Livestock in secondary world fantasy

A post at Book View Cafe, by Marie Brennan: New World: Livestock

The post begins:

Whether it’s chickens and sheep, fantasy animals, or alien creatures from another planet, characters in a novel are likely to depend on some kind of species for food — if not their meat, then their milk or eggs, or other secondary products like hide, wool, horns, and so forth. Which means it might be useful to take a moment to consider what makes an animal suitable for domestication, and how we’ve tended to relate to them.

To begin with, I should note that domestication is not the same thing as taming. A tame animal has been socialized to accept human contact and control, but you have to go through the socialization process all over again with that animal’s offspring. Domestication is the process of permanently changing a population of animals over a long period of time, selectively breeding them to have more of the qualities humans like, and fewer of the ones we don’t.

I get questions on Quora every day that go something like this: Couldn’t we domesticate tigers the way we did cats? If I got a wolf cub and raised it right, wouldn’t it be domesticated like a dog? Why were moose never domesticated?

I hadn’t realized before I started with Quora how many people apparently find this a really interesting topic.

So I’m happy to see Marie Brennan start off by explaining that domesticated is not the same thing as tame. I will just add that according to Google, over 60,000 people per year go to emergency rooms because of cat bites. I often mention this when suggesting that domesticated is also not the same thing as harmless. You’d think people would know this, but I guess lots of people think it would be fine to walk into a pasture and pat a bull.

Marie Brennan basically sums up this subject pretty well in a short post, including factors that are less often considered, as here:

 You also need your livestock to be relatively placid . . . because if they aren’t, then they’ll either bolt when something freaks them out, or bash themselves to death against their enclosures. Deer panic; reindeer don’t. Now see which one we’ve domesticated.

Finally, it helps if the wild species is gregarious and hierarchical. The former allows you to keep them in herds, and the latter helps you control them: either by controlling their leader, or by getting them to recognize you as their leader.

This is all true, but I will add, hierarchies are not all the same. African painted dogs are hierarchical, but not in the same way as wolves; they are less aggressive toward each other and use many fewer intimidation behaviors. Unlike wolves, sisters tend to stay together for life and so do brothers; new packs form when a group of sisters meets a group of brothers and they all decide they get along. This lets African painted dogs form much larger packs than wolves — wolf packs are hardly larger than a nuclear family with maybe a few older sibs hanging around, but African painted dogs routinely form much bigger packs than that, or used to. Packs of forty or more were not unusual before they became so endangered.

Some of that would be really neat to use in designing an alien species, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, the patchy coloration of these animals may exist as a unique form of camouflage — it helps the individuals blend into their own pack, enhancing social bonding. If one puppy runs ahead of his littermates to get fed, he’ll be snapped at and driven back into the group and then the whole litter fed at once.

It’s hard to work with African painted dogs partly because they are extremely shy, typical of wild canids; but also because our feelings about what ought to work with a dog or even a wolf get in the way. Generally people who work with them agree they can’t be domesticated. I expect they probably could be, because I imagine there’s variance for tameness vs terror, which is probably the only important thing to select for at first. But they would be difficult to work with. There’s no suggestion that any African painted dogs ever hung around the edges of human encampments, self-selecting for lack of fear, which is probably what happened with wolves. African painted dogs are near the bottom of the predator hierarchy in Africa; most likely their relationship with early humans was hostile, as early humans most likely joined lions and hyenas as tougher competitors who stole African painted dog kills.

This is one of my very favorite species. Very endangered, unfortunately. It’s too bad people don’t paint pictures of African painted dogs in noble poses at the top of a cliff gazing out into the distance. That might help.

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6 thoughts on “Livestock in secondary world fantasy”

  1. Lots of people think it would be fine to walk into a pasture and pat a buffalo.

    I’ve heard of someone who came upon some tourists trying to lure a buffalo calf from its mother so they could take pictures of it with the children.

  2. I’e heard a plausible story of a guy trying to put his four-year-old tot on the back of a bison so he could take a picture. I would be inclined to charge a guy who did that with attempted manslaughter or something, if he survived.

  3. Have you ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender? I’m curious how you feel about the animals on that show – they’re almost all pretty nonsensical hybrids, like platypus bears or koala sheep.

  4. I never have, Sarah, but I’m usually kind of turned off by nonsensical hybrids. Platypus-anything is pretty stupid.

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