Syrian wild ass

One of the last Syrian wild asses before extinction, in the Vienna Zoo in 1915
One of the last Syrian wild asses before extinction, in the Vienna Zoo in 1915

The Syrian wild ass, less commonly known as a hemippe, (Equus hemionus hemippus * ) was a sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) or Persian onager.  It had become extinct by 1928. It was only a metre high at the shoulder as can be seen in this photograph, where it can be compared with the size of the onlooker outside the fence.  This is thought to be the animal which was the last surviving example of its species in captivity, where it died in 1927.

There is a Wikipedia article on the Syrian wild ass which suggests this is the same animal to which various references are made in the Old Testament (e.g. Ishmael’s wild ass in Genesis, references in the Psalms, etc.) and a more developed exploration of the Biblical references can be found in the Reverend J.G.Woods’ Bible Animals – a book wonderfully subtitled, “Being a description of every living creature mentioned in the Scriptures, from the ape to the coral.” (!)  The book is available as a Gutenberg text.

From Woods Bible Animals: SYRIAN ASSES. "A bridle for the ass."—Prov. xxvi.
From Woods Bible Animals: SYRIAN ASSES.
“A bridle for the ass.”—Prov. xxvi.

The wild ass and the domesticated ass are dealt with separately in Revd. Woods’ work, but interestingly the Syrian ass is illustrated in the domesticated ass section. The relationship between the two is described as follows: “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 AsiaticAsinus 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.”

The differences between the two are explored further by examining the two different words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the types of ass: “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.”

Revd Woods Bible Animals: THE WILD ASS. "As wild asses in the desert go they forth."—Job xxiv. 5.
Revd Woods Bible Animals: THE WILD ASS.
“As wild asses in the desert go they forth.”—Job xxiv. 5.

“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.”

Revd Woods gives a vivid account by Sir R. Kerr Porter of the hunting of wild asses, which were a delicacy in many parts of the Middle East.

He also deals with the much discussed question of the origin of the cross markings on the ass: “Since the Christian era, many curious legends have sprung up respecting the Ass. One of the most familiar of these legends refers to the black stripe along the spine and the cross-bar over the shoulder. This black cross is really believed by many persons to have been given to the animal in consequence of its connexion with our Lord. I need hardly tell the reader that it is the remnant of the stripes which in the zebra cover the animal from head to foot, which in the quagga cover the head, body, and part of the limbs, and which in one species of Wild Ass are not seen at all in the adult animal.”

SyrianWildAss-London_Zoo 1872
Syrian wild ass in London Zoo, 1872

*The taxonomy is different in some sources and the Syrian ass has also been called Equus onager hemippus (Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1855) and Equus syriacus (Milne-Edwards, 1869.)

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