At first glance the differences between wild and domestic animals can seem minuscule in some cases, and some people think that these differences are so slight that they can domesticate a wild animal. The difference between domesticated and wild animals, however, is much more significant than you may think. Domestic animals and wild animals may have things in common, but they simply can’t be treated the same. Their behavior, their instincts, and the way they interpret human behaviors are all drastically different.
In this article we’ll take a closer look at what separates these two categories of animals, and look at a couple examples of animals that humans have domesticated. We’ll also learn a bit about the history of animal domestication.
The difference between domesticated animals and wild animals
The difference between domesticated animals and wild animals is pretty simple. Domesticated animals have been born and bred for many generations to live along side humans, while wild animals have not and still live in “the wild”, or in their natural habitats. When domesticating an animal, humans encourage certain traits through selective breeding so that each generation is closer and closer to what humans ultimately want out of the species.
What are domestic animals?
A domestic animal is not merely an animal that’s kept by or lives with humans. This is a common misconception, but an animal born in the wild is always going to be a wild animal. What’s more, any member of a wild species is always going to be wild, no matter how much time it spends around humans.
For example, most zoo animals were born in captivity, and they’re used to having humans around. They generally tolerate human presence well, and the staff at the zoo can interact with them safely. In spite of all this, they are still wild animals. That’s actually the reason why there are still safety measures (like giant fences) in place. A tiger born in a zoo is not a domestic animal, and it’s dangerous.
Truly domestic animals have been bred for generations, often for thousands of years, to be ideally suited for whatever purpose people need them for. Some of these animals are bred to be extremely docile while growing rapidly to large sizes to that they make good livestock. Others are bred to be companions like dogs and cats. You can see traces of their wild ancestry in their behaviors and instincts, but they are radically different from their cousins in the wilderness.
What are wild animals?
Wild animals have never been altered by human-directed breeding. Their behaviors, instincts, and genetic makeup have been shaped by the need to survive in their natural environment. For many, if not most, species this includes a deep wariness of humans. In others it can even be a dangerous level of aggression towards humans, and in some species there’s even an instinctive predatory behavior when they see humans.
As mentioned before, wild animals can be accustomed to humans and can even learn to not just tolerate, but even enjoy their presence. These animals are still wild creatures, though, and they can still become quite dangerous under the right circumstances.
Wild animals have a natural fear of humans, and tend to be aggressive when they’re afraid. Those traits are hard to overcome and can never be trained out of a wild animal. Domestic animals aren’t different because of any training- they’re different because they were bred to be different.
Examples of domesticated animals, and the species they originated from
To better understand the differences between domestic and wild animals, it’s helpful to examine some examples of domestic animals and the species they were domesticated from. This way you can begin to see just how different they really are.
Cattle are one of the oldest and most common domesticated animals in the world. It’s estimated that humans began to domesticated cattle from a small herd of about 80 wild aurochs over 10,000 years ago. Today, domestic cattle are found on every continent except Antarctica and they’ve been bred for many specific purposes. Some are bred to put on muscle and fat quickly, to provide meat. Others are bred for their milk production, while still others are bred for use as draft animals.
Domestic cattle are incredibly docile; they have to be, since they’re massive animals easily capable of killing their human masters. While bulls can get aggressive, cows rarely do. Humans can usually approach a herd of cattle in a pasture without any fear, and can even feed them by hand.
Aurochs (cattle’s wild ancestor)
The aurochs, or wild ox, is the wild ancestor of all cattle. Unfortunately, the last living aurochs was killed in 1627, so all we know of them comes from historical accounts and the fossil record. Most accounts agree that these animals could become very aggressive and were considered by hunters to be a very dangerous target.
For a living example of an animal similar to an aurochs, we can look at the Cape Buffalo of Africa. These are widely considered to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, with strong protective instincts that make even lions somewhat afraid to approach them. These buffalo, and the extinct Aurochs, are a far cry from the gentle giants that graze in our pastures.
To understand just how different domestic animals can be from wild ones, just look at a picture of a Dachshund and a picture of a wolf, and remember that Dachshunds are domesticated wolves.
Dog breeds show more variety in size and behavior than most domestic animals, and while some breeds are still remarkably similar in appearance to wolves, they differ drastically in behavior. The caveat here is that dogs were domesticated from wolves precisely because of some of the natural behaviors of wolves, and so many of these characteristics remain.
Domestic dogs are still pack animals, still need a clear pack hierarchy, and still have some of the hunting instincts that they’ve inherited from wolves. The similarities end there, though. Dogs are bred to be obedient, which means the aggressive, dominant behaviors exhibited by wolf pack leaders are typically bred out of dogs.
Dogs can be bred to guard people and property, to hunt (and, specifically, to help humans hunt), or simply as companions. They come in every imaginable shape and size. Some dogs have even been bred to protect livestock from wolves.
Wolves (dog’s wild ancestor)
Wolves are smart, creative, aggressive, and cautious. They avoid people, they struggle for dominance within the pack, and they work together to hunt animals far larger and stronger than they are. Dogs are smart, too, but they generally aren’t as intelligent as their wild cousins. They’re far more eager to please (good luck training a wolf), and while they can be aggressive in the right circumstances, they just don’t behave like wolves do.
Dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago. The dogs we have today are the result of 15,000 years of controlled, selective breeding. Even if they sometimes have similar behaviors, you could never take a wolf and train it to behave like your pet dog. Your pet is the result of thousands of years of human intervention in evolution.
Domesticated animals that are still a little bit wild
There are always exceptions to the rule, and there are some domestic animals that are still remarkably similar to their wild cousins.
Cats were domesticated a bit over 9,000 years ago, but they’re shockingly similar to the African wildcat they were domesticated from. They don’t even look very different (except a few of the more bizarre breeds.) The biggest difference is that domestic cats are more sociable, both with people and with other cats.
The reason for the similarities is that cats haven’t been bred for a multitude of different purposes like dogs. Cats are kept as companions now, but for most of history they’ve been kept as rodent-hunters. Since that’s a perfectly natural behavior for a wildcat, the only thing breeders needed to do was make them a bit more docile and comfortable around people. That being said, there are feral cats still living all over the place today that are 100% wild and have reverted from domestication.
Pigs were domesticated over 11,000 years ago, and they’re generally more docile and less hairy than wild pigs. As anyone living in the southern U.S. can tell you, though, domestic pigs are just wild boars in disguise.
Feral hogs are a huge problem in the South, and despite being almost entirely descended from domestic pigs, they look just like the wild boars of Europe and Asia. In just a few generations they’ve undone thousands of years of breeding and returned to the wild. These hogs are just as aggressive and dangerous as the famous wild boars of the Old Word, if a bit smaller on average.
Cats and pigs may easily return to the wild life, but these animals, living on farms and in homes, are still a far cry from their wild ancestors. Most domestic animals are the result of thousands of years of constant breeding, with breeders focusing on traits that humans have found desirable. While their wild cousins bred for traits like strength, aggression, fear of humans, and hunting ability, domestic animals were bred for gentleness, playfulness, loyalty, obedience, and comfort around people.
Domestic animals and wild animals are so different, in fact, that they’re usually considered entirely separate species. Genetically, a Dachshund and a Great Dane have more in common than a Great Dane and a wolf. Now matter how much a wild animal gets used to being around humans, it will never be a domestic animal.
As you can, the differences between wild and domestic animals are vast. The are entirely different, and even domestic animals that look like their wild cousins will behave very differently. Domesticating animals is a process that takes generations, and lasts centuries. Even wild animals that have spent their whole lives around humans are still not tame, safe creatures. They’re wild, and they can be dangerous.