Generally speaking, carnivores seem to be the most divisive members of the animal kingdom.  Attitudes toward them run the gamut from blind hatred to adoration.  But even this adoration can sometimes be blind.  People who have a Disney-fied perception of lions might be horrified to learn that infanticide is a relatively common occurrence in lion prides.  (Bear in mind that I say this as someone who will readily admit that The Lion King is my all-time favorite movie despite the somewhat skewed reality it presents.)  Even Disney seems unable to make up its mind, though.  Simba may be noble and brave, but Shere Khan is a twisted, evil tyrant obsessed with pursuing his prey—the lovable man-cub Mowgli.

Four species of carnivores admitted at TreeHouse, clockwise from top left: bobcat, red fox, gray fox, and coyote.  Otters and other members of the weasel family are only other carnivores we normally receive at TreeHouse.

Four species of carnivores admitted on occasion at TreeHouse, clockwise from top left: bobcat, red fox, gray fox, and coyote. Otters and other members of the weasel family are the only other carnivores we normally receive at TreeHouse.

What it comes down to is that even those who consider themselves “animal people” are sometimes unsure of what to make of carnivores.  At TreeHouse, there are two carnivore species that we commonly admit, and we contend with these divergent attitudes on a regular basis.  Red foxes and coyotes, both common in our area, are the objects of as deeply mixed emotions as are the majority of their fellow carnivores, and particularly their fellow wild canids—wolves, jackals, dingoes, etc.  On the “anti” side, they are demonized as poultry- and livestock-killers and feared for their supposed slyness and viciousness.  The “pro” side extends to the polar opposite—that wild canids are really just cooler, better dogs.  For those subscribing to this viewpoint, foxes supposedly are an adorable combination of looking like dogs but acting like cats.  Coyotes, and more particularly their cousins the wolves, are supposed to be the White Fang-like pinnacle of man’s animal companion—smarter, more physically adept, and more loyal than a domestic dog.

But there is an important fact to remember: there is a world of difference between taming an animal and domesticating it.  When a wild animal is tamed, it is socialized to humans so that it learns to behave in a submissive or docile manner.  This behavior is learned as opposed to innate, and as a result it will never be entirely predictable.  If circumstances change, or if a new person comes into the picture, the animal may not continue to behave in a docile manner—and now it no longer has a fear of humans.

domestic dog

Domestic dogs have undergone generations of selection in order to be molded into suitable companions for humans.

Domestication, in contrast, is a process that happens not within the lifetime of a single animal, but rather over the course of many generations.  In essence, domestication results from the combined effects of natural and artificial selection, by which traits that make an animal better suited to life with humans are favored.  Wild animals are adapted for life in the wild; domestic animals are adapted for life with humans. For example, domestic dogs have different nutritional requirements than wild canids, because thousands of years of eating whatever food humans saw fit to give them favored the survival of those individuals that were able to digest and thrive on those foods.

Even more pronounced than the physiological differences are the behavioral differences between domestic and wild canids.  Although different breeds of dogs have undergone selection to develop different behaviors (think hunting dog vs. herding dog vs. guard dog vs. lap dog) one trait common to (essentially) all domestic dogs is that they will recognize and submit to human dominance.  In the early stages of the domestication process, an intractable animal that could not be trained or trusted to behave in a predictable manner would have been rejected.  For wild canids, on the other hand, the ability to rapidly modify their behavior in response to changing circumstances is of great adaptive value.  Their determined persistence and a skill for problem-solving help wild canids—and indeed most predators—to survive in a world where they must outsmart or outperform their prey in a life or death contest on a daily basis.  But this same persistence is what will lead your pet coyote to tear apart your couch in its pursuit to reach the crumbs between the cushions.

Check back next week to read about what happens when someone decides to make a wild animal into a pet, and the effects that we feel at TreeHouse.