Nature: Domestication or Extinction


Humans have been around for about 200,000 years–longer if we include other members of our genus, such as Homo Erectus–and it took us about 199,800 of those years just to make one billion of us. It took about 120 years to make the second billion of us, and 100 years to make the next six billion.

When will we stop? Will our population stabilize, keep climbing, slowly decline, or suddenly crash? I have no idea. I do know, however, that humanity’s growth–and industrialization–shows no sign of slowing in the short term, putting increasing pressure on the other species we share our planet with.

I like animals. I don’t want elephants or panda bears to go extinct. But how much good can conservation efforts do in a world of increasing numbers of hungry people who also want to use the animals’ habitats?

Since there is nothing I can do about the number of people in the world, I propose a different solution: mass domestication.

Wikipedia estimates that there were about 60 million buffalo (American bison) in the US in 1800. Today, there are about 90 million cattle. Domesticated cattle far outnumber their ancestral species, the auroch. Dogs outnumber wolves. Corn has gone from a dinky little plant growing in Mexico to one of the world’s most common plants. Even rats and pigeons have benefited from their association with man.

How many species could be preserved by mutually-beneficial domestication?

Pere David deer
Pere David deer

Many species of deer or other large herbivorous herd animals could be raised for meat, such as the Pere David’s deer, virtually extinct in the wild:

This semiaquatic animal prefers marshland, and is native to the subtropics of China. It grazes mainly on grass and aquatic plants. …

In the late 19th century, the world’s only herd belonged to Tongzhi, the Emperor of China. The herd was maintained in the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, near Peking.[14] In 1895, one of the walls of the hunting garden was destroyed by a heavy flood of the Yongding River, and most of the deer escaped and were killed and eaten by starving peasants. Fewer than thirty Père David’s Deer remained in the garden. Then in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the garden was occupied by troops and the remaining deer were shot and eaten, leaving the Père David’s deer extinct in its native China.[1]

I hear it’s difficult to farm or raise cattle in marshlands, so why not raise marsh-adapted deer?

The scimitar oryx, similarly extinct in the wild, has lovely horns and lives comfortably in large herds in dry areas.


The Axolotl is an incredible “amphibian” that never develops lungs and spends its entire life underwater:

As of 2010, wild axolotls were near extinction[6] due to urbanization in Mexico City and consequent water pollution. They are currently listed by CITES as an endangered species and by IUCN as critically endangered in the wild, with a decreasing population. Axolotls are used extensively in scientific research due to their ability to regenerate limbs.[7] Axolotls were also sold as food in Mexican markets and were a staple in the Aztec diet.[8]

1280px-three_colors_of_axolotlAxolotls come in a variety of lovely colors and range in appearance from the cute to the intimidating.

And if you want an axolotl in your aquarium, perhaps you’d also be interested in an Alabama cave fish.

rothschildtortoiseGovernments, in order to symbolize their long, peaceful rule, could adopt tortoise mascots, sheltering them on official grounds (there’s plenty of space around the White House for a herd of turtles.)

Imagine a future in which tortoise races are an official function of government. Or diplomats engage in slow-motion jousting matches.

Since turtles and tortoises are temperature sensitive, each government would want to highlight a local species, not an imported one (unless no local species were available.)

Brazilian merganser
Brazilian merganser

The Brazilian merganser:

is a duck in the typical merganser genus. It is one of the six most threatened waterfowl in the world with possibly fewer than 250 birds in the wild and currently 4 kept in captivity at 2 different Brazilian locations. The origin of its name is from its long, sharp-edged beak that has a great number of teeth-looking edges.

I’ve eaten duck eggs. They’re tasty–a lot like chicken eggs, actually.

woman-with-her-pet-baby-giraffe-114493Pygmy elephants, rhinos (if you could breed a non-grumpy variety) and giraffes–imagine delicately proportioned miniature giraffes being taken for a walk through Central Park by their gliteratti owners.

Flightless birds like the kakapo have been decimated by the introduction of invasive hunters like cats. Since they cannot fly, they seem already better suited to being pets than flying birds like cockatoos.

Most primates seem too intelligent for domestication–they’d use their thumbs and smarts to get into trouble–but maybe a few, like lemurs, could make good companions.

Pangolins, seals, and otters are obviously high on my list:

Picture 10 d229e4fb

Brian Davies and seal, Network for Animals--source
Brian Davies and seal, Network for Animals

Obviously this post has been somewhat lighthearted, and there are probably good reasons why some of these animals actually aren’t well-suited to domestication.

But I am also serious; I would far rather live in a world with miniature pet pandas and giraffes than a world where these animals have gone extinct.

If we’re stuck on this planet–and it looks like we are–let’s make it a pleasant place to live.

Which animals do you think we should domesticate?

third worlders probably think our obsession with saving dangerous megafauna absurd


I like animals, (though I prefer them not in my house–most animals shed and don’t use the toilet.) I like small furry creatures and non-poisonous scaly ones and even squishy slimy ones, and I like the idea of living on a planet where creatures like moose and elephants and tigers exist.

But I recognize, as well, that most of the world’s endangered megafauna are endangered principally because their habitats conflict with human ones. Hungry people would rather eat an elephant than watch it trample their crops, a lion wandering around your village will really put a damper on play time, and the pygmies probably don’t appreciate getting kicked out of their homes to make room for a gorilla preserve.

Most of the American (and European) megafauna has already been killed (and those we still have seem not to terribly interest people, who’d rather see elephants in a zoo than a buffalo,) so as a practical matter, most megafaunal conservation efforts are aimed at animals located in other people’s countries.

Normally I try to stay out of other people’s business, but when other people are killing elephants or tigers or whales, obviously my desire that these animals exist conflicts with their desire that they not exist.

Now, I know many third worlders are quite fond of their local animals and don’t want to see them hunted, poached, or exploited out of existence. Much megafaunal death is not caused by locals competing for land/resources, but poachers and other outsiders who kill for trophies or body parts animals the locals are actually fond of or depend upon. Many small tribes are actively involved in environmental movements to try to protect their hunting grounds (and thus, food supply,) from activities like mining, logging, pollution, etc.

But I imagine that for someone who has to deal with elephants eating their crops or lions eating their livestock (or neighbors), the idea that a bunch of people in some far off country want more of these creatures around must seem pretty silly.