71: Semi-domesticated animals

Most animals fall broadly into two categories- wild and domesticated, domesticated being not only pet dogs, but also things like cows, sheep, pigs and chickens which are raised on farms. However, there are some which fall into a broad third category- semi-domesticated animals. This week we will be having a look at some examples of semi-domesticated animals from the hoofed creatures to those that fly. We’ll also be looking at some of the pros and cons of semi-domestication compared to rearing domesticated animals, or hunting wild ones to get resources.

Livestock on farms, like these sheep, are domesticated animals (picture: CharlesC/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)


One way humans and animals have a semi-domesticated relationship is through herding. Herding is a bit like farming in that usually there’s a person, group or family who own some livestock, like goats. This herder looks after them when they’re ill, keeps watch when they’re giving birth, occasionally slaughters them for food or sale, and generally knows where they are. However, where it’s different from farming is that the animals are free. Goats for example are ranging animals. They wander over a large area, constantly on the move to find new sources of food. This prevents them from completely overgrazing in one area, allowing food to regrow for when they wander back there. Many goats are herded in quite arid areas with little food, so this movement is essential, as is an understanding and memory of where good pastures are located.

The goat’s herder will often be near or with the herd, and will from time to time guide it. Perhaps they will encourage the goats towards certain pasture where there is good grazing, or away from other pastures, like their vegetable gardens. In this way the herder and the animal have a relationship, but if one day the herder suddenly disappeared, the goats would still be able to manage on their own.

Another herded animal is the reindeer in Northern Europe and Russia. Their migrations are also dictated by the need to not overgraze in an area, but, being Arctic creatures, the weather and climate plays a strong role too. Between summer and winter the climate can swing between extremes, from snow and ice layers many meters deep, to balmy 20oC sunshine which turns the landscape boggy. The reindeer must keep on the move to avoid the hardest ice and deepest snow, but must also take care to avoid areas with horrible biting insects in the summer months.

Reindeer once again roam freely, and are not fenced in, but reindeer herders guide the animals to the most suitable pastures, as well as away from cities. They also gather the reindeer from time to time for slaughter or sorting of new calves that have been born each year, but still have a more hands off relationship with these animals than a farmer with their herd of cows.

A goat herder in India, following and keeping an eye on her animals, but not keeping them fenced in a field (Picture: McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Swiftlets and bees

Now we’ve looked at some standard examples, let’s take a look at a more unusual semi-domesticated species. This is swiftlets. They are a cave dwelling bird found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. In these caves, they build their nests largely out of their saliva, which solidifies when exposed to air. Sometimes twigs and feathers are mixed in too, but saliva is the main building material. These nests have long been seen as a delicacy in many countries, especially China, when made into a soup. However, excessive harvesting and due to these nests being stuck high up in caves, they are hard to get and so are a very expensive delicacy. This posed a problem to all those eager to try the bird’s nest soup. Funnily enough however, it was the swiftlets which started to find a solution for this demand.

As many of the caves where they lived were also being mined for rock for construction, the swiflets started to lose habitat and had to find new places to live. Many decided that the eaves, nooks and crannies of people’s houses were perfect and so started building their nests there. The people were delighted, and tried to make their houses as suitable as possible for the birds, adding extra nooks and crannies, and even building whole separate buildings for the birds to live. The people even played swiftlet noises on loud speakers to attract the birds and make them feel at home. Swiftlets tend to return to the place where they were born, and so would return to these locations each year, boosting the population. This meant that the swiftlets had somewhere to live, whilst people had the opportunity to harvest their nests with minimal danger, and with less likelihood of wiping out the birds. These swiftlet ranches have become real livelihoods for people. There are even swiftlet ranch consultants in places like Malaysia today. It shows another semi-domesticated relationship. The humans create a habitat for them and harvest their products, yet the swiftlets are free to come and go as they please.

In many ways it’s similar to another semi-domesticated relationship, perhaps more familiar to many readers, bees. Beekeeping often involves creating a habitat for bees and harvesting their products, whilst the bees still have some freedom to come and go. There is also some debate over whether outdoor cats are semi-domesticated. A housecat that remains indoors constantly is domesticated for sure, but for those felines with a constantly open cat flap or who don’t advance beyond the front porch of the house, they have the freedom of wild animals with a beneficial relationship with humans. They get fed and petted, whilst the humans get a mouse catcher and an enjoyable companion.

Swiftlets in their nests made out of their own saliva. These nests are highly sought after as part of the delicacy of bird’s nest soup in places like China (Picture: Andrewbogott/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pros and cons

So now we know a bit about semi-domestication, why do it? Why is it better, or worse, than simply keeping domesticated livestock or hunting wild animals?

Keeping semi-domesticated animals is great for all kinds of reasons. In low income or very rural areas it can be a very cost effective way to raise livestock, as you don’t have to buy them food usually. They simply graze what is already out there, free in nature. Often, depending on the country and circumstance, you don’t even need to own the land but simply have grazing rights.

Another benefit is the amount of space the animals get. There are major issues with some of the industrial methods of farming used today, often called factory farming. Having often thousands of animals crammed into one small space causes them a lot of stress and general poor health. It also means diseases can spread very easily, especially as due to lack of space they are often left to stand in their own faeces. To combat this many are mass treated with antibiotics even when they’re not ill, leading to antibiotic resistant bacteria developing, an issue which experts are severely concerned about as it could cause outbreaks of more diseases with the global impacts COVID-19, or diseases that are even worse. Semi-domesticated animals however have room to roam, meaning they can keep clean, don’t spread diseases as easily, and don’t need to be crammed full of antibiotics which diseases might become resistant to. That’s good for both them and us!

When comparing semi-domestication to hunting, having this slightly closer relationship with the animals means that their population can be monitored, making sure that the animal or the resources it produces (e.g. honey, nests, etc..) aren’t being overharvest. They can be kept in slightly more convenient locations for humans than wild species, and also it is possible to somewhat breed desirable traits into the population, by getting rid of individuals with traits you don’t want before they get to the age of reproducing, something which you can’t really do with wild animals.

Semi-domestication does have its downsides too though. For roaming animals like reindeer and goats, it is a real lifestyle for the herders who often have to be somewhat nomadic. Also, as these animals aren’t put into a big protected shed each night, they are more susceptible to being attacked by wild predators.

Land is also an issue- a lot of space is needed to allow this wide ranging lifestyle. In some densely populated or heavily farmed areas, this space simply doesn’t exists, and in places where people have grazing rights but don’t actually own the land, competition with developers for space can cause real problems.

There are many pros and cons to having both sei-domesticated and domesticated animals, as well as hunting wild animals like this wild boar to get resources from them (Picture: Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak/CC BY-SA 2.5)

The space left for wild animals to live on our planet is declining rapidly, and the issues with intensive industrial domestication, like factory farming, are being highlighted more often. Perhaps by looking at semi-domestication examples of our relationships with animals, we can work out alternative ways to live alongside them, benefit from them, and also benefit them in the process, creating a healthier food system and a healthier planet.

For more info:

On this Wikipedia page are listed some more semi-domesticated species for you to explore, though how domesticated or wild they are vary quite a bit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_domesticated_animals#Tame_and_partially_domesticated_animals

Music: kongano.com

Title Image: Tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis/Public Domain

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