A Domesticated Wolf is a Dog

Let wild animals live in sanctuaries, not homes

Posted Jul 22, 2009

From time to time I hear people say that they live with or know a domesticated wolf because the wolf is friendly and gets along well with people because he or she is socialized. In this brief blog I offer a corrective - dogs are domesticated beings but wolves are not. Domestication is an evolutionary process during which humans decide what traits they want and then selectively breed individuals to achieve their desires. Charles Darwin called this artificial selection to contrast it with natural selection. One of the best examples of artificial selection is the numerous breeds of domesticated dogs who roam the planet. So, when someone says they live with a domesticated wolf what they really mean is that they're living with a socialized wolf. The accompanying picture of me and a European wolf taken at a reserve outside of Budapest, Hungary shows just how friendly a socialized wolf can be. 

There's also a "bigger" message that's associated with the conflation of the words "domesticated" and "socialized" that has to do with the keeping of wild animals in homes. Earlier this year this error in terminology was perpetuated in the popular press in a story about the tragic case of Travis, a chimpanzee who was living in a town in Connecticut who uncharacteristically attacked a friend of his human companion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travis_(chimpanzee)). Travis was fatally shot by police after the attack.

 A story published by the AP called Travis a "domesticated chimpanzee" and this is a complete misrepresentation of who he was.  Travis was accustomed to drinking wine and using a WaterPik to brush his teeth and while this may sound "cute", asking a chimpanzee to do these things is an insult to who they are. In response to this story I wrote "Domestication is an evolutionary process that results in animals such as our companion dogs and cats who undergo substantial behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and genetic changes during the process. Travis was a socialized chimpanzee who usually got along with humans but not a domesticated being. He still had his wild genes just as do wolves, cougars, and bears who live with humans, and tragedies occur because these are wild animals despite that they're treated as if they're humans. To say there was no known provocation is to ignore this basic fact. Wild animals do not belong in human homes, they can be highly unpredictable (consider other attacks by famous animals on their handlers), and they should be allowed to live at sanctuaries that are dedicated to respecting their lives while minimizing human contact. Let's hope that this tragic situation serves to stimulate people to send the wild friends who share their homes to places that are safe for all."