How the Hen House Turns: The Human Factor (Part Two)

How the Hen House Turns
The Human Factor (Part Two)
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Perhaps you’ve seen the PBS special that reported the study of tameness done in Russia.

For several decades, foxes held in captivity were bred selectively. Those friendly to humans were mated and produced pups so consistently friendly they are now let out for adoption. The “friendly” gene package included variation in physical appearance and fur color. Like dogs, those foxes may eventually develop hugely different “breeds.”

If snarling, aggressive foxes are bred together, the result is predictably vicious. Good thing that dogs’ friendly “domestication” has held true. What does that word really mean? What does being tame mean, to the canines? Are those words just another way of expressing what is really a human trait?

I use the word “domestication” loosely here, as representing the Human Factor—that tendency we have of relating to animals in friendly ways they appreciate and adapt to our needs, or sense friendliness, or use us when they sense an opening.

Take, for example, Mr. Fluff—the scrub jay who came to our patio every morning to beg for peanuts. He stood on the porch fence post and fluffed up his feathers as baby birds do. Or consider the finch who got trapped in our stove, then trapped on the wrong side of an open door. I spoke quietly and offered a finger, and the tiny bird hopped on and rode around the door to freedom.

We like to think it’s us, personally, that relates to the wild critter in such situations. However, I suspect it could be something more universal, a human characteristic honed by many generations of positive experience with beings more sentient than we have admitted in the past.