Wild vs. Domestic Animals

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  • 0:00 Wild Vs. Domestic Animals
  • 0:40 Generic Definition
  • 1:47 Legal Definition
  • 3:55 Biological Definition
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

What is the difference between a wild animal and a domestic animal? It seems like a simple question, but it's actually quite complex. It depends on which viewpoint you take: general, legal, or biological.

Wild vs. Domestic Animals

Maybe you have a pet dog who is a bit wild sometimes. Or perhaps you have a housecat that you rescued from the wild that is now very tame. Either way, neither that dog nor cat are wild animals, at least not anymore. Of course, you could argue that point just a bit, for the way a wild animal is defined versus a domestic animal can vary depending on whether we take the definitions from a generic, legal, biological, or even cultural viewpoint. This lesson touches upon these definitions by distinguishing wild animals from domestic animals.

Generic Definition

Very generally, when we say something is a wild animal, we mean that it is an animal that naturally lives independently of people. On the flipside, a domestic (domesticated) animal, is an animal that is tame, lives in close association with people, and is generally unlikely to survive in the wild due to its dependency on people for food, shelter, and even medication.

Again, these are all very general and generic dictionary definitions. They might not suffice in all contexts. For example, a housecat is a domestic animal but theoretically, it could become a stray cat and live free of people in nature. Thus, a housecat can become a wild animal.

Likewise, a wild animal can become tame and live in close association with people. Such is the case with orphaned wolves, hippos, or even elephants that have been rescued and reared among people. This is also the case with breeding programs that made wild foxes very tame over many generations. We might think of foxes, wolves, hippos, and elephants as wild animals in general but they may become domesticated in special circumstances.

Legal Definition

What does the law have to say about this, at least in the U.S.? The law has its own criteria for separating wild vs. domestic animals. These criteria are important in fields related to animal abuse, hunting, or animal control, among others.

One legal case explains the difference between a wild animal and domestic animal as follows:

'As contrasted to domestic animals (domitae naturae), wild animals (ferae naturae), are those species of animals that, as a matter of common knowledge, are naturally ferocious, unpredictable, dangerous, mischievous, or ... not by custom devoted to the service of mankind at the time and in the place in which it is kept.'

To further expound upon this legal distinction, a domestic animal is one that is naturally tame and/or gentle towards people and unwilling to escape into nature due to their long association with man. A domestic animal is further, and critically, one that is generally recognized as one being important to the service of mankind.

A wild animal, on the other hand, then is one that has an unpredictable temperament and is not naturally tame. Such an animal must be made tame by education, art, or industry brought upon them by humans and/or they must be kept in confinement in order to be controlled.

The distinction is important. A Labrador retriever is naturally tame and thus a domestic animal. Even if it were to run away and become stray, it's still a domestic animal since it is naturally tame and seen, by custom, as an animal devoted to the service of mankind.

A tiger is not devoted to the service of mankind. Even if that tiger is made tame through lots of training, legally it is still a wild animal. In other words, just because a tiger is made apparently tame, it is not seen by custom as a species that is generally 'devoted to the service of mankind' and thus, no matter how docile or dependent on humans it has become, is still a wild animal from a legal perspective in the U.S.

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