, in their second and third year.

A pair of these mules used to work at the roller in the Zoological Gardens six or seven years ago — rather hard in the mouth, but not intractable, although they were seven years old when first put into shafts. There was a mule between the Indian wild ass and Burchell’s zebra at Knowsley, but that presented no improvement on either species, and nothing therefore was gained by the cross. The mules between Burchell’s zebra and the common ass are particularly hardy animals, stout, and as fast as ponies of the first class. The Zoological Society’s cart was drawn about town, some twenty years ago, by a pair of them, driven tandem fashion — a very good advertisement — and it is only surprising that their perfect conduct did not induce a continued production of this useful cross, which is as desirable as any hybrid can be.

When we consider the small amount and rough quality of keep bestowed on the common ass in proportion to the work he does, the patient endurance of bad treatment which he has undergone from generation to generation, we cannot but wonder that he makes so bad a figure by the side of his petted and cherished rival.

The wild horse is unknown to us: he exists nowhere now at all events, any more than the wild camel; so that we do not know what has been done for him in the way of improvement on the original stock, but we are certain that every aid which skill and money can produce has been given to horse-breeding, and that even now new efforts are being made to add to his qualities. Had a fractional part of these labours been bestowed on the oppressed and neglected ass, he would not be the miserable dwarf that we too often see.

And when we have such elements to deal with as the hemippe, the gour, the kiang, the hemione, and the three zebras, each more brilliantly coloured than the other, why should we not, like the Queen of Portugal, have our zebra teams, or, like the Zoological Society, our zebra tandems? Why should we not have our phaetons a quatre hemiones, and scour the Bois de Boulogne with our hemippes au grand galop as the Chaldeans drove them over the Mesopotamian Plain?

Their mouths are a little hard, perhaps, but hand and patience would overcome that difficulty, and after two or three generations of careful breeding they would gradually acquire as an hereditary quality that aptitude for direction so astonishingly developed in the horse — a quality which, though multitudes use him, but few indeed fully understand.

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