Domestication of animals began more than 12,000 years ago. Archaeological, anthropological and various other forms of evidence have helped show that domestication was a plausible and rational successor to an earlier period of hunting and gathering. Hunting and gathering was inherently unpredictable, dependent on the vagaries of weather, animal reproductive success, forage. This in turn created instability in communities, given the need for constantly following the food supply. Such a situation created a roadblock to the stability and predictability presuppositional to the development of culture and civilization.
It was therefore inevitable that, by way of natural selection, animals congenial (or at least not inimical) to the company of humans created a state of symbiotic mutual benefit for humans as well as for the animals possessed of these traits. As Darwin pointed out, this was gradually augmented by artificial selection, further refining the traits of animals amenable by nature to domestication.
The key point regarding the beginnings of domestication is that it would at that stage in history not even occur to humans to push the animals beyond their biological limits. At the most, they would, by selective breeding, attempt to modify biological limits in relatively minor ways, for example by selecting for such traits as docility, diminished flightiness, increased musculature, success in reproduction. And in the event that someone was thoughtless enough to try and exceed biological limits, the process would self-correct by virtue of the animals’ self-destruction by sickness or death.
As approaches to domesticated animal agriculture grew more rational, its basis in good husbandry became firmly established as well as becoming both a prudential and an ethical imperative. “Husbandry” is derived from the Old Norse phrase “hus bond,” meaning “bonded to the household.” Husbandry has been termed “the ancient contract with animals,” where, as in any fair contract, both parties benefit from the relationship. Virtually until the 20th century, husbandry was the key concept in animal agriculture. Even today, among Western ranchers, one of the last major groups of husbandry agriculturalists remaining, one can intone the phrase “we take care of the animals,” and the audience will reply “and they take care of us.”
The singular beauty of husbandry is that it was at once an ethical and prudential doctrine. It was prudential in that failure to observe husbandry inexorably led to ruination of the person keeping animals. Not feeding, not watering, not protecting from predators, not respecting the animals’ physical, biological physiological needs and natures, what Aristotle called their telos -- the “cowness of the cow” the “sheepness of the sheep” --meant your animals did not survive and thrive, and thus neither did you. Failure to know and respect the animal’s needs and natures had the same effect. The ultimate sanction of failing at husbandry – erosion of self-interest – obviated the need for any detailed ethical exposition of moral or legal rules for husbandry: Anyone unmoved by self-interest is unlikely to be moved by moral or legal injunctions! Therefore, one finds little written about animal ethics and little codification of that ethic in law before the twentieth century, with the bulk of what is articulated aimed at identifying overt, deliberate, sadistic cruelty, hurting an animal for no purpose or for perverse pleasure, or such outrageous neglect as not providing food or water.
Note: This article originally appeared as part of Animal Welfare in the Beef Industry in the March 2017 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.