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Understanding Domestication: The Ethics of Wild Animals as Pets and in Zoos

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Wild animals in Captivity

Whether as a pet, in a zoological facility, or even in a so-called animal "sanctuary", it’s now a common opinion that “wild” animals do not belong in captivity.

While it is true that not all species fare well in human care, there are undomesticated animal species that breed and seem to adapt well to zoos that are said to be inherently suffering.

Dog and "wild" animal.

Dog and "wild" animal.

At best, those who are anti-captivity feel anything unnatural is inherently bad for animals. Ex-Sea World trainer Kim Ashdown, featured in the documentary Blackfish states:

“I think containment for entertainment is on its way out. If not this generation, then at least the next."

Opinions regarding the subject vary tremendously, but for the most part, animals perceived as "wild" or "undomesticated" are considered to be animals that can only live freely.

Yet, nearly everyone who believes this philosophy feels differently about more traditionally kept animals.

While tigers, killer whales, and parrots are either "slaves", prisoners, or suffering from unnatural confinement, horses, house cats, farm animals, and dogs are not.

The reason to defend the captivity and unnatural environment of these animals is this: these animals are domesticated.

What is a wild animal?

I believe an animal refered to as "wild" should come from the wild.

Most animals (mainly mammals, but reptiles and fish differ slightly as well) that are born and raised in captivity are profoundly different animals from their wild counterparts. A feral cat will have more traits associated with a "wild" animal that is unsuitable as a pet than a captive born, human-socialized fennec fox, for example.

What is domestication?

Domestication is a concept that is often misunderstood by people as often as evolution. Domestication is not solely the process of making animals less dangerous or producing them with a mind that would prefer human-controlled confinement. In fact, domestication has several meanings, and only a few are all encompassing.

Domestication may be defined as the coevolutionary, mutualistic relationship between domesticator and domesticate, which results in genetic changes that are "markers" of domestication, however, there is no consensus on defining it [zeder]

These following facts must be firmly understood:

  • Domestication does not always result in a "good-natured" animal.
  • Not all animals can be domesticated.
  • Producing a domesticated animal through breeding does not adhere to any strict time frame (i.e, it does not take thousands of years).
  • Domestication exists at the genetic level.
  • Whether or not an animal will be considered domesticated is mostly arbitrary.
Domesticated water buffalo. Still not any American's idea of a good pet.

Domesticated water buffalo. Still not any American's idea of a good pet.

Many domesticated animals are bred for their aesthetic appeal.

Many domesticated animals are bred for their aesthetic appeal.

What Domestication Means for Captive Animals

Animal species (and plants) that are good candidates for domestication must be predisposed for it [larson].

This means three things [larson]:

  • The animal being domesticated has a genome which will yield a significant difference in its behavior through selective breeding.
  • The animal being domesticated will serve the purpose that it’s being bred for.
  • The animal has a high reproductive rate and ease of breeding, ease of care, relatively simplistic diet, and manageable temperament.

None of these qualities necessarily mean that an animal prefers to be in captivity anymore than a non-domesticated animal; these qualities simply mean that the animal fits the lifestyle of humans for whatever the purpose they are domesticating it for. For example, dogs are easy to train, don't smell, and most are very tame.

Domesticated minks are called such because they are ideal for the sad practice of fur farming, not because they have a nice disposition and make great pets. The fact that they are domesticated also doesn't mean they enjoy what they are bred for (and the typical conditions they are kept in) but that they can remain well enough for the purpose they've been bred for.

Pet shop puppy with very unnatural face.

Pet shop puppy with very unnatural face.

Dogs are "supposed" to live with us?

A well-respected marine mammal scientist gave me an explanation as to exactly why a domesticated animal can be raised in human captivity while it is cruel and wrong to do so with a wild animal. She explained that domesticated animals “cannot be captive. How can this be?

Many people who oppose owning anything other than a domesticated animal (or zoos) erroneously believe that domesticated animals belong with us "naturally", but domestication by most definitions isn't natural.

The word natural can take on many different meanings and perceptions, but it can mainly be defined as being anything altered significantly by human influence.

Modern living for dogs includes confinement, loneliness, and processed food

Dogs and cats could have once had a more seemingly "natural" existence with humans as misfit wild animals that hung around human civilizations, feeding on discarded scraps or hunting vermin that congregated around human crops, and eventually forming a symbiotic relationship with humans.

But forcibly taking these animals and picking their mates, confining them, and altering them to such an extent that some may lose their ability to mate or even give birth with surgery (such as with popular breeds like bull dogs) can hardly be considered natural and is the epitome of human influence.

Domesticated animals are exploited by humans no differently than what is claimed about so-called wild animals, perhaps even more so.

Wild animal or pet? Tamed or domesticated?

Cockatiels in the wild

Cockatiels are an example of a popular pet that are basically the same animals you would see in the wild, however, they are extensively bred in captivity, and when hand-raised from a young age they make loving pets.

Cockatiels are an example of a popular pet that are basically the same animals you would see in the wild, however, they are extensively bred in captivity, and when hand-raised from a young age they make loving pets.

Dogs, the ultimate domestication experiment

Dogs are, with little doubt, one of the most successful and variable domesticated animals of all time.

Unlike other popular domesticated animals like horses and cats, dogs have such a 'flexible' genome that you can get giant dogs, tiny dogs, dogs with dreadlocks and dogs with silky hair, dogs with long legs and dogs with short stubby legs.

You can have dogs that look like wolves and dogs that sport a rather grotesque (and debilitating) morphology (in my opinion) such as Chinese Shar-peis, bulldogs, and Neapolitan mastiffs, having very little if any resemblance to their wolfen ancestors.

Even aside from their appearance, their dispositions, instincts, and adaptations differ tremendously.

With cats, you have mousers and those which prefer not to mouse—but with dogs, you have sled pullers, herders, retrievers, ratters, companion animals, rescuers, and guarders.

There are sight hounds, scent hounds, waterdogs, dogs used to hunt bears, wolves, and to hold on to bulls for a rather malicious sport.

Dogs are said to be the only animals that can identify human emotions. The traits of dogs are said to be ‘neotenic’, meaning we’ve selected for their juvenile or puppy stage into adulthood. Dogs also have a higher tolerance for carbohydrates over wolves, and understand human gestures like pointing.

Despite domestication, dogs need what any social animal needs

This may make people feel as though dogs were ‘put on this Earth’ to be our companions, and certainly not other animals without this level of extensive domestication should be held by us. But despite our obvious bond, do dogs, as inherently social and intelligent animals that view their owners as their ‘pack’, enjoy confinement due to selective breeding?

Do dogs, due to domestication, enjoy being left alone when their owners must work? When dogs tolerate this, it feels natural and OK, but domestication alone does not truly provide for this.

Can it be possible that we ask dogs to tolerate our unnatural and modern lifestyles to a similar or same extent as any zoo animal or exotic pet? The dog’s tolerance of our activities is, once again, for our convenience, not theirs.

Domesticated cat...or is it?


Extent of domestication: Cats

Many people view dogs as what domestication represents, but dogs are unique, as previously explained.

Cats are also certainly domesticated, but they are much closer to their wild ancestors over dogs.

Adjacent to this passage is a picture of the origin of the domesticated cat, the African wild cat. If you saw this walking down the street, would you think it was a wild animal? I know that some people would likely catch this animal and cut its ear in half, neuter it, and release it into an outdoor ‘cat colony’.

There are some clear differences between the two animals. African wild cats are solitary, while domesticated cats are more social. Domesticated cats, like most domesticated animals, can breed any time of the year. An African wild cat may have a non-optimal disposition if raised as a house pet, perhaps more akin to the animals featured on “My Cat from Hell”. These animals have behavioral and genetic differences, but they do have very similar needs: food, water, shelter, and mental stimulation. These things may or may not be successfully provided by a caretaker of either animal.

Wild cat born to domestic cat

How long does it take?

How many years, or how many generations, does it take to produce a domesticated animal? I often hear people exclaim how dogs and cats have been domesticated for “thousands of years” when denouncing exotic pet owners.

This is true, but it does not take a thousand years to domesticate an animal.

The Russian fox experiment has shown us that similar ‘dog-like’ results can be achieved with wild foxes.

These animals were produced over the span of 50 years, begging the question to what extent foxes could be changed to our liking with more generations. These animals still do not have the ‘perfect’ pet quality that dogs seem to have, hence why humans stuck with them for thousands of years. Of course, over time, dogs succumbed to even more dramatic alterations, but they are not ‘more domesticated’ than the ‘phenotypically conservative’ dog breeds, and domesticated animals are not ‘a thousand years removed’ from wild animals.

Just how different are domesticated pets from wild animals?

"Domesticated animals can’t survive in the wild!"

This is clearly false, or cats would not be one of the most prominent invasive species on our planet. The word ‘feral’ is another word for ‘domesticated wild animal’. Despite being a product of ‘thousands of years of domestication', some animals can easily revert back to their wildness and survive to reproduce prominently, given that their genetic selection has not debilitated them mentally or physically and that the environment is suitable. Many wild animals are incapable of surviving in unsuitable environments.

It is a fallacy that all domesticated animals can't survive without us, and all captive born wild animals can

Many domesticated animals also have issues surviving in the ‘wild’ because they were raised in captivity, not honing the skills they would need during their early development, but this is also true of most ‘wild’ mammals that were raised by people.

There are also feral (and problematic) populations of: dogs, horses (the only truly extant wild, or non-domesticated, horse is the Przewalski's horse, the rest are feral!), rabbits, pigeons, camels, water buffalo, and pigs.

And what about domesticated animals like Persian cats and pugs that cannot live without humans? Another radical perspective may see the breeding of animals that have no choice but to live under human dominion to be cruel and unethical. That’s not the life we would choose for ourselves now is it?

Non-domesticated animals unsuitable for captivity?

Consider the zebra, an obvious wild animal from the plains of Africa. Zebras have been shown to be unable to be domesticated because unlike horses, they are too skittish.

This is a trait that separates many wild animals from those that have been successful with the process. Horses are produced in captivity mostly for the purpose of giving rides, pulling, and other work that skittishness would impede them from doing successfully.

Again, domestication is the process of selectively breeding for human convenience. Now consider this: just because a zebra isn’t useful for giving rides or pulling carriages, why should this mean that a zebra can’t be kept in captivity, but just without those things? If a zebra is skittish and fearful, simply do not stress it out with work it is not suited for, and just maybe possibly, it will thrive in captivity and benefit humans as well.

Zebras do indeed thrive in captivity. And they need not fear being taken by a crocodile while drinking. Just saying. Of course, the success of keeping any animals will also depend on how, what, and where.

'African chicken' guinea fowl

'African chicken' guinea fowl

Using the logic of people who decry wild animal captivity as ‘slavery’, what makes people so sure that dogs enjoy everything about the existence they were supposedly ‘bred for’?

Can animals be selectively bred to be tolerant toward any form of confinement?

If it is brought up that the evolution of the dog-human relationship was symbiotic, I could respond: this relationship of early dogs co-existing with nomadic hunters barely exists today in the modern world. Dogs are forced into an ‘unnatural’ existence.

They spend time in small homes alone, forced to be away from their owner’s side hours at a time. Some have to stay in crates. They are also often surgically altered. They are trained by people who are not familiar with dog behavior (sometimes with negative reinforcement) and their natural behaviors are often scolded and/or repressed.

This existence is not natural for them. Neither is a horse in a stable’s existence anymore ‘natural’. Horses in the wild run free 100% of the time. No one tells them when they need to return to the barn to be confined to a pen.

Does domestication magically make this OK? Does docility and submissiveness automatically entail that an animal has a “natural”, fulfilling relationship with its situation? Animals that are subjected to factory farm life are clearly seen as ‘unhappy’ even though their behavior is still complacent. How do we know if we are causing harm to either group of animals?

Animals require the five freedoms, no matter how ‘domesticated’ they are. Who else can be sure of what they truly ‘want’. Who knows if they are ‘happy’?

It is 100% logical to compare caring for domesticated dogs with the captivity of any other animal. If captive wild animals were considered the same way people traditionally care for dogs (daily interaction, exercise, and/or enrichment), they would likely be fairing much better.

However, domestication can also be a nice illusion that prevents people from really considering animal welfare. Many people do object to common practices like rabbit hutches, small cages for hamsters, and dog crates (as well as keeping cats permanently indoors, but letting invasive, non-native animals outside to hunt wildlife is unmistakably unethical).

Keeping an animal, any animal, as a pet or in a zoo is not inherently unethical. What is wrong is failing to meet an animal’s needs, or observing failure in raising a content animal and failing to do something about it.

This does not mean that it is wrong, unethical, or impossible to responsible care for a wild animal in captivity simply by the virtue of it not being domesticated, it just means that you must change how you care for them.


  1. Larson, Greger, and Dorian Q. Fuller. "The evolution of animal domestication." Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 45 (2014): 115-136.
  2. Zeder, Melinda A. "Core questions in domestication research." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.11 (2015): 3191-3198.

© 2013 Melissa A Smith


KuteKats on April 23, 2020:

Cats are not just Mousers

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on July 03, 2015:

No such thing as 'half domestic'. Dogs are the way they are because their species just match up better. Animals are bred for different purposes, dogs are just best equipped as companions superiorly over all other species.

ajar u on June 30, 2015:

There is 2 type of domestic 1st one is full domestic and the 2cd one is half domestic.

(1) Full domestic, such like dogs, there really do understand human needs and compared with dogs and wolves is slightly different.The wolf won't understand you, it just saw you like its own food.Dogs have different breed more then 400+ breed in the world and some extinct.Do you ever wonder why and how our ancestor so brave to tame wolf into different dogs breed with different habits of working ?

(2) Half domestic such like cats,do you ever wonder why your cat still have strips looking, well actually it still looks similar to their own wild relative in its blood.Cats are semi-domestic furry friends check out their canine it is really sharp still nothing change compared with the pure wild cats those long canine are use to attack mouse/bird for its preying instinct was still in its blood.

And one more thing ,taking exotic pets is fun but some are more dangerous than both (domestic and half domestic animals) !!!

Mhhh...I wonder who tame human ?. From ape to human do we need science for help this ?.

"So always remember no matter what we have tame or domestic as long as we should show mercy,peace and responsibility full toward mother nature creature and never left them behind or forget about it,if you forget it that means you are cruel toward them ."

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 27, 2014:

Yes there are Ren, they've popped up on my 'Why it's cruel to keep dogs as pets' article and were too dense to see that that article was mocking anti-pet people. There are enough dog and cat lovers to keep those species legal as pets, the whackos are in the minority there. Unfortunately, not the case with exotic animals.

Ren on December 25, 2014:

Love this article. Excellent examples of the hypocrisy so often shown by the anti-exotic-pet crowd. Though I would warn you not to make too strong arguments against keeping domesticated animals, even to make an argument, as there are prominent groups that say it is cruel to keep ANY animals (domesticated or otherwise) in captivity. PETA, for example, advocates for "total animal liberation" which essentially means no animal contact with humans at all. I would also recommend that you check out the book The Invisible Ark: In Defense of Captivity if you haven't already. It's very short, but makes a very strong argument for why the captive care of wild animals is important for conservation. It's funny how the people always insisting that captive animals are "unhappy" are the ones that have very little experience with animals (other than perhaps dogs and cats) and their behavior. Surely the people that have devoted their lives to caring and learning about these animals would be better judges of whether or not they are living full, contented lives. Again, awesome article.

ArtDiva on October 08, 2014:

Excellent article, well documented, informative, and well written. Unfortunately, we humans have created the plight of animals, both domestic and wild. For many species, captivity is their safety.

Nicole Woelfel on July 23, 2014:

I had an ornate box turtle for years before I moved to California, I'm very aware of exotic pet vets and the cost in care for even a small reptile or amphibian. I had to find a good home for her when I moved which proved very difficult.

Good luck with your animals. I think reptiles are fascinating.

PS. I still strongly disagree with all of your opinions on Orcas and Dolphins :-). But I respect your opinion, as long as it's portrayed as just that.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on July 23, 2014:

Nicole Woelfel-- I of course do not advocate keeping zebras in city apartments. I think that should be very obvious. Most people, I presume, realize that farm animals belong outdoors and need a certain amount of space. This also goes for certain exotic animals. A few can be indoor pets but most require some outdoor access. The fact that exotic animals can be cared for privately is not an opinion. The only 'opinion' of mine is whether or not these animals are 'happy', no one really knows for sure. But I do believe that this is also the case with domesticated animals, so I see little difference between the moral dilemma pertaining to them and exotic animals. Those of us with exotic pets get vets that have exotic experience. My iguana and genet's vet works with the Bronx zoo and has experience with wild carnivores, ungulates, fish, ect. He doesn't see dogs and cats. I know of two other vets that only see wildlife within 40 minutes driving distance of me. They really aren't as rare as you might think and there are around three within a drivable distance in North Carolina where I will be moving in a few years.

It's hard to beat the reader over the head with my idea of what proper care for each and every species is. It varies tremendously. Zebras are kept in similar environments to horses and of course, as long as you don't expect to enter dressage competitions with them, you can have a cool, unique pet.

Nicole Woelfel on July 23, 2014:

I am surprised to say I agree with most of what you are saying here, but overall I don't think large cats (or most wild animals for that matter) should be kept as pets. Most people are not capable of giving them the care and natural environment they would require to remain happy and healthy.

I have recently read quite a few of your articles and in most cases I strongly disagree with you...But I will give you this one, it was fairly well written, I just wish you would actually cite some sources for the statements you make. I am by no means an expert, but I was raised by a mother that ran the local humane society, I had horses, dogs, cats and a box turtle, I spent time working on several farms with horses and cows. I don't agree with the treatment of most animals in captivity therefore I no longer eat meat, wear leather or wool or support any type of factory farm. I love horses but understand that my lifestyle would not be optimal for owning one since I travel for work and live in a large city. I think certain people would probably be able to have a zebra and keep it happy if they had a lot of land, natural grasses and several other zebra's as companions... but in 97% of situations, it would be inhumane. When trying to make any animal your pet you should have a full understanding of their needs, the cost involved in keeping it healthy and the cost involved if it does get sick. Most vet's would have NO idea how to take care of a large cat, zebra or meerkat. I find it sad when many people put their dog to sleep to save the cost of a small operation. My husband and I now have 2 senior, shelter dogs that have cost us over $8000 in vet bills over the past 5 years, we accepted the responsible of taking care of them when we adopted them and we fully intend to live up to that.

Overall, good blog post... but once again, I really think you need to do a better job of stating that this stuff is your opinion, or you need to cite sources if you are claiming it is fact.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on April 24, 2014:

Drums, does your name refer to state of your head? This is not a scientific article, it is informal and I think you know that the sentence was tongue in cheek, referring to the presence of aggressive bulls in cartoons. If you need 'proof' that bulls are aggressive and dangerous your ignorance might get you killed one day. Again, fitting name.

drums on April 24, 2014:

I like the obvious research put into this... "It is well known via cartoons that bulls..." I found such compelling proof very persuasive.

Rachel on March 24, 2014:

@Alia @Deanna @precious maluleka You obviously didn't read the entire article, or you just skimmed. She gives solid examples, good rebuttals and an overall fantastically written article. I am citing this article for my essay against the unethical captivation of animals.

Deanna on February 24, 2014:

@Alia Yes I agree with you too.

I agreed with a lot of stuff the article said, which is why I was confused as to why it was SUPPORTING animal domestication.

precious maluleka on February 13, 2014:

@Alia i totally agree with u, animals shouldn't be domesticated people are changing what God has created to something totally different. Animals lose their natural traits to something preffered by humans

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 19, 2014:

You get a reality check Alia. Just because you scream something out doesn't make it so. I don't know what you have 'faith' in humanity for--if you are expecting them to purge all of their desires and live like monks, it's not going to happen.

Alia on January 19, 2014:

You're just like any other greedy human. Making excuses to justify the captivation of animals. Honestly, get a reality check, nature belongs out there, not in 'captivation'. I'm sorry, but people like you ruin my faith in humanity.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 16, 2013:

Thanks a lot Eddy!

Eiddwen from Wales on November 16, 2013:

A very interesting read and your obvious hard work certainly paid off. Voted up for sure and enjoy your weekend.


Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 14, 2013:

Thank you Peter!

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on November 14, 2013:

Thanks Melissa...an interesting take on the subject. Enjoyed.

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