I’m at my desk now, looking out at gray leafless trees, the chill blue sky of New England winter, but over the holidays my family was lucky to visit Jamaica. On the wild taxi ride from airport to hotel, we passed numerous goats, sometimes tethered, sometimes wandering freely, along the grassy roadsides. Later that evening, not surprisingly, curried goat was offered at dinner. The next night, we dined al fresco by the hotel pool. As we enjoyed the atmosphere — palm trees, tropical breezes, the friendly “Ya, mon!” that seemed to punctuate every conversation — my daughters noticed diminutive shadows slinking through the decorative railings demarcating restaurant from walkway. Cats. Lots of cats. Prowling the perimeter in search of food scraps.
During the day, I sat on the beach reading a well-timed gift from some thoughtful clients, “The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World,” by Abigail Tucker, a correspondent for Smithsonian magazine. The book’s topics range from toxoplasmosis to our obsession with cute cat videos, but what I found particularly fascinating, while pondering feral Jamaican cats, was the discussion of domestication.
Domestication: the adaption of an animal species to a life in intimate association with, and to the advantage of, humans. It usually creates a dependency such that the species in question loses much of its ability to live successfully in the wild. Domestication is different from “taming” individual wild animals. We’ve all seen videos of people cuddling hand-raised lions, bears, and the like, but the trait of being comfortable and docile with people will not be passed on to the offspring of those individuals. True domestication takes generations. Conversely, individuals from domesticated species who “return to the wild” are called feral, but their offspring, if raised among humans, will immediately revert to “domesticated” temperament.
Over many centuries, humans have changed animals to suit our needs. Chickens with more breast meat. Cows that produce more milk. Woollier sheep. We also selected for temperament and behavior. Horses that can be trained to plow or saddle. Dogs that follow us, guard us, hunt and retrieve for us. Oddly, as we altered wild animals for desired traits and temperament, certain common physical changes accompanied the process. Most domesticated species show some combination of floppy ears, small teeth, juvenile-looking faces, curly tails, and lighter, blotchier coat colors, compared with their wild counterparts. Charles Darwin even noted it in “On the Origin of Species”: “Not a single domestic animal can be named which has not in some country drooping ears.” Think about it. We have floppy-eared dogs, rabbits, and goats, but, except for elephants, can you think of any wild mammals with Dumbo ears?
This phenomenon has been dubbed “domestication syndrome.” In the 1950s, a Russian fur farmer famously began selectively breeding his least aggressive silver foxes in an attempt to make animals that were easier to handle. After a mere 25 years, the resulting offspring were so tame people kept them as pets. True to the theory of “domestication syndrome,” not only was this new line more docile and comfortable with people, but they had shorter faces, smaller teeth, droopy ears, curly tails, and altered coat colors. It seems that the reason these particular physical changes go hand-in-hand with domestication has to do with an area in embryonic development called the neural crest, which produces facial skeletal and connective tissues, teeth, external ears, pigment cells, parts of the forebrain, and several hormonal glands, including the adrenals, which mediate the “fight or flight” response. As we selectively bred animals to reduce their fear response to us, we inadvertently also selected for alterations in ears, faces, tails, and coat color.
House cats, however, show few of the physical alterations associated with domestication syndrome. Although geneticists have recently identified some changes in the neural crest cells of domestic felines, that house cat killing a catnip mouse in your living room is still darn close to the wild felines from which it descended. These wild roots are particularly apparent at dinnertime. Although both cats and dogs belong to the order carnivora, their dietary needs are very different. Domestic dogs, Canis lupus familaris, are a subspecies descended from Canis lupus, the wolf. Wolves eat predominantly meat, but are technically omnivores, also consuming fruits and plants. The divergence of dogs from wolves is thought to have paralleled the shift in human culture from hunter-gatherer to farming. Dogs, like their wolf ancestors, are omnivores. As people started eating more farmed grains, so did our companion pups. Dogs can even survive on a properly designed vegetarian diet. In fact, this whole modern hoopla touting “grain-free” commercial dog food is a bit overblown, as dogs have been happily sharing our grain-containing diets for thousands of years.
Cats, however, are obligate carnivores. They must eat meat to survive. Cats require three times more protein per day than a dog, and, like lions, tigers, panthers, and their most immediate ancestor, the African wildcat, house cats cannot synthesize key fatty acids, depending on consumption of meat for many essential nutrients. So why did humans ever bring these aloof, protein-hungry, sharp-clawed creatures into our caves? Other domesticated animals provide us with food, fiber, or labor, for which we give them protected places to live and reliable food sources. What did cats first provide for humans that prompted us to domesticate them? Tucker does a good job debunking the traditional theory that cats benefited humans by providing rodent control. No, she says. We didn’t really domesticate cats at all. Cats simply invited themselves into our homes and essentially domesticated themselves. Questions? Read the book!
Each night in Jamaica, my daughter smuggled baggies of meat from the buffet — sliced ham, chunks of chicken, leftover salmon — bringing them to the outskirts of the restaurant where the feral cats gathered. A few, manifesting their domesticated heritage, accepted a quick pat on the head, while others, harking back in their souls to the African wildcat, grabbed bits of meat, then disappeared swiftly into the night.