Why Some Animals Can’t be Domesticated


Sheep weren’t always the fluffy, woolly wonders we know today. We humans gave them their fluff by consistently breeding the fluffiest ones each generation.

This process is called domestication, where we sculpt wild animals to better suit our needs.

In the dawn of humanity, animals were indispensable—providing food, clothing, transportation, and even acting as living tractors.

Despite the abundance of animals, only a few were domesticated in the pre-modern world.

So, what made these chosen few so special? Let’s dive into our domestication checklist.

Feedable Friends

A cow turns grass into steaks, while a tiger turns steaks into… more tiger.

Considering it takes ten pounds of grass to make a pound of steak, and ten pounds of steak to make a pound of tiger, it’s clear: carnivores are a no-go for domestication. We needed animals that were herbivores and not picky eaters.

They should thrive on abundant food sources that we can’t consume ourselves.

Any omnivores considered had to be happy eating anything and be super worth it. But before we could feed them, we had to catch them, which brings us to…

Friendly Faces

Carnivores were off the table because their job is to hunt and kill. Even some omnivores, like grizzlies, have murder on their moonlighting resume.

Vegetarians weren’t always safe bets either—buffalo are terrifying tanks, hippos hold the murder high-score in Africa, and giraffes can knock out predators with a single kick.

The most promising candidates for domestication were often the most dangerous. War bears would have been cool, but it’s not going to happen.

If an animal was big and not dangerous, it was usually a nervous wreck—like trying to sneak up on a gazelle (spoiler: it’s impossible).

Fecund and Fast

Reproduction rates mattered. Some animals, like pandas, have reproductive quirks that make captivity challenging.

Early humans needed animals that bred eagerly and frequently. Quick maturity was also essential.

For instance, pigs have short generations, making it possible for humans to see the fruits of their domestication efforts within a single lifetime.

Compare this to elephants, which take years to mature and have long intervals between births. Domestication requires rapid results, not slow, costly processes.

Taming vs. Domesticating

Domestication is about changing a species to better suit human needs, while taming involves training wild animals.

Elephants, for instance, can be tamed and trained but not domesticated due to their slow reproductive rates and the immense resources required to maintain them.

Hence, tame elephants are a luxury of complex societies, not staples of early farms.

Family Matters

Take horses and zebras. Horses transformed civilizations—they were the best mode of long-distance communication until the telegraph.

Horses were domesticated in Eurasia, yet humans in Africa couldn’t ride zebras out of the continent. Why? Zebras are notoriously uncooperative, prone to biting and kicking, making them dangerous. Additionally, zebras lack a family structure. Horse herds have a clear hierarchy, which humans could exploit by becoming the ‘head horse.’

Domesticated barnyard animals often have strong family values that humans could manipulate.

Chickens, for example, establish a pecking order, but they recognize humans as the top bird. Dogs and cats exhibit this trait too—dogs see humans as pack leaders, and cats, well, they tolerate us as housemates.

Final Thoughts

Our domestication checklist boils down to four key traits: Friendly, Feedable, Fecund, and Family-Oriented.

Early humans needed animals that ticked all these boxes, which is why only a select few big animals were domesticated throughout history.

And so, from fluffy sheep to trusty horses, we shaped the animal kingdom to fit our world, one generation at a time.