When we talk about animals being “tame,” it could simply mean that we have decent, neighborly relations, rather than fear-filled mutual hostility. Maybe domesticating animals began with simple friendliness, as with the Russian beekeeper whose son said, “He liked bees, and they liked him. He would go to the hives without his shirt. He wasn’t afraid.ˮ It’s possible that the Pygmy people of Cameroon aren’t lying when they claim that the armies of red driver ants don’t bite them. Maybe on some level empathy works, and that’s how our relations with water buffaloes began.
Of course at some point we moved “beyond” making animal friends and started taking prisoners. Domestication then commonly turned to enslavement, and according to historian Jared Diamond, this has been “the worst mistake in history.” Diamond claims that keeping captive animals has led to higher incidence of diseases and zoonotic parasites, a reduced variety in our diet, lower life expectancy, and maladaptive behavior by both humans and beasts. The Nuer pastoralists of Sudan agree, and they should know, as they’ve based their life on cows for thousands of years. These highly experienced people report that cows have killed more humans than anything else. In ancient times, they say, humans killed the mothers of both cows and buffaloes. The African buffaloes vowed to get revenge by attacking people in the bush. But the cows more cleverly plotted revenge by staying with humans in their camps, and causing them to endlessly kill each other in disputes over herds, debts, bride-wealth, pasture lands or watering holes. In the end, it will all lead to a kind of cow apocalypse, of which it is said that “They [the cattle] will be finished together with mankind, for men will die on account of cattle, and they and the cattle will cease together.” Perhaps this prophesy speaks of mega-death from environmental collapse, after our herds of domestic animals have reduced the planet to a greenhouse-gas desert.
Over the past few thousand years we’ve systematically slaughtered some beasts and “bonded” with others. And though genocide has generally proved unhealthy, we have to wonder if bonding has been much better. Are domestic animals parasites on us, worming their way into ever closer dependency? Are we just enslaving them, and claiming it uplifts the slaves from barbarity? By many accounts, when we capture and raise baby animals, they “misbond” with human “parents.” Most domestic dogs fit right into the family, and the chimpanzees look cute wearing clothes. But as Paul Shepard warned, these animals are social misfits. They develop emotional abnormalities and grow incapable of going back to their wild kin.
Over time, people have tried to domesticate various new animals, with various doubtful results. The ancient Egyptians tried to captivate the oryx, ibex, or gazelle. They tried to get hyenas to serve as hunting dogs. Maybe it was for the best that these animals proved so uncooperative that we gave up. When domestic oxen let themselves be harnessed to turn grain mills all day, their lives became nothing but an endless circle round a turnstile. As the oxen cried out to the King of Spirits in an old Sufi story, “If you could see us, our Lord and King, bound by rope to a yoke and between our shoulders the harness of a plough; how they compel us with whips and chains beyond the limits of our endurance to plough their land and to thresh their grain—and we with our mouths all bridled and muzzled—then your mercies would be so aroused you would exclaim: ‘Human compassion is nothing but a fraud!’” Animal rights activist Joan Dunayer, the author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, claims we should call a spade a spade. Our aquariums should be renamed “aqua prisons.” Zoo animals should be termed “zoo inmates.” We should call cowboys “cow abusers.”
Clearly, the history of animal domestication shows a heavy heritage of cruelty. During WWII, a US soldier in North Africa complained that the local farmers were incredibly abusive toward their plow animals: “The men spend two-thirds of their time beating [them] … and one third of the time guiding the plow.ˮ That propensity for ego-starved cruelty toward “inferiors” has been almost overwhelming in the older incarnations of Western civilization. We’ve bred animals for docility—killing or sterilizing the spirited and intelligent ones, to select for a survival of the most passive. As William McCombe, founder of Scotland’s Polled Cattle Society, said in the 1800s, “Docility in temper in male and female is indispensible. Inexpressible mischief may be done by the introduction of wild blood into the herd, for it is sure to be inherited. I have suffered seriously by this error.” Generation by generation, our domestic animals grew more incapable of independent life, and their brains actually shrank. The brains of domestic goats and pigs have evolved to be one third smaller than those of their wild kin. Somewhat less shrinkage happened to domestic dogs as compared with wild wolves. The fry of hatchery fish are oblivious to moving predator-like objects above their tanks. Even humans have suffered from docility since the rise of agriculture. Our brains are about one tenth smaller than those of our wild Ice Age ancestors. It seems that a selection for human passivity has gone on through much of history, wherever rulers took their subjects as flocks to be fleeced. In civilization as we’ve known it, the people were “domesticated” almost like the other beasts of burden. It’s enough to make us doubt the religious value of obedience to supposedly higher authorities.
At this point in history, the domestication or husbandry of animals is a furiously evolving process. And as the rapid transformations of the animals’ worlds are mainly human-imposed, they are evolving for adaption to us. The implications for livestock, pets, and wild animal “friends” commonly range from the horrific to the laughable. For example, with all our global destruction of wildlife habitats, it can seem that the most effective way to save animal species is to take them as pets, or as entertainers in our amusement parks. We have the Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the Arbuckle Wilderness Exotic Animal Theme Park, in Davis, Oklahoma. The animals in these theme parks often come from surplus offspring of zoo animals, and the zoos increasingly function as Noah’s ark-like repositories of beasts. The zoos commonly stock several pairs of chromosomes per species, lest all wild survivors be lost. The number of wild tigers in Asia has probably fallen to around 3,200, but the physical survival of tigers might be assured, because there are about 2,000 tigers living in Texas. These tigers stalk large caged areas to be viewed by tourists, or else live as stupendously dangerous pets. As with dogs, fish, or cows, people have tried cross-breeding their great cats. The mating of lions and tigers produced “ligers” or “tigalons.”
Are relations between humans and other animals generally improving? The rise of animal rights activism suggests so, but the abysmal conditions for most farm animals and the bulldozing of natural habitat suggest not. Certainly abstract sympathy for wild things is growing, and devotion to pets is reaching heights that could be either spiritual or mentally ill. We have cases of “bonding” with all sorts of animals, even turkeys. But has this been good for the animals themselves? Was the whole rise of domesticating animals a mutually helpful thing? Or is it dangerous for every creature concerned, and does respect for other creatures suggest something else?
Diamond, Jared (2002) “Evolution, Consequences, and Future of Plant and Animal Domestication.” Nature, 418, pp. 700–707.
Dunayer, Joan Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, Ryce Publishing, Derwood, MD.
Evans-Pritchard, Edward (1940) The Nuer. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Laytner, Rabbi Annson, and Bridge, Rabbi Dan, translators. (2005) The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: A Modern Adaption of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale. Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY, p. 23.
Montgomery, M. R. (2004) A Cow’s Life: The Surprising History of Cattle and How the Black Angus Came to be Home on the Range. Walker & Company, New York, p. 87.
Oren, Michael B. (2007) Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. W. W. Norton, New York, pp. 463–464.
Shepard, Paul (1996) The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. Island Press, Washington, p. 314.
Vaillant, John (2010) The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, p. 84.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto, and publishes with the Exterminating Angel Press.