The Wild Ass
Wood's Bible Animals, 1875
There are several passages of Scripture in which the Wild Ass is distinguished from the domesticated animal, and in all of them there is some reference made to its swiftness, its intractable nature, and love of freedom.
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are two words which are given in the Authorized Translation as Wild Ass, namely, Arod and Pere, and it is rather remarkable that both words occur in the same passage. If the reader will refer to Job xxxix. 5, he will see the following passage: "Who hath sent out the wild ass (Pere) free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass (Arod)?" Now there are only two places in the whole Hebrew Scriptures in which the word Arod occurs, and there are many doubts whether the word Arod is rightly translated. The first is that which has just been quoted, and the second occurs in Dan. v. 21: "And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses."
The Jewish Bible translates the word differently in the two passages. That in Job it renders as follows: "Who hath sent forth the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the untamed?" In the other passage, however, it follows the rendering of the Authorized Version, and gives the word as wild asses." It is thought by several scholars that the two words refer to two different species of Wild Ass. It may be so, but as the ancient writers had the loosest possible ideas regarding distinction of species, and as, moreover, it is very doubtful whether there be any real distinction of species at all, we may allow the subject to rest, merely remembering that the rendering of the Jewish Bible, "the untamed," is a correct translation of the word Arod, though the particular animal to which it is applied may be doubtful.
We will now pass to the word about which there is no doubt whatever, namely, the Pere. This animal is clearly the species which is scientifically known as Asinus hemippus. During the summer time it has a distinct reddish tinge on the grey coat, which disappears in the winter, and the cross streak is black. There are several kinds of Wild Ass known to science, all of which have different names. Some of our best zoologists, however, have come to the conclusion that they all really belong to the same species, differing only in slight points of structure which are insufficient to constitute separate species.
The habits of the Wild Ass are the same, whether it be the Asiatic or the African animal, and a description of one will answer equally well for the other. It is an astonishingly swift animal, so that on the level ground even the best horse has scarcely a chance of overtaking it. It is exceedingly wary, its sight, hearing, and sense of scent being equally keen, so that to approach it by craft is a most difficult task.
Like many other wild animals, it has a custom of ascending hills, or rising grounds, and thence surveying the country, and even in the plains it will generally contrive to discover some earth-mound or heap of sand from which it may act as sentinel and give the alarm in case of danger. It is a gregarious animal, always assembling in herds, varying from two or three to several hundred in number, and has a habit of partial migration in search of green food, traversing large tracts of country in its passage.
It has a curiously intractable disposition, and, even when captured very young, can scarcely ever be brought to bear a burden or draw a vehicle. Attempts have been often made to domesticate the young that have been born in captivity, but with very slight success, the wild nature of the animal constantly breaking out, even when it appears to have become moderately tractable.
Although the Wild Ass does not seem to have lived within the limits of the Holy Land, it was common enough in the surrounding country, and, from the frequent references made to it in Scriptures, was well known to the ancient Jews. We will now look at the various passages in which the Wild Ass is mentioned, and begin with the splendid description in Job xxxix. 5-8:
"Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass?
"Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren lands (or salt places) his dwellings.
"He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the driver.
"The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing."
Here we have the animal described with the minuteness and truth of detail that can only be found in personal knowledge; its love of freedom, its avoidance of mankind, and its migration in search of pasture. Another allusion to the pasture-seeking habits of the animal is to be found in chapter vi. of the same book, verse 5: "Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass?" or, according to the version of the Jewish Bible, "over tender grass?"
The same author has several other allusions to the Wild Ass. See, for example, chap. xi. 12: "For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass's colt." And in chap. xxiv. 5, in speaking of the wicked and their doings, he uses the following metaphor: "Behold, as wild asses in the desert, go they forth to their work; rising betimes for a prey: the wilderness yieldeth food for them and their children," or for the young, as the passage may be more literally rendered. The same migratory habit is also mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah (chap. xiv. 6): "And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail: because there was no grass." There is another allusion to it in Hosea viii. 9: "For they are gone up to Assyria, a wild ass alone by himself."
Even in the earliest times of Jewish history we find a reference to the peculiar nature of this animal. In Gen. xvi. 12 it is prophesied of Ishmael, that "he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren." Now the real force of this passage is quite missed in the Authorized Version, the correct rendering being given in the Jewish Bible: "And he will be a wild ass (Pere) among men; his hand will be against all, and the hand of all against him, and in the face of all his brethren he shall dwell."
Allusion is made to the speed of the animal in Jer. ii. 24: "A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure; in her occasion who can turn her away? all they that seek her will not weary themselves; in her month they shall find her." The fondness of the Wild Ass for the desert is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. Foretelling the desolation that was to come upon the land, he uses these words: "Because the palaces shall be forsaken, the multitude of the city shall be left; the forts and towers shall be for dens (or caves) for ever, and a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks."
These various qualities of speed, wariness, and dread of man cause the animal to be exceedingly prized by hunters, who find their utmost skill taxed in approaching it. Men of the highest rank give whole days to the hunt of the Wild Ass, and vie with each other for the honour of inflicting the first wound on so fleet an animal. With the exception of the Jews, the inhabitants of the countries where the Wild Ass lives eat its flesh, and consider it as the greatest dainty which can be found.
A very vivid account of the appearance of the animal in its wild state is given by Sir R. Kerr Porter, who was allowed by a Wild Ass to approach within a moderate distance, the animal evidently seeing that he was not one of the people to whom it was accustomed, and being curious enough to allow the stranger to approach him.
"The sun was just rising over the summit of the eastern mountains, when my greyhound started off in pursuit of an animal which, my Persians said, from the glimpse they had of it, was an antelope. I instantly put spurs to my horse, and with my attendants gave chase. After an unrelaxed gallop of three miles, we came up with the dog, who was then within a short stretch of the creature he pursued; and to my surprise, and at first vexation, I saw it to be an ass.
"Upon reflection, however, judging from its fleetness that it must be a wild one, a creature little known in Europe, but which the Persians prize above all other animals as an object of chase, I determined to approach as near to it as the very swift Arab I was on could carry me. But the single instant of checking my horse to consider had given our game such a head of us that, notwithstanding our speed, we could not recover our ground on him.
"I, however, happened to be considerably before my companions, when, at a certain distance, the animal in its turn made a pause, and allowed me to approach within pistol-shot of him. He then darted off again with the quickness of thought, capering, kicking, and sporting in his flight, as if he were not blown in the least, and the chase was his pastime. When my followers of the country came up, they regretted that I had not shot the creature when he was within my aim, telling me that his flesh is one of the greatest delicacies in Persia.
"The prodigious swiftness and the peculiar manner in which he fled across the plain coincided exactly with the description that Xenophon gives of the same animal in Arabia. But above all, it reminded me of the striking portrait drawn by the author of the Book of Job. I was informed by the Mehnander, who had been in the desert when making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Ali, that the wild ass of Irak Arabi differs in nothing from the one I had just seen. He had observed them often for a short time in the possession of the Arabs, who told him the creature was perfectly untameable.
"A few days after this discussion, we saw another of these animals, and, pursuing it determinately, had the good fortune to kill it."
It has been suggested by many zoologists that the Wild Ass is the progenitor of the domesticated species. The origin of the domesticated animal, however, is so very ancient, that we have no data whereon even a theory can be built. It is true that the Wild and the Domesticated Ass are exactly similar in appearance, and that an Asinus hemippus, or Wild Ass, looks so like an Asiatic Asinus vulgaris, or Domesticated Ass, that by the eye alone the two are hardly distinguishable from each other. But with their appearance the resemblance ends, the domestic animal being quiet, docile, and fond of man, while the wild animal is savage, intractable, and has an invincible repugnance to human beings.
This diversity of spirit in similar forms is very curious, and is strongly exemplified by the semi-wild Asses of Quito. They are the descendants of the animals that were imported by the Spaniards, and live in herds, just as do the horses. They combine the habits of the Wild Ass with the disposition of the tame animal. They are as swift of foot as the Wild Ass of Syria or Africa, and have the same habit of frequenting lofty situations, leaping about among rocks and ravines, which seem only fitted for the wild goat, and into which no horse can follow them.
Nominally, they are private property, but practically they may be taken by any one who chooses to capture them. The lasso is employed for the purpose, and when the animals are caught they bite, and kick, and plunge, and behave exactly like their wild relations of the Old World, giving their captors infinite trouble in avoiding the teeth and hoof's which they wield so skilfully. But, as soon as a load has once been bound on the back of one of these furious creatures, the wild spirit dies out of it, the head droops, the gait becomes steady, and the animal behaves as if it had led a domesticated life all its days.