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The Parklands

How the relationship between humans and wild animals led to keeping pets

Humans have been living with animals as pets for thousands of years. Human relationships with dogs date back to hunter-gatherer societies, while those with cats can be traced to the establishment of agricultural communities in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.  

Dogs as we know them are so genetically similar to the Grey Wolf that the two can produce viable offspring, but how did humans begin their relationship with this wild animal?  

Today we have dog shows and kennel clubs which celebrate their agility and beauty.  We have also seen the emergence of toy breeds which are pets in the true sense and began as a symbol of wealth. Many of the dog breeds which we know and love had more humble beginnings: They were working dogs bred for hunting or to protect their owners. Naturally it would be problematic to keep animals that were aggressive or showed undesirable traits, so throughout time humans selected for desirable traits. Over thousands of years breeds emerged as people selected animals with traits that were helpful to their group.

Dogs that focus on the horizon and hunt by sight are known as “gaze hounds”.  These breeds need to be fast to catch distant prey. Scent hounds, on the other hand, can follow a trail for many hours and need to be strong and resilient, although not as fast as sight hunters. Hound dogs, such as Greyhounds and Whippets, have well-developed eyesight and scent tracking abilities which they combine with speed and stamina making them superior hunters. 

Sport dogs such as Retrievers, Pointers, and Setters exhibit striking characteristics dependent on the type of prey they are bred to hunt.  Mostly hunting by air scent, Retrievers, true to their name, exhibit the behavior of killing and bringing prey back to their human companion. Duck-hunting dogs are perfectly adapted to their wet hunting grounds with webbed-feet and water resistant fur. There are several dog breeds, such as terriers, that are bred to hunt and kill rats, mice, and foxes; these dogs are well-known for their fearlessness and tenacity.  

While dogs hold a dear place in the hearts of many people, cats are actually the most popular house pet with over 90 million living in U.S. households today. Cats have been living with humans a bit longer than dogs, with earliest known records dating back 12,000 yrs. This time frame coincides with the first agricultural communities of the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.   As humans started storing grain, mice and other rodents moved in and cats were not far behind their favorite prey. Genetic analysis in 2007 revealed the common ancestor of all domestic cats to be “Felis sylvestris”, a Middle Eastern wild cat, whose name translates to “cat of the woods”.  

As cats began hanging around human grain stores, consuming the mice, people began to see these animals as useful.  Many people continue to keep barn cats to help control the rodent population. These playful hunters continue to capture the hearts of humans everywhere. 

If you’re interested in learning more about dog breeds and the role dogs play in the lives of humans, sign-up for The Parklands Wag & Walk, Saturday, February 22 in Beckley Creek Park.