Why Can't All Animals Be Tamed?

Not all animals can be tamed. To make it possible, there are a series of requirements that need to be met.
Why Can't All Animals Be Tamed?

Last update: 20 June, 2021

The history of humans manipulating and selecting animals for their own benefit dates back 11,000 years. Since then, dogs, cats, cows, chickens, and other creatures have undergone a transformation in order to enable them to be by our side. So why can’t all animals be tamed?

This process, in addition to being a slow one, depends on several factors in order to make it possible. If you’ve ever wondered why wildebeest, elephants, or tigers will hardly ever get used to being cared for by humans, here is the answer.

When can animals be tamed?

For an animal to learn to live with humans – without historically having undergone a domestication process – they’ll need to meet a series of requirements that we’ll outline below:

  • The ability to find enough food near human settlements, so that their survival is assured.
  • To be able to reproduce in captivity: Some species lose the reproductive impulse when they’re confined in small places.
  • They must mature quickly.
  • Having a gentle and kind character.
  • Not having strong tendencies to panic and run away, like certain prey animals.
  • The species must be organized hierarchically and, in addition, the human has to have a place in the dynamics as a leader or caretaker. The only exception to this rule is cats.

As you can see, not all species meet these requirements. For example, large primates and elephants mature very slowly, panthers are solitary and will never see a human as a companion, and many species stop breeding directly when they’re enclosed.

In addition to domestication for food, there’s the selective breeding of companion animals. Mammals like cats and dogs that were initially raised as guardians or controllers of pests are now selected for their appearance or character.

An iguana on a branch.

Genetic selection for meekness

Before farms and pet stores existed, animals weren’t that friendly towards humans. What has happened along the way? It wasn’t just a matter of adopting a symbiotic role between species; human beings have made an artificial genetic selection on the species.

In Russia, at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, they have been crossing silver foxes for more than 50 years to discover which genes determine the level of meekness in a species. The result has been the compression of thousands of years of domestication in less than a century. These foxes, far from simply being curious about humans, actively seek to form a bond with them.

This study has been replicated with other animal models, such as rats, mink, and otters.

Scientists have also tried to artificially select for aggressive temperament. In this way, the researchers seek to isolate the genes that determine the aggressiveness-submission axis in the behavior of social animals. This can help encourage the emergence of certain guardian canid breeds, for example.

Final thoughts: the ethical debate

Domestication exists: you just have to compare wild chickens to those on an egg farm, or a German Shepherd from 50 years ago to one today. But what’s the use of trying to domesticate wild species?

The great criticism this field of genetics receives comes from anti species organizations. Trying to find which animals can be tamed is an obvious problem. In addition to the congenital defects that it entails, there are many reports of humans being attacked by their semi-wild pets.

These groups argue that keeping exotic animals as pets carries with it the implicit idea that humans have the right to subdue other living beings for mere entertainment.

One of the rarest pets in the world.

Many people believe that we need a review of modern ethics on this issue. In times when we can take people to the Moon and explore other planets, are there really no solutions to guarantee the conservation of the planet and its inhabitants?

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  • Kukekova, A. V., Johnson, J. L., Xiang, X., Feng, S., Liu, S., Rando, H. M., … & Zhang, G. (2018). Red fox genome assembly identifies genomic regions associated with tame and aggressive behaviours. Nature ecology & evolution2(9), 1479-1491.
  • Sandnabba, N. K. (1996). Selective breeding for isolation-induced intermale aggression in mice: associated responses and environmental influences. Behavior genetics26(5), 477-488.