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We Ought to Have More Creatures
the case for domesticating raccoons, capuchin monkeys, culpeos, and even dik-diks to be our companions
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. — Genesis 1:26 (KJV)
I want a chocobo. We need to make ostrich bigger and smarter and kinder. Basically, I want a huge ostrich with a horse's brain. — Mike Solana to me via Slack, June 7, 2023
On March 24, 1910, an eccentric researcher at the Department of Agriculture named Robert Irwin stood before the House Committee on Agriculture and declared: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.” Irwin’s presence at the meeting was one of his own making. A long-time advocate of diversifying America’s livestock, Irwin had been the one who convinced Louisiana Representative Robert Broussard that hippos were the solution to both Louisiana's invasive water hyacinth problem and an ongoing national meat shortage, leading to Broussard’s introduction of House Resolution 23261, better known as the “American Hippo Bill.” The bill — part of Irwin’s larger vision of populating the country with an array of exotic animals (Tibetan yaks in the Rockies, rhinos in the Southwest, dik-diks on family farms, etc.) — would appropriate $250,000 for the introduction of useful new animals into the United States, hippos among them. The bill was endorsed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who himself owned a menagerie of exotic pets, the New York Times, and others, but never passed.
Perhaps it’s for the best. Many of the animals Irwin wanted to import are large, dangerous and difficult to corral. Then again, so were the aurochs, ancient progenitors of the domestic cow. Irwin’s biggest shortcoming was that he didn’t have a plan to domesticate the animals once they were here. For much of human history, animal domestication has been a gradual and often centuries- or millennia-long process, and not always directed by humans. For example, it’s argued that cats “domesticated themselves,” based on DNA evidence. This same technology, genome sequencing, has allowed us to see the myriad of genetic changes that separate domesticated animals from wild ones. By identifying desirable genes during the domestication process, we could domesticate new species with greater speed and precision than our ancestors. That is, if we wanted to.
And we should want to. Although the United States has pioneered the captive breeding of some wild species on a commercial scale, like the American bison and American alligator, domestication isn’t mere captive breeding or even tameness. Many wild animals can be habituated to humans if captive-bred or taken from the wild at a young age, but that doesn’t make them domesticated. Domestication involves significant behavioral and morphological changes that are the result of human-directed genetic selection, not human interaction. In this sense Americans have never truly domesticated an animal — something ice-age cavemen and even Canadians have done.
So which animals should we domesticate? My husband says we should domesticate raccoons, opossums, skunks, capybaras, hyenas, bats, and manatees “because they’re cute,” and ravens, dolphins, and bears “because they’re useful.” (I’m not sure what purpose he thinks bears are useful for and did not ask for elaboration.) When I fielded the question on Twitter I got a variety of answers, but raccoons and ravens seemed to be recurring themes. Private ownership of ravens native to the United States is illegal because of the Migratory Bird Act of 1916. Theoretically, you could import foreign raven species to get around this law, but it isn’t ideal given the arduous regulations surrounding the import of foreign birds, not to mention laws in their native range which may prohibit their capture and sale. In order for a domestication project to work efficiently, you’d want to start with a large population from which the most genetically desirable could be selected. Foreign species aren’t really conducive to that in a highly regulated environment. Raccoons, on the other hand, are a perfect population to start with. Apart from their ubiquity in the wild, a small but long standing captive breeding population already exists due to fur farming and the exotic pet trade.
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The raccoon could be domesticated in a similar fashion to the domesticated silver fox. In the mid-20th century, the fox, like the raccoon today, had a longstanding captive bred population that was selected mostly for size and color, producing some morphological changes but few behavioral ones. That started to change in the 1950s, when Soviet scientist Dmitri Belayev theorized that whatever genes were involved in the evolution of wolves into dogs might be present in their canine relative: the fox. He started testing the temperaments of silver foxes on fur farms across the Soviet Union, and noticed that within a few generations, some foxes were slightly more accepting of people than others. Excited about the prospect of creating a dog-like fox, he recruited a young researcher named Lyudmila Trut who acquired a population of foxes from fur farms, and in 1960 the two began selecting for the calmest 10 percent in their population. Within six generation, or about six years (foxes sexually mature at 10 months and have a gestation period of about two months), a subset of the foxes licked the researchers’ hands, whined when they left, and wagged their tails when humans approached. Basically, they were dogs. If this could be done in 6 years, a decade before the advent of genome sequencing in 1977, imagine the speed in which we could turn raccoons into house pets, reducing aggression and (given the destructiveness of curious raccoons) trainability.
Personally, I’d like to see the culpeo domesticated — or rather, re-domesticated. The fox-like canid has already been domesticated once by the Selk’nam people, indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego — a remote area located at the southernmost regions of modern day Argentina and Chile. Information on the “Fuegian dog” or “Yahgan dog,” as it was called by Europeans, is relatively scarce, as it was wiped out within a few decades after European settlement in the region, which started in the late 1800s. However, existing depictions show that the species was clearly domesticated and well integrated into the Selk’nam way of life. Photographs and drawings from the time show the animals curled up next to their owners as well as accompanying them on hunts. These same depictions, along with a few surviving taxidermy specimens, demonstrate that the species had also undergone significant morphological changes, including curled tails and a wide variation in coat colors — traits which are also present in dogs and the domesticated silver fox. Although the lack of a captive population (apart from a small number of zoo animals) would likely necessitate capturing wild subjects, the species is common and widespread throughout South America. But, since scientists have already sequenced the genomes of both the Fuegian dog and the culpeo, an ambitious team, perhaps with the help of AI, could deduce which genes (or expressions thereof) were responsible for domestication — it would stand to reason that at least some of these genes would be found in the wild culpeo population. The next step would be to find a suitable population from the wild using DNA testing, perhaps through a catch and release program in which suitable subjects are maintained as part of a captive breeding population and unsuitable ones returned back to the wild. It would take time, but, uniquely, it would be a chance to actually resurrect an extinct animal that people could keep in their apartments, something you couldn’t say for other would-be Lazarus creatures for which much time and money has been spent, such as the wooly mammoth.
Although I support the domestication of animals purely for companionship, some species could serve a purpose apart from companionship. An organization called Envisioning Access (formerly Helping Hands) once trained capuchin monkeys to care for people with mobility-related disabilities. The monkeys helped with drinks of water, retrieving dropped or out of reach items, pushed buttons, flipped switches and even helped reposition wheelchairs. The organization says it was forced to shutter its program after 41 years “due to a number of federal and state laws that prohibit primates in homes.” While it’s unfortunate that exceptions weren’t carved out for the disabled, the laws have a point: even well-trained capuchin monkeys are still technically wild animals — potentially destructive and dangerous ones at that. Truly domesticating capuchins or some other small primate would remedy the need for such prohibitions, make training easier, and reduce the risk of attacks. Captive populations of many species of monkey, including the capuchin, already exist in the United States and other developed nations due to the pet trade, zoos, and their use in medical research. This would allow us to mitigate some of the logistical, legal, and ethical issues associated with capturing and importing wild-caught monkeys.
In his testimony to Congress over a hundred years ago, Robert Irwin said “There is not any reason why we cannot find a place in the United States for every one of the more than 100 species of animals that are in existence today and not domesticated.” Though the particulars of Irwin’s vision might have been questionable — hippos kill about 500 people a year and are far from the docile river-cows he portrayed them as — his ambition was admirable. The fact that much of the press and many major political figures took his ideas seriously is awe-inspiring. One can’t imagine such a thing today, in an America where all but the smallest ideas are derided as fantasies. This era of tiny thinking ought to end. We ought to have more creatures!