Even in rural Devon there is no escape from taxonomy.

The donkeys of Sidmouth’s Sanctuary are gathered together in fields and barns according to their prior histories, vision (or lack thereof), podiatric or respiratory problems and, in the case of Poitou donkeys, breed.  They are described by their place of origin, sex, age, and temperament. They all have names. And they are classified, like stars and George Perec’s books, by colour. Each animal has one or more large plastic collars about its neck. The bands come in different shades, offering a quick signpost for the sanctuary’s workers (many of them volunteers) to individual dietary and medical requirements. It’s a quick and clever way to make sure that each donkey gets the right meal and medicine.

Throughout history donkeys have been symbols of determination, intelligence (and stupidity), strength, peace, humility and versatility. The pregnant Mary was carried upon one. Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey’s back. Midas, and the Irish king Breas, had donkey’s ears in their respective legends (Sarah Morris, a classicist at UCLA, has argued that donkey’s ears were a royal attribute in Bronze Age Anatolia). But donkeys also provide metaphors for questions in classification, such as those related to:

Definition: Donkeys provided a test case in a recent zoological controversy over whether domesticated and wild animals ought to be given different formal taxonomic descriptions.

Etymology: ‘Donkey’ is one of the relatively small number of English words (in excellent company alongside curmudgeon, transmogrify, pixie, strawberry and skedaddle) whose etymological origins are unknown or unclear.

Substitution: Until the eighteenth century, donkeys were referred to as asses. Modern usage has replaced a previously popular synonym homophonic with an anatomical term used as a term of abuse, just as roosters were once cocks, and rabbits coneys.



In the mid-17th century Athanasius Kircher recorded a description given by a Swiss government official of a dragon he had sighted in the Alps: ‘Its wings were agitated with much celerity; its body was long as well as its tail and neck. Its head was that of a serpent with teeth, and when it was flying, sparks were coming out of it like the embers thrown by an incandescent iron when struck by smiths on an anvil.’ The cracking of glaciers may have provoked beliefs in winged monsters among uneducated villagers. The sober prefect’s account defied Kircher’s attempts at explanation.

Kircher, a German Jesuit, was known as ‘The Master of 100 Arts’. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, a near-contemporary Swiss scholar, had more focused interests. A Fellow of the Royal Society, compiler of the 18th century’s definitive maps of the Alps, and one of the fathers of paleobiology, he was no more inclined to believe in tall tales, His Itinera Alpina Tria, an account of the journeys he made between 1702 and 1704, was sponsored by Isaac Newton and Hans Sloane.

Yet no early-modern naturalist was able to take Scheuchzer seriously; the book contained a chapter cataloguing Alpine dragons. Alongside eye-witness reports, he provided a complex taxonomy of dragon subspecies, among them ‘winged, wingless, without feet and many footed’, similar to the categories used in Chinese mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien probably drew upon Scheuchzer’s accounts when designing his own taxonomic system for dragons. Tolkien classified according to locomotion and fire-breathing. His dragons, unlike Tolkien’s cosy feudalism, also evolve – winged dragons appear in later eras than wingless ones. What unifies all of Tolkien’s dragons is a love of gold.