Okay, so they're not the prettiest of animals. Nor do they perform tricks at the circus or impress onlookers with their size. But one thing that a donkey has over an elephant is an amazing work ethic.
Since 4,000 B.C., donkeys have been hefting and hauling without complaint. And though they might be smaller than the behemoth elephants, those little suckers can carry up to 30 percent of their body weight. The Greeks associated the donkey (okay, so they called them asses back then, but still) with Dionysus, the Syrian god of wine, and valued them so much they, um, sacrificed them. An odd way to show your love, methinks, but the Greeks had their own way of doing things. The very pregnant Virgin Mary rode a donkey into Bethlehem, and later, her offspring's favorite mode of transport was the same. Like mother, like son. In the Old Testament, ownership of a donkey was considered a sign of God's blessing.
I can't recall Mary or Jesus or any of the Greek gods ever getting hauled around on an elephant, can you? And where would we be had Juan Valdez chosen an elephant rather than a donkey to get those coffee beans to us? We'd probably be asleep, not out doing important work like arguing the merits of donkeys versus elephants. And what a shame that would be.
But donkeys proved to be worth their weight in gold here in the States when they were employed by miners and gold-prospectors. They carried munitions and supplies in times of war, and when they became outdated by technology, they found a new gig — making kids everywhere happy at petting zoos.
Okay, so donkeys are known for being stubborn. And they kick. But at the end of the day, they're hard workers and kind of cute when they're little. Kind of. But here's the kicker, if you will. Donkeys produce less manure than elephants. I'll take a stubborn hard-worker over a poop-filled performer any day.
— Mary Helen Randall
When your college mascot is Jumbo (yes, the Jumbo, of P.T. Barnum fame), you'd better develop some affection for elephants. And I have. I love pachyderms, as any visitor to my house will quickly recognize by the miniature trunks — wooden, plastic, even jade – pointing at them from one room after another. I love elephants because they're more than five tons of irony roaming (hopefully gently) your way.
Any creature as large as an elephant — and with the most singular feature in the animal kingdom save for the human hand — could bring a ferocity to the savanna that would have lions and cheetahs cowering up the nearest tree. But these giants are herbivores, more of a threat to leaves and roots than they are to zebras or antelopes. Rare indeed is the elephant that attacks unprovoked, that strays beyond its position of power. It's as though an elephant realizes how little can be gained by establishing dominance over smaller creatures. A noble instinct.
And elephants are smart. (A YouTube classic shows an elephant painting — on canvas, with a brush — the silhouette of, yes, an elephant.) Pachyderms can recognize themselves individually in a mirror. Elephant brains — weighing more than 10 pounds — are so advanced that zoologists have measured behavior that reflects compassion, sympathy, and grief. Females will remain with their family for life, teaching their calves, protecting the weak. The instinct, clearly, is to nurture. Elephants recognize that more can be gained by working together than ever could through division or rogue excursions.
Perhaps the most ironic of an elephant's qualities is how quiet they tend to be. Communicating through deep rumbles, elephants "hear" as much with their feet and trunks as they do with their considerable ears. While it may not see into another's soul, an elephant can, indeed, feel its way to safety. Trunks are great for moving fallen trees, grabbing a lunch of tall grass, even bathing. But when it comes to volume — like so much in this brilliant species — less is dramatically more.
— Frank Murtaugh