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How The Hen House Turns: What Does Wild Mean?

on February 21, 2016 - 8:00am
Khaki Campbell duck. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos

What do we mean when we call an animal wild? Are cats wilder than dogs? How are the wild ones different from domesticated animals? Is a wild horse no longer wild when broken? According to Katherine Blocksdorf, broke or broken means a horse has been trained, either to saddle or to harness. “Many people don't like the term ‘broke’ because it suggests training done by force,” she said. Hence the interest in whispering, as we mentioned in a previous article.

These questions came up while editing books for the Archives of Varok series. Conn, our aquatic humanoid, fears going wild upon returning to his native planet. We had to decide what that meant to him and for his adopted mixed-species family. As humans we seem to use the word wild to mean a non-human who “could care less” about human well-being.

What about the wild dolphins that have rescued human strangers in distress? Or the whales that seek out human attention in open water? They obviously care, and they are obviously wild, in the sense that they do not depend on human care and have not been trained, like dolphins we met on a dive trip to Honduras.

The dolphins we met at Roatan were still wild, in that they were free to leave their ponds any time or run away when doing their show in open water for Anthony’s Key Resort. When we swam with them in the pool provided for that purpose, their wild culture emerged. The male I rejected by swimming to the shore could have killed me. Luckily, he contained his temper enough to simply ram me in the ribs when I stood up to leave, rejecting his attentions.

Too often words like wild can define categories that are too stringent. As a result, we fail to recognize an animal’s wide range of intelligence and the cultural adaptations they have made in order to live with us humans. Were the Roatan dolphins domesticated? Maybe.

The dolphin center on Roatan had a problem with too many wild dolphins coming in for food and deciding to stay. A reliable source of food is a powerful incentive to become domesticated. Probably that is why some wolves, tens of thousands of years ago, chose to hang around humans, even at the cost of their genetic makeup. Perhaps that is why cattle and llamas, sheep and pigs--even elephants--have learned to tolerate human demands.

I remember our goose Lucy and the Khaki Campbell ducks. None of them like to be touched, but Lucy would settle down in my grasp when she realized I was treating her sore foot. I had promised the ducks I would never chase them, so I didn’t. Soon they learned to come close to me with a quiet quacking, knowing I would get out the spade, find some wet dirt, and turn over some mud laced with worms.

Whatever, wildness means, a few animals have given it up for reliable food, water and shelter. With kindness thrown in, many have become good friends with humans, more than just domesticated.