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Why Zebras Don't Pull Plows

Why have several large species of mammals never been tamed to do man’s bidding?

Those massive diesel tractors that one sees pulling equally massive tilling and seeding machines on farms throughout the Midwest make it hard to believe that less than 100 years ago most of that work was being done by horses. One hundred years—a mere trifle in human history!

It is thought by most historians and archeologists that humans began farming about 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors gradually learned how to tame plants and animals and live in settled communities. Hunter-gather cultures still exists today in remote areas , but most of modern humans are dependent on agriculture for food.
It is hard to exaggerate the value of domesticated farm animals: A cow can supply us with meat, milk, butter, cheese, and leather. A pig will eat anything, grow swiftly, and multiply quickly without human assistance. Sheep offers meat and wool. Horses can be ridden swiftly long distances and it can pull and drag large objects under countless conditions. They too can be a source of milk and meat.

But why have several large species of mammals never been tamed to do man’s bidding? Zebras, water buffaloes, bison, elk, and many others were never sufficiently brought under the control of humans to be reliable sources of food or power. It is estimated that only fourteen of nearly two hundred potential candidates are now considered domesticated. Of the fourteen, five –pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and horses— are by far the predominant “farm” animals.
Ancient horses roamed the Americas up until a few thousand years ago. But they were tiny things. Real horses, as we know them, did not return to this hemisphere until after Columbus introduced these lands to Europeans. Horses, the descendants of wild herds roaming the grasslands of Europe and Asia, became were the dominant source of mobile power until the invention the steam engine and later the internal combustion engine. They were great farm animals.
One cousin of the horse, the donkey, made itself available, albeit a bit stubbornly, to human nurturing; another cousin of the horse, the zebra, never did (all three are of the genus, equus). To the untrained eye the zebra is an obvious candidate for domestication; they appear powerful, swift, and are even built like a horse. If would seem that they would make valuable farm animals for riding and pulling.

So, how did the Zebra escape the comforts of civilization? For one thing they are mean—very mean. They like to bite and when they bite they hang on. It is not a quick nip like a horse might try; they clamp down and create serious damage. Zebras are one of the most dangerous animals confined in zoos. They are also very talented at avoiding being lassoed. They are able to anticipate a rope coming their way and able to duck and doge and escape capture. And, despite being herd animals , they don’t like being confined by fences.

The result is that despite repeated efforts, perhaps for thousands of years, to tame, domesticate and breed zebras, the effort always fails. The history of agriculture, particularly in Europe and Asia, might have been entirely different if the horse would have been ingrained with the same temperament as the zebra.

And just Imagine trying to get a bunch of zebras into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby!
Author: EVM STAFF on 05/11 2009
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