Friday, March 13, 2009

Captive Breeding

I just had to answer this article about captive breeding.

Breeding of animals is not rocket science. The only way to fail at it is to never attempt it. Usually the problem is how to deal with an embarrassment of riches. I personally would rather have a few too many dogs, cats, or tigers than none at all. Captive breeding is in no way an "extreme tactic", it's a perfectly ordinary thing that billions of people have done.

The World Wildlife Fund uses one simple technique to persuade people that it is wrong to breed animals in captivity. I sometimes call it the "You'll shoot your eye out!" technique. They tell the reader or the listener to think only of all the things that can go wrong if someone tries to breed a rare animal. They might even admit that thousands have successfully bred those animals, but it's still "think of all the things that can go wrong." Why would anyone even listen to these people? All that they want you to do is stop doing what you think is right and obey them.

Think of all the things that can go right. Where there were no tigers there can be hundreds or thousands depending on the resources a group has. You might have mixed breeds but all of the animals whose genes went into the mix have many descendants and the more the merrier for genetic variety. The more genetic variety the better. Can you believe that so-called conservationists actually argue for "subspecies purity"? That's a lot like saying that a dog that is half Great Dane and half Saint Bernard is no good. When they say that Siberian/Bengal tiger mixes are no good for a species survival program, that's so wrong. They are the same species and genes from both populations are preserved. What they mean is that they want their programs to go their way, like an obsessive-compulsive thing.

They argue that there are "many difficulties" associated with captive breeding. So? We do it not because it is easy but because it is hard. They try to paralyze our thinking by talking about the dangers, and now the difficulties. Think of the reward: Most humans love animals. We get to keep them with us and take them into the future with us. A truly "natural" lifestyle includes as many plants and animals as we can have around us.

A species does not become uniform when humans take charge of its breeding. Look at the differences between the poodle, the dachshund, the border collie, the great dane, the pariah dog, the dingo, and all other dog breeds. Their genetic variety has obviously increased. This goes for horses, cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and everything else. There are known and well-established methods for multiplying the number of "subspecies" of any animal, plant, or even bacteria. The only animals that have limited gene pools are the ones that people have been forcibly prevented from using in captive breeding programs, like the ocelot and the cheetah. Both of those species would number in the millions and they would be quite varied by now.

There are a lot of failures but that is the price of success. When they breed "naturally" in the wild every species loses a lot of its young. Fewer are lost in captive breeding. There is inbreeding in the wild, always. Lions are known for mating with their daughters. So are stallions. Those are just two species that live in family groups and the dominant males drive out their male progeny, or kill them, and mate with the females that stay. Outbreeding is actually alien to them.

The hopefully large number of tigers and lions in captivity in the United States reflect the success of an informal grassroots breeding program. Some say that there are as many as 25,000 tigers in the U.S. and I could only wish. No one ever seems to estimate the number of lions but it would seem that there would be more because even fewer of them kill their owners than tigers do and they like to live in family groups. Any true conservationist would congratulate the private owner on the success of breeding thousands of species individuals of endangered and threatened animals. A really good conservationist finds ways to help them and make it legal to breed the really endangered animals.

Were I to be in charge of a conservation program I would do this: Live-capture orphaned cubs from the wild and hand-raise them as pets. Take advantage of the large body of knowledge from successful private owners, and their enthusiasm, and their money and time and energy, and use them to raise the next generation of that endangered animal. Let's not kid ourselves. The wild is disappearing. People are living there. A war to move those people would destroy the habitat and kill a lot of humans. So let's put the animals on the dole and do it right. They'll be living better than they do in the wild. Humans will be a happier and calmer species. Everyone benefits.

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