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How Wild Animals Become Domesticated: Full Explanation

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines domestication as “adapted over time (as by selective breeding) from a wild or natural state to live in close association with and to the benefit of humans,” and the process is still taking place today.

Domestication initially occurred through necessity, as wild animals were cornered, corralled, and hunted at leisure. Domestication still happens today via selective breeding. Individuals that offer specific traits are bred, and these required traits are hopefully passed on to future generations. 

Domesticated animals have been deliberately bred and genetically adapted over several generations to live alongside humankind. They are genetically distinct from their wild forebears. In this article, we’ll learn the full process of animal domestication, including how, why, and even some about some failed attempts!

NOTE: If you’re wondering if you can turn a wild animal into a pet, check out my article here.

The Origin of Animal Domestication

The first animals believed to be domesticated for food use were wild sheep, between 11,000 and 9,000 B.C., possibly in Africa or Asia. Goats – more challenging to trap – followed later, perhaps around 8,000 BC. Both animal species were used for their meat, milk, and hair and became an integral part of most nomadic clans.

Animals are domesticated for different reasons, and we can say that there are three main reasons. Domestication intended for: 

  1. Companionship (cats & dogs), 
  2. Animals farmed for food (sheep, cows, rabbits, pigs, etc.)
  3. Working, or draught animals (horses, donkeys, oxen).

Animals that are considered good candidates for domestication will usually share some or most of the following traits:

  • The animals grow and mature quickly, making them very efficient to farm.
  • They breed relatively quickly in captivity, and if feasible, can undergo multiple pregnancies in a year.
  • Their diet is plant-based, which is cheaper than meat and nuts and makes them inexpensive feeders.
  • They are tough by nature and can easily adapt to a variety of changing conditions.
  • They live in herds  – or had ancestors that did, meaning they are easy for humans to control.

The Process of Animal Domestication

Initially, back in the mists of time, nomadic tribes and even founding settlements could hunt for meat with impunity, but as tribes grew in size sometimes literally! – and herds of prey moved further afield, change was required.

Picture this: Tribesmen and women; sitting around a communal fire scratching their heads and rubbing ever-shrinking tummies as they try to come up with some plan to feed the clan with meat. The main problem was the problem that plagued all early peoples, once they started to group: Security.

You see, as all of the male members of the tribe; the hunters, were forced to hunt further and further afield. This meant that marauding tribes and bandits could move in behind them and, kill or enslave those left behind. Hunters might return from a seasonal hunt, only to find that their families and their slaves were now part of an opposing tribe.

History does not record precisely which man, woman, or tribe finally scratched out an answer to the problem of distance, but eventually, a solution was found. Instead of going to the prey and leaving the settlement open to attack, the clan would bring the game to them, and farming with animals was conceived.

This possibility is just one hypothesis, and depending on which resource you study, it is evident that no one is sure which species was first to be domesticated.

Wolves may have been the first animals to be domesticated, sometime between 33,000 and 11,000 years ago. Proponents of this theory claim that after wolves were bred into domestic dogs, livestock animals became domesticated. This possibility, they suggest, coincided with a widespread shift away from foraging towards farming for certain cultures.

More logically, the first domesticated animals were almost certainly animals that could go into the pot rather than patrol the perimeter on sentry duty. Protection was important, but a full belly was vital

Wolves may have been among the first animals to be domesticated

Since they would have been the easiest to catch all of the prolific food species, evidence suggests that sheep were the first, followed closely by goats, but this is purely speculation. 

Prey animals caught initially in traps would then be kept in fields surrounded by branches of – usually thorny – trees or steep hills and would gradually become more and more used to the presence of humans.

Naturally, this ‘smorgasbord’ was very inviting to bandits and other travelers, so sentries would have to be posted, but this was no longer a problem, as the warriors and hunters were not often away for any length of time.

Farming these animals took time, and the farmers would learn as they went along. Over-grazing and illness faced them from the outset. Still, they had a simple solution in the face of zero husbandry experience: Sick or injured animals were eaten, and when people died or became ill after eating an animal with specific symptoms, the entire tribe learned a little more.

This attitude was harsh in the short term, but as knowledge came in, fewer mistakes were made and more cures for the various ailments and disorders caused.

Over-grazing was easier to combat, and farms were moved from place to place and then back again when the land had recovered.

Because the earliest wolves are believed to have been relatively friendly – or at least not aggressive – it is entirely possible that these animals were the first ones that were inadvertently domesticated. The less cautious animals would have slinked ever closer to the tempting smell emanating from the stores and cooking pots in the camps. 

Equally in-cautious humans would undoubtedly have tossed them a few unwanted scraps, leading to the wolves possibly choosing specific groups or families as their part-time providers. 

Once their territory was established, any human or other animal that approached it alerted the guard-wolf, or more likely, wolves, which warned their hosts. Rapid Response was created.

Since most significant acts of domestication began long before recorded history, we cannot be sure regarding the precise process behind the long journey that took them from wild animals to domesticated livestock. 

More apparent is that the forebears of presently domesticated animals would have already exhibited specific traits that made them notably helpful to humans. These traits may have ranged from nourishing meat to warm coats and a natural affinity for people.

Opinions on How Wild Animals Became Domesticated

The renowned archaeologist Melinda Zeder has hypothesized three fairly broad pathways in which the domestication of wild animals might have occurred.

  • Commensal Pathway: wild animals were attracted to human settlements by the presence of food refuse (dogs, cats, guinea pigs)
  • Prey Pathway, or game management: in which actively hunted animals were first managed (cattle, goats, sheep, camelids, reindeer, and swine)
  • Directed Pathway: a deliberate effort by humans to capture, domesticate and use the animals (horses, donkeys, camels, reindeer).

Domestication of Wild Animals & the Impact on War

Once the farming practice with sheep, goats, and cattle was established, it was a relatively small step from moving the farm in defense to moving it in attack. Instead of splitting their forces, tribes would take their domesticated wild animals with them on campaigns.

A lead animal was chosen and provided this animal could be directed at will, and it was noted that the herd would follow, and herd mentality was discovered.

The Mongols of ancient Asia domesticated – and tamed – horses and became famed horsemen, using the animals for transportation, war, and even food. I can imagine the grimaces at the sound of horse meat being eaten, but it was the blood that was drunk – sometimes mixed with Yak or horse mare’s milk – when their stores were depleted during skirmishes and wars.

Horses have long been domesticated and used for war, transportation and even food.

A vein in the horse’s neck would be pierced, and a small amount – quickly replaced by the horse’s system – would be drunk.

The horses were certainly eaten, but only when killed in battle. The Mongols also ran herds of oxen, sheep, goats, camels, and yaks, solid evidence to all they conquered that domestication of wild animals was not only possible but essential.

The Mongols were, as history has proven, the most significant fighting force the world has ever seen.  According to estimates, at its peak, the entire Mongol Empire stretched nearly 12 million square miles /19 million square kilometers, an area of land twice the size of the United States of America, including Hawaii and Alaska.

Does Domestication of Wild Animals Occur Naturally?

In 2017, a study found evidence that early dog-like wolves were indeed genetically disposed to be friendly. They had not been hunted in the early days when other, easier to track prey abounded. That friendliness probably triggered the first mutually beneficial relationship between a human and a dog. The dog received food and shelter in exchange for its service, both as a guard and hunting companion.

Other genetic evidence is believed to have been found, supporting a similar path of domestication for cats, where they provided the hunting of vermin.

From these early human/animal relationships came many generations of selective breeding. People bred only the animals with the most beneficial traits and discarded the diminutive, unpredictable, or otherwise undesirable creatures. 

Zebras, for example, would fall into this ‘undesirable trait’ category. Despite protestations to the contrary, no one (indeed no group) has ever managed to get those stubborn ‘horses-in-pajamas’ to obey them. They have been used to pull carts, etc., at times, but just when you think all is fine, they’ll bolt, sit, kick or bite and you will be glad to see the back of them.

In contrast with their wild counterparts, domestic animals will often exhibit a feature known as neoteny (the condition wherein an organism reaches maturity, yet maintains some of its juvenile characteristics). 

Two examples would include being sexually viable while still in a larval stage or retaining gills in an adult —the retention of these juvenile traits (soft fur, floppy ears, and large heads relative to their body size.)

One memorable study started in the USSR in the 1950s found that foxes bred for domesticable traits started exhibiting neoteny within a few generations. It is unclear why this occurs, though it often makes domesticated animals appear even cuter to breeders (and thus customers).

Breeders often intentionally try for these ‘cute’ traits in their breeding program, giving us the Pugs, Ragdoll cats, Siamese cats, and Dwarf rabbits today. 

Sadly, this can unintentionally lead to health issues for the resultant species. Pugs, Boston Terriers, Pekinese (both dogs and cats) all tend to respiratory problems. Extra-Large dog breeds have hip and spinal problems in their genetics, etc. 

Is Domestication the Same as Taming?

Domestication does not have the same definition as taming. A domestic animal is genetically required to be tolerant of humans to improve the lives of humans. Any individual wild animal, or a wild animal born in captivity, might be tamed—their behavior can be directed to grow accustomed to living beside humans – but they are still wild and not domesticated by definition.

Asian elephants in captivity, for example, may be misinterpreted as domesticated as a result of being kept by humans for hundreds of years. Still, the majority were historically captured from the wild and then tamed for the use of humans. 

Although elephants can be bred in captivity, like most other wild animals, they are not selectively bred, primarily because they have an incredibly long reproductive cycle. Being 13-18 weeks in length, the elephant estrous cycle is the longest among all studied non-seasonal mammals to date. 

Elephants can be tamed but have never been domesticated

Progesterone increases 1-3 days after ovulation, indicating the start of the luteal phase, which lasts 6-12 weeks. For this reason, there are no domesticated breeds of elephants, and they remain wild.

Other animals, having modern counterparts in the wild, e.g., rabbits, face another challenge: Domestic rabbits are a genetically distinct species and are different from wild rabbits. Because the populations coexist, the lack of understanding about these differences often leads to the misguided assumption that domestic rabbits can survive in the wild for any length of time. 

Unlike other feral animals (cats that have returned to a wild state, for example), domestic rabbits have impaired predator instincts and cannot survive without human care. Animal shelters report high numbers of domestic rabbits being abandoned outdoors, often resulting from digging their way out and then evading capture.

The domestication of both plants and animals caused a significant transformation in the way of life of many human societies, with complex social and spiritual changes called the Neolithic transition. 

This domestication also resulted in a sharp increase in the human population: It took just over 2 000 000 years of human prehistory and history for the earth’s population to reach one billion, and only 200 more years to rise to 7 billion. 

Domestication Concerns

During most of their domestication history, our domestic animals have been managed in a – usually – sustainable way by formal and casual farmers, followed by a period of solid selection about 200 years ago. This selection produced hundreds of well-defined breeds ideal for the uses they were bred towards.

Several decades ago, the pressure of selection increased further, leading to several industrialized breeds, introduced into a small number of countries, often at the expense of existing local species. 

In a few decades from now, we might lose most of the precious farm animal genetic resources that humans have carefully selected in the past. Priorities should consequently be given to the preservation of genetic resources in all marginal or rare breeds. 

Selection programs should also aim to restore the genetic diversity in industrial breeds before it is too late.

Recent Domestication Attempts That Failed

Humans have attempted to domesticate some animals and completely failed. Here are a couple of examples…

The Moose

This animal has never been domesticated, but according to wildlife biologist Vince Crichton, this can be easily done. Crichton, a 40-year veterinarian at Manitoba Conservation, remembers an orphaned calf that was tamed and raised by a young government employee in the Riding Mountain National Park, Canada. 

In the 18th Century, King Karl XI of Sweden experimented with mounting a cavalry regiment on moose, possibly to take advantage of the terror this scene would strike into the hearts of enemy cavalry and their horses. The first appearance of moose on the battleground would rout the enemy, but of course, that would not be the case once the element of surprise had gone.

The King’s idea never reached fruition, as moose could never be used as cavalry mounts due to their notable susceptibility to diseases carried by livestock, which accompanied every army, and also because of the enormous difficulties in getting the correct feed for moose.

Moose feed by foraging for twigs, moss, leaves, etc., and cannot survive on the hay that the horse cavalry ate. One can imagine the chaos if the cavalry were attacked while their mounts were foraging on various hills and in valleys in the area.

The deciding factor was the annual rut when moose are more like lovers than fighters…until they are disturbed, in which case they have been known to attack humans with no concern for their own safety.

The Zebra

When England, Belgium, and France at different times in the early 19th Century started colonizing other parts of the ‘Dark Continent’ – Africa – they brought horses from Europe that encountered unknown diseases and the Tsetse Fly Anopheles Mosquito, and the African Lion.

Many horses died in the jungles and Savannah Plains of this sweltering continent, and Zebras – as mentioned earlier – seemed an excellent alternative, with their resistance to all that Africa threw at them.

While the African Lion was indeed a menace to the horses of the early explorers, many of these men had a posse of hunters providing meat for the pot. These hunters coped pretty well with the issue of Lion attacks. Still, nothing could be done about the Tsetsi Fly, which carried African Trypanosomiasis, also known as “sleeping sickness,” or the Anopheles Mosquito, which carried malaria and attacked man and beast without favor.

Many attempts were made to convert any captured zebra into draught animals, or steeds were met with savage bites and vicious kicks, either immediately or down the line when least expected. The zebra bolted at the first sign of trouble, and since they were raised on avoiding lion and leopard, evading men on horses was easily done.

Ongoing Attempts at Domestication of Wild Animals

Animal lovers the world over are constantly trying to domesticate wild animals whether they realize it or not. Take housewives in the suburbs and on farms who love to provide suet balls and sugar water to the wild birds each morning. They refer to the birds as “My Crested Barbet” or “Our Hummingbird” and actively encourage the bird life to come to their gardens and even eat from their hands.

During a recent visit to the Pilansberg National Park in South Africa recently, I sat for hours in a campsite, watching as group after group of visitors fed the birds and squirrels inside the camp, as well as tossed Boerewors (a barbecued sausage) over the fence to the waiting hyenas. This behavior despite notices everywhere forbidding the feeding of any animals at all, with hefty fines threatened.

Why do people do this? The answer is straightforward: We want to get closer to the animals and interact with them far more.

Here are a few animals that are closer to domestication than they were 20 years ago.

  • Wallabies

In Australia, these little creatures that look like mini kangaroos are very sociable and can become quite brave and easy to handle. They are easy to feed, enjoying a diet of vegetables, grass, and leaves, and are very hardy.

  • Prairie Dogs 

These intelligent, curious critters are herbivorous burrowing rodents native to North America and ground squirrels elsewhere. Very territorial, they will attempt to protect their ‘owners’ when a threat appears.

  • Sugar Gliders

These marsupials are great fun to have around but ensure you don’t have too many fragile items exposed because they can move from one side of a room to another in a flash. They love fruit and veg and are a reasonably clean animal, so don’t need much attention. Besides, you will be too busy watching their antics to worry about bathing them.

  • Bearded Dragons

Of all the Bearded Dragons, Pogona vitticeps is still the most common Bearded dragon species being kept as a pet. It is equipped with spiny reptilian scales, resembling a beard of spikes under its chin which can puff up when angered or aroused.

There are eight species of these docile creatures recognized in the pet trade today, all of which are affectionately called “beardies.” For years considered the ultimate pet reptiles, bearded dragons tend to be gentle and curious and are diurnal – active during daylight hours.

A beardie is easy to handle, though care should be taken when doing so as they can accelerate very quickly and will dive off your shoulder at flies and crickets. 

They eat a diet of green veggies and love super worms that are protein-packed, but like pizza for a human, these worms are apparently very more-ish and beardies will often refuse veg and leaves if fed super worms for too long. This diet can impact their digestive systems and cause significant discomfort.

There is no ready reason to try and domesticate these creatures other than to curb a locust or roach infestation, but maybe that’s reason enough to try?

  • Mongoose

A mongoose will show a lot of affection for its ‘owner’ and loves to be stroked and cuddled. However, like other animals discussed in this section, it remains a wild animal and could leave at any time if not contained. That said, a mongoose will not be happy if caged for long periods, if at all. 

A mongoose

It will defend you, and it’s adopted home with a passion, often to the detriment of any cats or dogs it shares a home with, but if you have snakes in the area of your home, a mongoose is the best sentry possible. Many dogs will attack snakes in your garden – Jack Russells are famous for this – but these dogs will eventually get ‘tagged’ if they do it often enough. 

On the other hand, a mongoose would go into most snake fights as the ‘favorite,’ as mongooses have mutated cells that block a snake’s neurotoxins from entering their bloodstream. This protection makes them capable of surviving a venomous snake’s deadly bite. Thick fur also protects them from bite attempts.

  • Degu

Degus are relatively small, burrowing rodents native to Chile that are said to make good pets. In the wild, they usually live in communities of up to 100 animals (much like prairie dogs), so it might be kinder to have more than one if you decide on a Degu. 

These social, curious animals are among the few rodents that are awake during the day (diurnal), which adds to their pet appeal. 

As pets, they can typically live for five to eight years. A Degu can become very tame if it is handled reasonably regularly and from just after birth. They are delightfully playful and curious, and like most rodents, love to chew on everything.

  • Parrots

A firm favorite with many people, parrots are still wild animals, and even if you do purchase them as chicks and hand-rear them, the call of the wild will remain, as I learned to my chagrin a few years ago. A parrot that I let out of her cage each day for over a year suddenly shot out of the open window when her instinct kicked in.

Sadly, this story could only end badly, as the parrot, an African Grey, had no experience in the wild and no defense against any predators. Food was also provided for her, and she had no training in finding her own.

When Attempting to Tame a Wild Animal… 

Any attempt at individual domestication or taming of a wild animal should be made with the strict proviso that the animal’s needs come first, particularly once you gain their trust. This ethos applies to any animal. The temptation is that you think you have achieved an everlasting bond, when in fact, you have just started down a long road. A moment’s indiscretion – as in my case – can lead to disaster, usually for the animal, but sometimes for you.

Domestication, we have learned, can take thousands of years and many generations, so exercise patience and more common sense than I did. Whatever you can manage in the time you have, it will be a victory in itself. No animal in history was domesticated overnight, and almost all were first tamed before being bred along the lines that domestication requires.

Conclusion 

Wild animals became domesticated in several ways and are continuing to do so. It’s up to humankind to step up and take responsibility for the animals we have created as the planet’s Alpha species. Once an animal is fully domesticated, it loses much of its defensive abilities, and it is up to us all to fill that void.

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