Domestic Animals that go Wild
Nature Bulletin No. 743 February 15, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
DOMESTIC ANIMALS THAT GO WILD
The domestication of animals began far back in prehistoric times. We
can imagine that it started when primitive man or his children
captured wolf cubs and made pets of them which became the ancestors
of our dogs. Other kinds which he found useful or which appealed to
his fancy have been fed, sheltered and protected with almost as much
care as the human members of his household.
Living generation after generation under man's control, these tended
to change their habits and become tamer than their wild relatives. By
the artificial selection of breeding stock, these domesticated animals
have been greatly modified to fill man's needs for better food, clothing
and work animals. Others have been bred merely to satisfy his whims
for unusual colors, sizes and shapes.
This is the question. Have these animals become so dependent on man
over the ages that they are unable to survive and multiply in the wild?
Almost all of the livestock and poultry in this country are descended
from breeding stock imported from the Old World where our most
important kinds were domesticated by prehistoric man. These include
cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, horses, asses, dogs, cats and chickens.
Within historic times rabbits, ducks, geese, guinea hens, peacocks and
pigeons have been added. The turkey is the only domestic animal
native to this continent.
On his second voyage to the New World in 1493 Columbus brought
sheep, goats, cattle, horses and hogs. It is supposed that from his eight
porkers sprang all of the swine that populated the West Indies and ran
wild through the jungles and canebrakes. The Spanish invaders
scattered them widely as meat on the hoof for their expeditions. These
and other hog immigrants have made themselves at home in the
swamps, lowlands and forests of the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi
swine became adapted to man's meal hours, feeding by day
and sleeping at night. When they go wild they return to the schedule of
their untamed ancestors, lying in a shady lair all day and foraging at
When De Soto crossed the Mississippi in 1541, his men either
abandoned or lost some of their horses. It is believed that these formed
the nucleus of the bands of wild horses, or mustangs, which are still
found in some western states. In like manner, the present herds of wild
burros may trace back to the pack animals used by the Spaniards while
mining for gold and silver in the Southwest. Texas longhorn cattle
which once roamed the western ranges were extremely hardy beasts
descended from a 15th century breed brought from Spain.
The so-called San Juan rabbit is a "Belgian hare" which has reverted
to type and threatens to become a serious pest. A lighthouse keeper in
Puget Sound released a few on his island as a source of fresh meat.
Eventually they stripped it of vegetation, spread to other islands of the
San Juan group, and multiplied enormously. When sportsmen began to
ship these animals into the Midwest for training their hunting dogs,
farmers became alarmed because this is the same European rabbit that
ruined grazing lands in Australia and New Zealand.
When carp were introduced into the United States in the 1870s about
two-thirds of them were of the cultivated "mirror" and "leather"
varieties which have few or no scales. Since that time, these strains
have been almost completely crowded out by wild-type fish. The
ornamental goldfish which has overrun many of our streams and lakes,
loses its bizarre shapes and colors within a few generations.
The honeybee, having been associated with man for over 4000 years, is
frequently regarded as a domestic animal. The bee submits to life in a
hive but, left to itself, readily deserts it for a hollow tree.
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Update: June 2012