Photo Credit: ekenitr via Compfight cc
Should you be allowed to keep a kangaroo in the backyard? What about a koala? Have you ever asked the question why some species of animals make great pets and others just don’t seem to adapt well to extended contact with humans?

For example, horses have been used as burden-bearing animals for thousands of years in human settlements, but why not zebras?

For the past 20,000 years of human history we’ve only managed to domesticate 14 of the thousands of species of larger animals. As it turns out, there are a number of behavioural and biological traits that have kept humans at bay when it comes to domesticating the vast majority of animals.

So let’s take a closer look at what traits were looked at by our ancestors in order to domesticate animals.

According to Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist, there are six major criteria for animal domestication:

1.      Animals must meet specific criteria for their dietary needs. They must be able to be fed a flexible diet which does not overlap with that of humans (grass and forage are good examples). This minimises the cost of breeding in captivity, and explains the dominance of domesticated herbivores and omnivores over carnivores.

2.      They must be able to reach maturity quickly. Juvenile animals are an ongoing drain on their breeders’ resources until they reach maturity and are capable of fulfilling their required role. For example, elephants take 15 years to reach maturity; one major factor in their not being domesticated.

3.      The animals must be able to breed in captivity. There are various breeding traits that prevent this ability, such as privacy requirements and territorial tendencies.

4.      Domesticated beasts also should have a pleasant, non-violent disposition. Creatures that are likely to behave aggressively towards their human keepers present too much risk to make them economically viable or sustainable.

5.      The animal in question must not have a tendency to panic when kept in captivity. The process of domestication requires animals to be kept confined in a controlled environment; if they are consistently panicking and attempting escape this process becomes unviable.

6.      There should be a modifiable social hierarchy, in which humans can be seen as the leader of the pack for animals that have been raised in captivity. Breeders must be able to establish a clear level of dominance over herds in order to control them and domesticate the animals effectively.

There are many potential factors behind the suitability of specific animal species for domestication. Some animal species may appear to be absolutely suitable on first inspection, however their more complex behavioural and biological traits may prevent their usefulness. The important thing to realise is that all animals are a unique and vital part of the ecosystem, and deserve our care and commitment.