Can't Be Tamed?

Does Miley Cyrus speak the truth about all animals? Can they be tamed?.....Or can't they?

As I was walking around campus the past few weeks, it has been nearly impossible to not notice the enormous amounts of squirrels populating Penn State. I have seen squirrels being hand-fed by Penn State students. When watching a squirrel eat out of a person's hand, I couldn't help but wonder...can wild animals like these be tamed?

Looking around online, I found a National Geographic article that focused primarily on taming wild foxes. It is a very interesting article that describes the process of domesticating wild foxes. In Siberia more than half a century ago, a biologist named Dmitry Belyaev, along with researchers at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics gathered up 130 foxes from fur farms. They then began breeding them with the goal of re-creating the evolution of wolves into dogs. With each generation of fox kits, Belyaev and his colleagues tested their reactions to human contact, selecting those most approachable to breed for the next generation. Through this selection process, they were producing foxes that "were not just unafraid of humans, but actively seeking to bond with them."

Domesticated animals are known to share a common set of characteristics, a fact documented by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. They tend to be smaller, with floppier ears and curlier tails (Think: dogs, cats) than other non-domesticated animals (Think: bears, giraffes). These, and other traits, sometimes referred to as the domestication phenotype, exist in varying degrees "across a remarkably wide range of species, from dogs, pigs, and cows to some nonmammalians like chickens, and even a few fish." When breeding the foxes, it was found that after only nine generations of foxes, kits were born with floppier ears, as well as whined and wagged their tails in response to a human presence, behaviors never seen in wild foxes.
tame fox.jpg

Not everyone thinks that Belyaev's research is cutting-edge, however. Uppsala University's Leif Andersson, who studies the genetics of farm animals believes that the relationship between tameness and the domestication phenotype may prove to be less direct than the fox study implies. "You select on one trait and you see changes in other traits," Andersson says, but "there has never been proven a causal relationship."

How to prove a causal relationship? The answer is still in the works....through the studies of Belyaey, Andersson, and many more...we may truly find out why some animals can't be tamed, why some can, and how humans play in to this complex process.


I am very surprised by these results. I was not aware that animals have a natural predisposition to being domesticated. I thought that most animals, at least mammals, could be tamed and domesticated. I thought that if you raised an animal from infancy and cared for it that it could be domesticated. Your research seems to prove otherwise. I have, however, seen a few examples of seemingly untamable animals being tamed and domesticated.
This is one example that I have seen. A very heart warming one at that.

I am curious to see how the researchers would explain this. Obviously, lions are not inherently tame, so how did this happen?

The article briefly discusses the point you make. I, too, was wondering why some animals that seem too wild to "tame" have been raised by humans, and do not show any "wild" tendencies. The article says: "Scientists have even struggled to define domestication precisely. We all know that individual animals can be trained to exist in close contact with humans. A tiger cub fed by hand, imprinting on its captors, may grow up to treat them like family. But that tiger's offspring, at birth, will be just as wild as its ancestors. Domestication, by contrast, is not a quality trained into an individual, but one bred into an entire population through generations of living in proximity to humans. Many if not most of the species' wild instincts have long since been lost. Domestication, in other words, is mostly in the genes."

I think the key word in this excerpt is "imprinting." If the animal is raised from birth by a human, then that human is all that the animal knows. The animal is still born wild, but loses its wild tendencies through the process of being raised by a human. However, there have been many cases where wild animals, such as tigers, have been raised by humans since birth, yet randomly exhibit wild tendencies. Humans have been killed as a result of these outbursts.

Here is a website that documents many of these attacks:

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