As I snuggled under the softest blanket I had, a cup of coffee on my side table and my laptop on my lap, my fluffy white marshmallow of a cat crawled up next to me. He took his usual cautious steps onto my stomach as if it was going to suddenly collapse under him. But after some kneading, he managed to find an uncomfortably comfortable position, dividing me from my screen. I was half-watching an episode of The Office, half scrolling Instagram on my phone when he reached out with his paw and rested it on top of my hand.
I couldn’t help but experience this overwhelming feeling of companionship - this comfort and knowing of this beautiful, once wild creature who wanted to cuddle up with me and sleep. It got me wondering how far back human and animal companionship really goes.
The history of the domestication of animals
The domestication of animals is based on the ancient concept of quid pro quo. Humans and dogs or wolves were known to have teamed up more than 12,000 years ago for hunting purposes, both creatures benefitting from the others hunting capabilities. Cats, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle are among other species of animals that have been domesticated over thousands of years. Although, the domestication of them dates back to 3000 BC, cats have remained most similar to their wild ancestors.
Domesticating vs. Taming
Many have tried to make the argument that any animal can be domesticated over time - that wild animals like lions or primates enjoy living with their human caretakers in captivity. But as scientists have repeatedly pointed out, there is a big difference between domesticating and taming. Domestication is a matter of genetic modification over generations, while taming is simply behavioural changes, and according to the organization One Green Planet, taming is often done “by way of abuse, fear or starvation.”
“The process of domestication is incredibly difficult, in fact, of 148 large mammalian species, only 14 of them are domesticated.” But unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from trying.
There’s been dozens of instances of people being attacked or killed by their exotic pets, no matter how long they’ve raised or trained them for. A woman was killed by her pet black bear, a man was kicked and killed by his 550-pound dear, and there’s been far too many cases of kids being killed by pythons or other snakes because the parents didn’t listen to all signs pointing to the fact that their so called ‘pet’ is actually an intelligent wild animal driven by instincts to hunt and feed.
What makes it possible for an animal to be domesticated?
Accordoing to evolutionary physiologist, Jared Diamond, animals can only be domesticated if they possess these six criteria:
- They can’t be picky eaters
- They must reach maturity quickly
- They must be willing to breed in captivity
- They should be docile by nature
- They can’t have the tendency to panic or flee when startled
- They should be able to conform to a social hierarchy (be dominated by their human caretaker)
So, while scientific evidence supports that most wild animals should never be kept as pets, frequent exposure to images of cute baby wild animals and ‘instaworthy’ selfies has been proven to make us believe it’s okay to treat these animals like pets.
A 2001 study, managed to prove that after people were shown images of primates standing next to humans, they were more likely to think that chimps would make good pets. Other research found that approximately 1,200 comments on a YouTube video of an endangered and often illegally traded species, the slow loris, said that they wanted one as a pet, yet so many of these creatures die from stress or illness in captivity.
There are many other instances of animals dying for people’s social media or dating profile pictures. There are cases of people taking selfies with baby seals who are abandoned by their spooked mothers because of close contact with humans. There was a similar case involving a baby bison at Yellowstone National Park where a calf had to be euthanized because it was shunned from the herd after visitors got too close. And there are of course more extreme instances such as baby dolphins being taken from a beach in Argentina, getting passed around for selfies, and dying from being out of the water too long.
Every now and then, I see bits of wild instincts in my cat, when he tries to catch birds in the backyard and thinks he’s invisible lying in the grass as a snowball of fur. But most of the time, he’s just an adorable, overweight fluff ball who loves to cuddle. That’s the difference between a domesticated cat and a wild animal.