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

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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

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