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Last updated January 1, 2014

The Role of the Domestic Animal in the Zoo

Donna Fitzroy Hardy, International Zoo News, 46/8(297), December 1999


Zoos have always had a profound influence on how people regard animals. In the 19th century, many Americans received their first exposure to wild animals through traveling circuses and menageries that often displayed them in small, cell-like exhibits separated from the public by heavy cage bars. Since the behavior of wild animals in captivity is greatly influenced by their housing, our great-grandparents were probably introduced to many confined creatures that nervously paced back and forth and appeared to be unfriendly to people. The iron bars reinforced the common assumption that wild animals are dangerous to people, a view that fit in very well with the general attitude that nature was something first to be conquered, then tamed in the service of mankind. As zoos gradually changed from menageries to zoological gardens, the animals were moved from their cramped cages to large, open-air exhibits, and the bars were replaced by chain-link fences and moats. Concrete enclosures were made to look more natural by the addition of rockwork and grass. With the lessening of their confinement, captive animals came to behave more as they would in the wild, and public attitudes toward wild animals began to change. With the advent of television, the zoo-going public began to be exposed to wild animals in nature documentaries, and zoo visitors began to expect more from zoo exhibits. Indeed, modern zoo exhibits are attempts to present wild animals to the public in naturalistic settings, for the benefit of the animals on display as well as the zoo visitors.

We must not forget that the public perception of wild animals is still being shaped by zoos. The idyllic settings of modern exhibits, however desirable in the modern zoo, may be presenting as distorted a picture of wild animals as did the Victorian menagerie. The `invisible barriers' between exhibit animals and public viewing areas have allowed zoo visitors to get `up close and personal' with even the most exotic and potentially dangerous of species. It is possible that the modern zoo exhibit may be giving the public the impression that these now-familiar exotic animals are less dangerous to people than they actually are. The changing public perception of wild animals may be part of the reason why so many people now desire exotic animals as pets. While owning a lion cub may spur some people into becoming zoo directors, as chronicled so well by the late Guy Smith of Knoxville Zoo in A House for Joshua (1985), the more common experience of exotic pet ownership is far less gratifying. And although the position of zoos is that wild animals should not be kept as pets, it is possible that zoos themselves may inadvertently be contributing to this problem by the way they display animals.

The move from `hard' exhibits of concrete and gunite to more naturalistic 'soft' exhibit habitats took place at the same time as the American public began to develop environmental awareness. The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) perhaps more than any other single event brought to the American consciousness that the future of animals in the wild is in serious jeopardy. The American public began to perceive the zoo as an ark that could prevent extinction of animals by preserving in captivity the species that were threatened in the wild. During the last 30 years, however, the public has come to understand that environmental catastrophes are not inevitable, and that at least some of the problems caused by humans can be prevented and possibly reversed. With this increased awareness of wildlife and habitat conservation, the zoo is coming to be perceived as a lifeboat rather than an ark, the message of the book Lifeboats to Ararat (1978) by the late Sheldon Campbell of San Diego Zoo. Conservation has joined preservation as the mission of the modern zoo and aquarium.

Conservation is now a significant theme in zoo education. It is commonly incorporated in programs on vanishing species, as well as in a variety of other ways in increasing public environmental awareness. One important means that zoo educators use in increasing public appreciation of and respect for nature is by giving zoo visitors a personal experience with living animals. Connections between people and animals in zoos commonly include adoption programs and naming individual animals, as well as keeper talks and special `behind the scenes' visits. Developing appreciation of wild animals is an integral part of efforts by zoos to increase environmental awareness and to gain support for worldwide conservation, and close proximity to animals is provided to the zoo visitor in elephant rides, animal nurseries and children's petting zoos, as well as in various animal shows. In cultivating this personal appreciation for wild animals, however, it is possible that zoos may be presenting a mixed message to the public: while they may be telling the visitors that wild animals do not make good pets, in using exotic species as contact animals, zoos may inadvertently be contributing to the desire of the zoo-going public to own wild animals. Indeed, people today may now be so in love with some species that this very love may be contributing to extinctions in the wild. Import bans on vulnerable or endangered species have not ended the illegal importation of many kinds of animals, and as long as there is a market for wild animals as pets, smugglers will meet that demand. The illegal importation of exotic animals and the exploitation of native species for the pet market would come to a rapid halt if there were no longer any public demand for these animals. But who can be expected to hear the message that wild animals should not be kept as pets while they are admiring animal babies in a zoo nursery?

Thus, rather than reinforcing the fear of wild animals as in the past, the modern zoo may now be cultivating a love affair between the zoo-going public and exotic species. But just as fear of wild animals contributed to the persecution of large carnivores like the puma in the past, desire to own exotic pets may now be spelling the doom of the puma's small spotted relatives! The use of exotic cats and other `desirable' species as contact animals by zoos may in fact be sending out the message that at least some wild animals might make good pets. Furthermore, the common practice of giving individual zoo animals human names may also be contributing to the tendency to give human traits to non-human animals, just as is done with household pets. Of course, the solution to this potential dilemma is not for zoos to put wild animals back behind bars or to eliminate contact animals and zoo nurseries. Clearly the best solution is through public education: zoo educators can help the public come to understand why wild animals should stay out of private hands by using the resources that most zoos already have in their collections – living domestic animals. In order to accomplish this, however, zoo professionals may have to rethink the way that domestic animals are currently used in most zoos.

Domestic animals are commonly found in children's zoos and in the 'Farm in the Zoo' section, and many domestic species (e.g., sheep, miniature goats, baby chicks, rabbits, etc.) are used primarily as contact animals for small children. Farm animals that are easy to maintain often make ideal contact animals, since they do not present a serious risk to most zoo visitors. Furthermore, since many domestic animals are ideal for the zoo visitors to feed, selling animal food for this purpose has become profitable for many zoos. The message wild animals do not make good pets can be promoted by incorporating domestic animals into conservation programs with a new message: many domestic animals make good pets. With an emphasis on the differences between domesticated and exotic animals, the domesticated species can become a valuable tool in the effort to reduce the demand for non-domesticated animals by the public. One excellent way to bring this new message to the public is through educational programs on the history of domestication.


The origins of animal domestication
Throughout history, animals have been exploited for the purpose of bettering human existence. This exploitation comes from hunting wild forms as well as through breeding animals in captivity. The process of domestication began during the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago, and recent developments in genetic engineering continue this process to the present. Domestication is defined as a condition in which the breeding, care, and feeding of animals are, to some degree, subject to continuous control by humans. (It differs from taming in that the process of taming affects only individual animals, whereas domestication affects whole populations.) Whether the relationship between humans and the species is concentrated (as is the case of cattle) or weak (as with reindeer and llamas), some degree of biological change (morphological, physiological, and/or behavioral) in the animal is usually involved.

Many theories have been put forward in attempting to explain why humans began the process of domestication. Most anthropologists believe that animals were originally domesticated for economic reasons, and nearly all of the theories of domestication have in common the basic assumption that humans engaged in a purposeful procedure rather than that domestication occurred by chance. It is thought that early humans needed a supply of certain animals and therefore contrived to domesticate these species. Another theory put forth by Stephen Budiansky in his book Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication (1992) is that animals (as well as plants) chose domestication because of the benefits of living in close contact with humans. Just as reindeer are inclined to stay in the vicinity of humans because of their attraction to the minerals found in the soil near human habitation, it is presumed that cattle, sheep and goats were originally attracted to human habitation because of advantages of lack of predators, more stable food supply, etc. The disadvantage of individuals occasionally being eaten by humans is thought to have been outweighed by the overall advantages conferred upon the group. Only after a long period of this original loose association did people take direct control of the breeding of domestic animals, and selective breeding for uniform characteristics seems to be a relatively recent practice. Indeed, many present-day breeds of domestic livestock originated about the middle of the 19th century or later.

Prolonged contact with humans has produced three general kinds of animals: `tamed' wild species, semi-domesticated forms, and fully domesticated breeds. Animals on these three levels differ in the amount of reliance and closeness of ties they have to humans. In the taming of wild species, animals maintain loose ties to humans but continue to breed with wild individuals of the same species. Consequently, most tamed species are morphologically no different from their wild counterparts. (Exceptions to this rule are found in a number of species of birds – e.g., peafowl and guinea fowl – which have been separated from wild populations but are commonly classified as tame.) The white-tailed gnu (Connochaetes gnou) is an example of a species that is in the process of being tamed in Africa. Another example of this level of domestication is the reindeer of the Lapps in northern Scandinavia. Reindeer are a tame form of Rangifer tarandus, the `caribou' of North America that are included in many zoo collections. Reindeer and caribou could be compared in public education programs about domestication, and while reindeer might not be allowed to wander freely in public areas (even the Lapps remove the antlers from the tame reindeer before they are used in racing!), young reindeer might be useful as contact animals. Rather than coming to the zoo as seasonal `Santa's helpers', reindeer could be used with other species in demonstrations of the degree to which the process of domestication has influenced the form and behavior of animals. Zoos might even wish to incorporate cultural anthropology into their programs by demonstrating the differences between Inuits and Lapps in their exploitation of this species.

In the simplest form of domestication, the animals that are maintained in captivity undergo physiological and/or biological changes. By definition, these semi-domesticated animals are usually kept separate from their relatives in the wild. However, while they are genetically isolated from wild populations, no special effort may be made to select specific characteristics for breeding. One exception to this is the selection of coat color in ranch-bred mink, and a comparison of wild and semi-domesticated minks would make an interesting zoo exhibit. Breeding semi-domesticated animals differs from captive propagation of tame forms in that prolonged contact with humans has resulted in some kind of change in the species, particularly in behavior. For example, the young of semi-domesticated forms have less tendency to avoid humans than the young of wild or `tamed' species that are being raised in captivity. (The many species of wild birds and mammals that have long been bred in captivity as pets are not classified as either tamed or domesticated, and individuals may be indistinguishable from their wild counterparts. Similarly, many exotic animals bred for exhibition in zoos remain as `wild' as the same species not in confinement.)

While many examples of semi-domesticated animals can be found in zoo collections, the Asian elephant is often used as an example of this level of domestication. Although in some parts of the world this species is used in every way as a domestic animal, its breeding is not subject to human control. Nor does the morphology of a domesticated elephant differ from its wild relatives. (Since this species in Asia is not genetically isolated from its wild relatives, it is sometimes considered to be a tamed species rather than a semi-domesticated form.) Other zoo animals that are now commonly bred by humans and may be termed semi-domesticated include the plains bison, wood bison, wisent, musk ox, fallow deer, red deer, wild boar, mongoose, chinchilla, wild turkey, common pheasant, and guinea fowl. In addition, ostriches are widely bred in captivity for their leather and other products, and as well as the mink, a number of other species of carnivore have semi-domesticated varieties that are bred for their pelts. The genetic isolation of these semi-domesticated species may eventually produce forms that have some morphological differences from the same species in the wild. The degree of success of breeding semi-domesticated species for commercial exploitation depends, of course, upon the species chosen. For example, the temperament of red deer makes this species easier to herd through fenced alleys and runways than fallow deer, which have a greater likelihood of panicking under the same conditions.

A more advanced level of domestication includes animals that are fully domesticated as the result of selective breeding for specific purposes – usually size, color or behavior. Most animals in this category are easily recognized as being `non-wild' forms, such as most breeds of domestic dogs, cats, rabbits, sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, horses, hamsters, and chickens. This category also includes species that appear to be no different from wild forms and may be exhibited at the zoo along with other exotic species. An excellent example of a fully domesticated animal with a very `wild' appearance that would fit very well into zoo collections is the yak. Indeed, this species would not appear to be a domestic animal when compared to most wild bovids. Yaks have been utilized by humans for meat, milk and even as a beast of burden for many hundreds of years, and are said to be excellent pack and riding animals for mountain travel. Other fully domesticated animals that are commonly exhibited at zoos as exotic species include Arabian camel or dromedary, Bactrian camel, water buffalo and llama. While camels and water buffalo are not much different in appearance from their wild ancestors, the great color variation that is exhibited by domesticated llamas differentiates them considerably from their wild ancestors, which were agouti in color.

The most highly domesticated species have resulted from the planned development of breeds that have certain desirable properties, and the persecution or extermination of the wild ancestors has commonly paralleled this long process of domestication. For example, the spread of domestic cattle throughout the world eventually led to the extinction of its wild counterpart and ancestor, the aurochs. Similarly, the ancestral Equus caballus disappeared from the wild following the domestication of the modern horse. In some cases, however, a species may secondarily return to the wild state following full domestication, when individuals escape or are freed from captivity and begin to reproduce in the wild as feral animals. Feral forms have evolved for nearly all domesticated species, most notably horses, sheep, goats, dogs and cats. One example of an animal that some consider to be a feral domestic form and that is exhibited in many zoo collections is the dingo of Australia. While dingos are sometimes classified as a separate species, Canis dingo, rather than as a subspecies or breed of Canis familiaris, they are thought to have accompanied humans to that continent as fully domesticated dogs. Other feral animals that might also be included in zoo collections are the feral mustang, a breed descended from horses brought to the New World by the Spanish, and Texas longhorn cattle, which were descended from Spanish cattle that had escaped in Mexico. While wild-caught mustangs are commonly tamed and trained for riding, Texas longhorn cattle are said to be more difficult to maintain in captivity. During centuries of surviving in the feral state, longhorn cattle seem to have lost many characteristics of domestic cattle (e.g., docility)


Domesticated animals in zoo collections
There are several approaches to discouraging the public from acquiring exotic animals as pets. One approach, of course, is to concentrate on the plight of endangered species and attempt to gain public support for worldwide conservation programs. An important part of worldwide conservation is protection of endangered species from capture for the pet market, as well as from habitat degradation, over-hunting, poisoning or pollution, competition with domestic livestock, etc. One might assume that a citizen who supports conservation efforts would also refrain from acquiring exotic animals as pets, but this may be an incorrect assumption. The zoo visitor who would not dream of wearing a leopard coat may have no qualms in acquiring a margay cat as a pet, and thus unknowingly be contributing to the extinction of an endangered species without even realizing it! Many people today who purchase even legally imported exotic species as pets (e.g., large lizards and snakes) may have no awareness of the toll that commercial harvesting of these species may take on wild populations. In these ways, people today may not be much different from Americans a hundred years ago who never questioned where their `buffalo' blankets might be coming from! The need to educate the public about conservation is very great, and zoos are in a unique position to reach people in a very personal way. Perhaps the conservation message is just not as clear as it could be.

An innovative approach to conservation education may be to explain the advantages of domestic animals as pets. Through the long process of domestication, humans have selected animals with certain desirable characteristics. The more of these characteristics or behaviors that are present in a species, the more likely it is that it has been the object of successful domestication. General characteristics which humans have selected include:

1. docility (a behavioral trait that is inherited);

2. adaptability and fitness for different domestic environments (such as living in close proximity to humans);

3. specific characteristics of economic importance (e.g., high fertility, rapid growth, efficient conversion of food into meat or into other useful products such as milk, eggs, feathers, leather);

4. a reduction in the time between birth and maturity while retaining certain infantile characteristics;

5. reduction of wild characteristics (especially the aggressive and sexually-related display structures such as horns); and

6. hybrid vigor through crossbreeding. (This may result in resistance to disease and a high percentage of young surviving to maturity, etc.)

The only one of these characteristics that is an important requirement for a good pet is docility. There is clearly an advantage in owning a pet that has a low likelihood of harming humans or other animals. Thus, most breeds of domestic dog make far superior pets in this regard than do wolves, coyotes, or even wolf–dog or coyote–dog hybrids. (Some breeds of domestic dog are naturally more aggressive than others. However, most of us would not want a pet that dines on the poodle next door, a real possibility with a wolf–dog hybrid!) An educational program on domestication that compares the domestic dog (an excellent contact animal!) to wild canids in the zoo collection might emphasize differences as well as similarities in their behavior. Along with the dingo of Australia, zoos might want to acquire other types of feral dog, such as the pariah dog that is found from Japan to North Africa or the New Guinea singing dog. Other dog-like species that are in many zoo collections (e.g., the Cape hunting dog of Africa, the maned wolf of South America, the dhole or Indian wild dog) can also be compared to the domestic dog. Similar comparisons could be made between other fully domesticated species and their wild counterparts; the domestic chicken and the red jungle fowl is one obvious example.

Feral domestic animals might play an important role in conservation education. Since zoos commonly exhibit the dingo, it might be quite appropriate and even desirable for zoos to consider adding other feral domestic species to their collections. The brumby, the feral horse of Australia, might join the dingo as part of an Australian exhibit, as could the European rabbit and water buffalo that are also feral on that continent. Zoos could make use these four feral Australian species in conservation programs that illustrate the competition between feral animals and native marsupials.

Although it is assumed that most visitors are expecting to see more exotic species at the zoo, visitors to the Amarillo Zoo in Texas are no doubt delighted to find the mustang, our 'wild' (actually feral) horse of the great American West, in its collection. Participation in the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program of the Department of the Interior by adopting wild-caught horses and burros (feral donkeys) might be an excellent way that American zoos could inaugurate an educational program on Domestication of Animals. With feral mustangs, feral burros and Texas longhorn cattle, zoos could bring to the zoo visitor a picture of the Old West that is seldom presented – the interdependence of humans (cowboys and Indians, early settlers and prospectors) and their domestic animals. Domestic horses could even be exhibited side-by-side with the Przewalski's horse to show the differences between the two species, and young colts born at the zoo might be desirable contact animals. (Clearly these colts would be very different from hand-raised Przewalski's colts, which would be as `wild' as hand-raised zebra colts!) To further distinguish between domestic and non-domestic species, zoos might want to adopt the policy of naming only the domestic forms – domestic horse colts would receive names but Przewalski colts would not.

The use of domesticated animals in zoo education can meet several goals of the zoo educator. The history of domestication is a fascinating subject in itself, and a zoo educator has the ability to make living comparisons between domestic species and their wild relatives and ancestors. The use of domestic animals as contact animals can be a very rewarding experience for zoo visitors, and comparing the feel of the fur of a living angora rabbit to that of most domesticated rabbit breeds is one way to demonstrate how special traits have been selected through domestication. A program on domestication can compare a `tame' species like a reindeer to a semi-domesticated species like the bison to a fully domesticated species like the llama. Through this kind of program, zoo visitors can come to understand why and how animals have become domesticated, as well as the desirability of domesticated over exotic animals as pets.


The place of rare breeds of domestic livestock in zoo collections
Many breeds of farm livestock that were common in the first half of this century fell from favor because of changes in society and agriculture. However, people are generally unaware that these breeds of sheep, cattle, poultry, pigs and horses are now on the brink of extinction or have disappeared altogether. Teams of draft horses pulling farm implements and wagons have been replaced by tractors and trucks. The great variety of livestock of the past has given way to the relatively few breeds now favored by modern agri-business, and the result has been hybridization and demand for uniformity of stock at the expense of genetic variability. (Many of the old breeds combined desirable production traits with distinct table properties, and the literature of the past frequently commented on the differing flavors of various farm breeds, e.g., Houdan fowl. Today, I would wager that our 'factory-farmed' poultry – Cornish cross in the U.S.A. – tastes exactly the same around the world!)

Since we may need to call upon old breeds of livestock for specific traits (e.g., longevity, disease resistance, adaptability, structural soundness), they may be viewed today as a kind of insurance for future trends in agriculture and in consumer demand. Unfortunately, the world has entered a period during which an increasing number of domestic farm animals and poultry are vanishing forever. And once this `living gene bank' is lost, it may be difficult or impossible to meet future changes in market demand. However, there has been increasing interest in the plight of rare and endangered livestock breeds. While one objective is to preserve these breeds in the interest of genetic diversity, another objective is to preserve them because of their special characteristics. (North Ronaldsay sheep, for example, are valued because of their distinctive adaptation to a diet of seaweed – an ability not shared by other sheep.)

In addition to their scientific and economic values, traditional livestock breeds form part of the cultural heritage of many countries – they are remnants of our agricultural past. Indeed, these livestock breeds can be regarded as a kind of `living history.' For example, native livestock breeds such as Soay sheep, Bagot goats, Dorking poultry, Exmoor ponies and white park cattle are an integral part of British history. Lastly, many people have found that old domestic farm animal breeds are docile, easily managed and attractive in appearance. They even report that the various breeds have differing personalities!

Many zoo professionals that I have met believe that these fascinating animals can play an important role in every zoo collection. But why would people who are familiar with domestic livestock want to go to zoos to see these same species? Before we address this question, perhaps we need to ask "Why do people visit zoos?" The answer to this latter question is probably the same today as it was a hundred years ago when people went to menageries to see animals that they had never seen – the rare, exotic animals from faraway lands. And just as there are rare, exotic wild animals, there are also rare, exotic domestic animals. While many people may not be especially interested in seeing common breeds of domestic animals, they can be attracted to zoos that display unfamiliar domestic animals: the rare (and endangered) breeds of livestock. The inclusion of rare breeds of domestic animals in zoo collections can serve the dual function of expanding the zoo audience and preserving these breeds. The rich history of domestication of livestock and the historical role of many (now rare) livestock breeds would be a valuable addition to educational programs that focus on the relationship between people and animals. And by linking these animals to their living relatives (e.g., domestic horses to zebras, wild asses, and Asian wild horses), zoos can promote an appreciation for conservation of wild species.



Budiansky, S. (1992): Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. William Morrow, New York.

Campbell, S. (1978): Lifeboats to Ararat. Times Books, New York.

Carson, R. (1962): Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Smith, G. (1985): A House for Joshua: The Building of the Knoxville Zoo. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

For more information on domestication of animals, I recommend:

Clutton-Brock, J. (1987): A Natural History of Domesticated Animals. University of Texas Press, Austin.

More information about rare livestock breeds can also be obtained through the following:

Rare Breeds Survival Trust, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LG, U.K.

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, P.O. Box 477, Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312, U.S.A.

Australian Rare and Minority Breeds Association Inc.

Rare Breeds Canada, c/o Trent University Environmental and Resource Studies Program, Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7B8 Canada.

Donna FitzRoy Hardy, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, California State University Northridge, Northridge, California 91330-8255, U.S.A.

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