Wild vs. Domesticated Animals: Why Domestication Has Nothing to Do With How Dangerous Pets Are

Updated on March 16, 2018
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a Bachelors Degree in Biology.

Cheetah and Domesticated Dog Play
Cheetah and Domesticated Dog Play

Photo Credit Mike Via Flickr


"Wild animals are dangerous"

It is very common to hear people say things like “you can take the animal out of the wild but you can’t take the wild out of the animal”, or this more ridiculous statement: “all wild animals can be dangerous”. You might have even heard some people state that wild animals are dangerous, period. These vast groups of animals are dangerous compared to what, exactly?

I’ll let you in on a surprising secret. So-called wild animals are not all dangerous in captivity, and some so-called domesticated animals are. This is an indisputable fact. If you don’t believe this, I can easily prove it.

A wild animal is an animal that lives in the wild, free from human influence. Here are three wild animals that are completely harmless to humans: the green frog (Lithobates clamitans) the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus).

So what’s up with these statements exclaiming that wild animals are dangerous?

Now hold on a second, when we said ‘wild animal’ we meant animals like tigers, sharks, and crocodiles, not little frogs!

Well gee how was I supposed to know that? Why do groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) use the word ‘wild animal’ and ‘large, dangerous wild animal’ interchangeably?

"Keeping wild and exotic animals as pets threatens public health and safety as well as animal welfare."

"Caring for wild animals is difficult or impossible" —HSUS

Animal rights organizations are not worried about being accurate with their statements because they are mostly against the ownership of animals. Therefore the numerous exceptions are not really important to them.

Compare and Contrast Domesticated and Wild Animals
Compare and Contrast Domesticated and Wild Animals | Source

Exotic pets are NOT 'wild animals'

I don’t believe the term ‘wild animal’ should be used to describe human-habituated tame animals because their behavior is vastly different from animals that are parent-raised without humans.

Wild animals are animals that were born and raised in natural conditions. Animals living with and raised by humans that are not domesticated should be simply referred to as non-domesticated animals. 'Tame wild animal' is also acceptable.

Taming refers to a normally wild-natured animal that has been socialized with humans so that it is tolerant and relatively docile in human presence. Yet since some domesticated animals are untame when raised in the wild, some domesticated animals are technically tame as well.

This behavior is unheard of in wild animals

What is domestication?

Nearly every version of what ‘domestication’ means to most people is invalid. Here are a few examples of what many think a ‘domesticated animal’ is that can easily be disproven by presenting examples of domesticated species to which it doesn't apply:

Misconceptions

  • Domesticated animals can’t survive in the wild. Utterly untrue. In fact, domesticated animals are some of the best survivors, reproducing invasively in environments that are not their own (feral cats, horses, swine) while many ‘wild animals’ fail at doing so. That is why we do not release captive animals without extensive rehabilitation. In many cases, feral domesticated animals have caused various wild animals to become extirpated.
  • Domesticated animals are tame or good-natured. Bulls (intact cattle Bos Taurus) are well known to be dangerous and aggressive. Why? Because just like many “wild” animals, they have instincts and raging hormones. Domesticated mink are extremely dangerous for their size.
  • Domesticated animals recognize humans as part of their social structure. Not only is this common in any social mammal or bird as long as it has been hand-raised, but even some solitary animals like bobcats and tigers will bond with their owner to the same level as any domesticated cat. Alternatively, domesticated cats that are not hand-raised do not accept human ownership, just as a wild animal doesn’t. If it is not in the nature of the animal to be part of a hierarchy, like fancy mice or goldfish for instance, this behavior will not spring up due to domestication.
  • Domestication takes thousands of years. The Russian fox experiment produced significantly tamer silver foxes in only 50 years.

Here is the only consistently acceptable way to define the arbitrary concept of domestication:

Any animal that has undergone a change at the genetic level due to selective breeding to better suit a human interest.

This definition, and only this definition, fits every so-called domesticated animal. Notice that this definition does not include any measure of tameness, welfare in captivity or house living, or any measure of generations needed to produce the result.

If the genetic change and better suitability for human use is present, the animal can be considered to be domesticated. It needn’t be as physically and psychologically unique from its starting point as a wolf and a Shih Tzu.

Domesticated animals may have certain traits in common, such as breeding well in captivity, having easy to meet dietary needs, and reaching maturity quickly, but this is not unique to them. Domesticated animals are native to nowhere because their genes are human-selected vs. naturally selected. Hybridization can also result in this.

An example of a "wild" animal

Syrian Hamster in Tea Cup
Syrian Hamster in Tea Cup | Source

Some animals, like golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) are extensively bred in captivity but are not genetically different beyond some insignificant alterations due to the founder effect; therefore they are technically not domesticated.

This means that when someone says “wild animals are dangerous to keep as pets”, they are talking about hamsters.

Both golden hamsters and tigers are non-domesticated animals that are frequently bred in captivity. Other animals thought to be domesticated but probably aren't include cockatiels, ball pythons, budgies, gerbils, and dwarf hamsters.

The domesticated cat fallacy

Some cat owners might tell you that a cat is ‘less domesticated’ than dogs, due to their independent nature. This is completely untrue. As I’ve discussed above, the concept of ‘more or less domesticated’ is invalid. Cats are DIFFERENT from dogs. Domestication has nothing to do with dog-like behavior (although a few feline breeds are genetically more tame and passive). The domesticated cat is genetically different from its original ancestor and is more suitable for the role humans have bred it for. That’s all it takes!

This is also a "wild" animal

Scottish wild cat on branch
Scottish wild cat on branch | Source

Why aren’t domesticated pets dangerous?

Very simple. Well, first of all, as outlined before, some domesticated animals can be a threat to human safety or even considered dangerous—but putting that aside, as a general rule, much of the domesticated animals that we associate as non-dangerous in comparison to so-called wild animals have all descended from wild animals that are not that dangerous, relatively speaking.

To clarify: A tiger is considered a dangerous wild animal, and a domesticated cat is not. Are tigers more dangerous because they aren’t domesticated? No!

Tigers are dangerous because they are over 800 pounds of pure, carnivorous muscle, having evolved to take down prey much larger than itself. Fully grown tigers are larger and stronger than the largest, strongest dog.

Domesticated cats and their ancestors (the African wild cat) could not kill a human if they tried (cats can, and have attacked humans). To reiterate, domesticated cats were never ‘dangerous’ to begin with. Let’s look at the evolutionary history of some other popular domesticated animals.

Dog

Yorkshire Terrier and Wolf
Yorkshire Terrier and Wolf | Source

The domesticated dog is THE quintessential model for domestication for most people. No other domesticated species exhibits as much behavioral, psychological and morphological variation. This might be the reason people confuse domestication as a process aiming to achieve what has been done with dogs. But dogs are unique, and they are the only large carnivore that has been domesticated.

Dogs have descended from an extinct wolf-like canid that shares a common ancestor with the extant grey wolf. Through the mechanism of neoteny, which means the retention of juvenile traits, which was induced through many generations of selective breeding, dogs have adopted a very strong psychological connection to humans.

How this happened is very controversial, but we can deduce that the dog’s (likely more than one) wolf-like ancestors were a population of animals with a high tolerance toward human presence, and perhaps, unlike some populations of wolves such as those which terrorized France in earlier centuries, were a lot less dangerous.

Even the grey wolves of today are touted as mostly harmless toward humans in the wild, and two reported deaths from wild wolves have occurred in North America in the last 100 years. Unlike big cats, wolves are common ‘ambassador animals’ that respectable zoos and conservation societies trust on a leash around the public (cheetahs pose a similar or smaller risk to humans, but they can't be domesticated because they breed poorly in captivity).

Of course, just like regular dogs, wolves have the potential to attack due to various factors. Some domesticated dogs are more aggressive than wolves because we have channeled that territorial instinct into our desired result. Dogs are a mixed bag of different wild instincts re-shaped and re-directed for the domestication purpose. Domesticated dogs can become more dangerous if they are unsocialized and form coalitions due to the pack instinct, which wolves of course are predisposed toward.

Pig

Wild boar and domesticated pig
Wild boar and domesticated pig | Source

The ancestor of the domesticated pig is the wild boar (Sus scrofa), and while they rarely attack humans in the wild, they do possess the capacity to attack and kill, and some have done this (warning, links contain graphic photos), most often during the rutting season in January and February. However, the main danger of wild boars is due to their weaponry, which are long protruding canines that are used for fighting. Luckily for us, our selective breeding has resulted not only in reduced (but not eliminated) aggression, but no canines. Our next example has not.

Cow

Aurochs And Domesticated Cattle
Aurochs And Domesticated Cattle | Source

Non-graphic de-horning video

Domestic cattle, whose ancestors are extinct wild cattle (Bos primigenius) cannot easily be bred to lack their horns, so in order to achieve a less dangerous animal, they are removed early in the animal’s life.

Castration is also commonly practiced in livestock animals that may lower aggression. During the rutting season, domesticated male camels can be somewhat dangerous to handle if they aren’t castrated. Studies have shown that many dog bite incidences were committed by non-neutered dogs.

What good is ‘domestication’ for human safety if animals must be mutilated before they can be considered non-dangerous?

Size DOES matter

Another giant factor I’ve discussed here is the absurdity of not taking into account size when it comes to the danger an animal may present. Regardless of disposition, large animals can all be fatal to humans. Every large domesticated animal (horse, cow, camel, large dog) has caused human fatalities. Therefore, when someone brings up that a large non-domesticated animal (such as killer whales, and their captivity has suffered immense criticism) has once killed someone, that is not an argument that they are more or less dangerous than a domesticated animal. There is an inherent risk with all animals that are large and strong. The larger and stronger the animal, the bigger the risk.

Environment also shapes animal behavior!

As I tirelessly bring up, animals are not merely robots that are programmed to behave one way. Non-domesticated animals that are hand-raised and socialized by humans are likely to be drastically different from their wild counterparts.

This is why it is silly to compare house cats to animals that exist in the wild. A proper comparison of the traits of domesticated cats and their wild counterparts would have to take into account their environment, therefore feral cats should be compared with wild African wild cats and feral dogs with wolves. We will then see that the behavior and psychologies of these species will form more parallels.

Having ample food and being away from the pressures of nature also change animals. Some animals likely retain juvenile traits into adulthood (not genetically) when they are not forced out of the nest/den to hunt for themselves in natural conditions. This can lead to an increase of sociability, play behavior, and reduced prey drive. No wonder people visit zoos and often exclaim that wolves and tigers act 'just like my dog/cat!'

So what makes some animals dangerous?

A combination of size, disposition, territoriality, how the keeping of the animal is traditionally practiced, and the physical weaponry of the animal.

In other words, place any animal capable of harm with a human that is not willing to, or doesn’t understand its behavior, regardless of domestication, and disaster can strike.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Steve 

        7 weeks ago

        Excellent article! I'm Native American and unfortunately live in a city in Connecticut. I have a very 'green' yard with many tree's, shrubs and other growth so it's sort of an 'oasis' for many animals. My neighbors all dislike me intensely because they're 'in love' with their lawns, hate tree's, bushes & shrubs or wild flowers which thrive in my yard! Especially in the winter.. I put food out for all the animals who do not 'hibernate' and am re-payed by higher levels of 'trust' that I consider a great honor & privilege! Unfortunately, we live in an era where an entire generation ( or two ) of children no longer are taught, know or care about wildlife ( at least in these parts ) as they're never outdoors but on their 'dumb phones' indoors- even on summer vacation from school... Sad.. A couple summers ago, a woman who walks her dog past my home said to me, 'Do you know you have a baby fox living in your large shed??' I told her 'No... but it must be there for a reason like maybe got separated from it's mother, or to evade someone's dog' and she then said, 'But they have RABIES'... which I then explained to her (not that it made a dent in her) that according to 'authorities'.. EVERY animal in the wild had 'rabies' and it's just NOT true'.. She hasn't spoken to me since! Later that day, I did see a young fox (not a baby) poke it's head out from a space between the doors & stare at me, then quickly retreat. It was gone by the next day, and I felt glad it had taken up very temporary residence in my 'safe' shed where it might of run- from one of the neighbors dogs. I have ferrets which I have rescued/adopted for many, many years. To me? Having them is like one of the closest things to being up close & personal with their wild cousins ( mink, ermine, skunks etc, etc ) and I wouldn't trade them for most human companionship as like all animals, they aren't 'evil' & do no 'evil' in thought, word or deed like many conniving-self centered people.. Ferrets ( especially younger ones ) are LIGHTENING FAST and to watch mine all run through the entire house ( upstairs & down ) NOT caged as I have thoroughly 'ferret-proofed' all potential 'safety issues'.. helps these intelligent, affectionate animals live much longer as they need to exercise all the muscles in their bodies. Again, excellent- well written article which I greatly enjoyed!

      • profile image

        person here 2day 

        8 months ago

        I like this article. Especially the part about how this animal or that animal can't be kept as a pet because "it took thousands of years to domesticate dogs." That is clearly not true and the Russian fox experiment is the perfect example of that!

      • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

        Melissa A Smith 

        16 months ago from New York

        No.

      • profile image

        Sara 

        16 months ago

        The only problem I have is, wouldn't animals be happier out in the wild instead of in a cage which is kind of like a prision?

      • profile image

        Joshua 

        3 years ago

        Domestic cats put about 10k people in the hospital a year with about 25% resulting in deaths, with out access to modern medicine that num would be ridiculously higher. the biggest misnomers used with any animal regardless of origin is harmless and tame. There are no such thing as tame or harmless animals. Even a pet mouse can place a person in the hospital from a bite. Animals can be amazingly tolerant and even friendly but never loose the instinct to defend themselves and therefore capable of harm. otherwise the article has some good points.

      • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

        Melissa A Smith 

        3 years ago from New York

        Yes Ann that could potentially be very dangerous, and every time someone loses an arm when petting big cats the existence of them in captivity gets a bad name. Tigers can kill in seconds, or even tear off arms before anyone could react to protect you. Glad nothing happened.

      • Ann1Az2 profile image

        Ann1Az2 

        3 years ago from Orange, Texas

        I had the privilege of petting a tiger once. The man had it in a huge cage, although not nearly large enough in my estimation. When the tiger sort of growled low at me, I withdrew my hand from the fence, but the man said he was just purring, which the tiger proved when he came up to the fence wanting more petting. I would have crawled in with him but because of liability issues, his owner wouldn't let me. Still, it was a thrill. He weighed 650 pounds and his paws were as big as saucers. What astonished me the most was that he was as soft as a house cat.

      • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

        Melissa A Smith 

        3 years ago from New York

        That is unfortunate.

      • craftybegonia profile image

        craftybegonia 

        3 years ago from Southwestern, United States

        We had a neighbor who built a swimming pool to raise alligators in it. We had our doubts about that...fortunately, the project never saw its completion.

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