Domesticated animals are animals that have been bred over the course of generations and generations to strengthen certain traits that are useful for human purposes. They are very much not the same as tamed animals because domesticated animals have undergone genetic modification whereas tamed animals have undergone behavioral modification. Something that interested individuals should keep in mind because it is very common for one to be confused for the other and vice versa.
How Did Animals Become Domesticated?
There is still much that remains unclear about how humans came to domesticate certain species. For instance, there is still much debate over the number of times that the dog was domesticated, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that the experts are working with very incomplete information. However, it seems safe to say that domestication is much easier said than done. For proof, look no further than the fact that just 14 large mammals have been domesticated, which is much, much smaller than the total number of large mammals that humans have encountered. Moreover, it should be mentioned that humans have been making domestication attempts throughout human history, meaning that both relatively modern techniques and technologies have been brought to bear on the problem with very mixed results at best.
As for why this is the case, domestication seems to be reliant on the Anna Karenina principle. Basically, a species needs to meet a number of factors for it to be domesticable. However, if just one of those factors is missing, the whole process comes to a crashing halt. As a result, it is perfectly possible for a species that looks very domesticable on initial inspection to prove to be otherwise in the end.
For example, people have been taming elephants for a very long time, which makes sense because they are smart, empathetic animals with considerable strength as well as considerable skill in making use of that strength. However, there are some serious practical limitations that make domesticating elephants not worthwhile. First, elephants are big animals that happen to be big eaters, meaning that any such program would need a huge amount of financial backing. Second, elephants take about 20 years to mature, meaning that a successful effort wouldn’t just be a matter of elephant generations but also a matter of human generations. Considering that it is possible to just tame wild elephants, it is no wonder that they have never been domesticated in spite of their extensive relationship with humans.
Moving on, another good example would be cheetahs. In short, cheetahs are very easy to tame, so much so that they are believed to have been first tamed in ancient Sumeria. In fact, it is known that some Middle Eastern nobles used to ride to the hunt with their cheetahs sitting behind them on special seats on their saddles, which speaks of considerable trust in the animals. Unfortunately, while there was considerable interest in domesticating cheetahs, that just wasn’t possible because they are very poor breeders in captivity. As in, there is just one record of a cheetah breeding in captivity before 1956, which made an ancient domestication program impossible for obvious reasons.
Besides this, it is worth mentioning that a lot of animals just don’t have the right temperaments for domestication. For example, some animals are solitary rather than social, meaning that they don’t do so well when they are forced together in close confines. Likewise, there are other animals that don’t just possess the potential to hurt humans but also the inclination to do so, thus increasing the difficulty of even keeping them in captivity. Never mind actually domesticating them. Theoretically, it might still be possible to domesticate these animals so long as interested parties are willing to put in enough resources, but every complication means that the hurdles get raised that much higher.
How Did Cats Become Domesticated?
Even now, people make jokes about the domestication status of cats. In fact, chances are good that interested individuals have heard many jokes about either cats being wild or cats having domesticated humans. However, it is important to note that we actually know a fair amount about the domestication of cats, which is a reflection of our interest in the matter. In short, earlier humans were hunter-gatherers. Over time, most hunter-gatherers made a very gradual transition to farmers, which was a huge change in how our species lived. In particular, it is worth mentioning that farmers started stockpiling their harvests so that they could survive on that stockpile in their off-season. Unfortunately, that produced significant changes in other species as well, with an excellent example being the rise of the mice as well as other vermin that fed upon the same food.
Unsurprisingly, humans had a strong interest in keeping vermin under control as much as possible. After all, if vermin devoured their stockpiled food, there was a very real risk of starvation for them. Fortunately, the presence of more vermin encouraged the presence of more wild cats because they served as a steady source of food. The wild cats had no real cause for conflict with farmers, seeing as how they had little interest in the farmers’ stockpiled food. Instead, they were beneficial because they could help farmers protect their stockpiled food, thus making for a win-win arrangement. However, while the two species had no cause for conflict, it seems safe to say that there was a selection process for the friendliest cats. Partly, this is because the friendliest cats would have had the most beneficial interaction with humans, thus providing them with a major advantage compared to their counterparts; and partly, this is because the least friendliest cats would have had potentially hostile interaction with humans, which would not have been a winning proposition for them to say the least.
As such, one could make the argument that cats are rather unusual in that they effectively domesticated themselves thanks to a double-coincidence of wants. Since that time, humans have brought their cats with them everywhere. Sometimes, this was so that the cats could perform their time-honored role of protecting human interests, as shown by the long-standing tradition of ship cats. However, feline companionship has played an important role as well, which is by no means mutually exclusive with the previous consideration.