Bava Kamma 15b ~ Where the Wild Things Are


בבא קמא טו,ב

הזאב והארי והדוב והנמר והברדלס והנחש הרי אלו מועדין רבי אלעזר אומר בזמן שהן בני תרבות אינן מועדין והנחש מועד לעולם

The the wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardalis and the snake are considered to be forewarned [so that if they cause damage their owner must pay in full].  R. Eleazar says: if they have been tamed, they are not forewarned; the snake, however, is always forwarned.

Wild Animals gone...Wild

In July 2012, while touring a hospital in Johannesburg, I was given a brutal reminder of the dangers posed by the wild animals were were about to see on safari. In the Intensive Care unit and fighting for his life was a young American named Andrew Oberle, who had come to South Africa to study the chimps. It appears that Oberle, a twenty-six year old student, had left the group he was guiding and entered a 'no-go' zone. Two chimps interpreted this as an act of aggression, grabbed the young American, and dragged him into their enclosure. By the time he was finally rescued, Oberline had suffered these injuries

The chimps tore away his scalp down to the skull. His ears and nose are gone, and he can’t close his right eye. He has wounds on his trunk and all four limbs. He’s lost most of his fingers, and his right forearm has been eaten, the tendons gone. He’s lost parts of his feet, and his right ankle is destroyed.

Then there was bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (who later became the subject of an excellent 2005 documentary by Werner Herzog).  Treadwell was a self-described bear conservationist, although he lacked any formal training in the field and was frequently at odds with the Park Service. In October 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by a Grizzly bear in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Thus far, two examples of wild animals acting, well, wild.  

What about training these wild animals to perform tricks?  Well, there's a cautionary tale in that too. Do you recall the great illusionists Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn, the pair of magicians who became world famous for their performances with white lions? For over thirteen years Siegfried and Roy performed at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, until um, they stopped. On October 3, 2003 Roy was bitten in the neck by a seven year old tiger named Manticore, who dragged him off the stage "like a ragdoll." He almost bled to death, and remains partially paralyzed as a result of the attack.  So how could Rabbi Eleazar possibly claim that animals as wild as a lion or a bear ever be considered tame or domesticated? Well, read on...


The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines domestication as

the process of hereditary reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms according to the interests of people. In its strictest sense, it refers to the initial stage of human mastery of wild animals and plants. The fundamental distinction of domesticated animals and plants from their wild ancestors is that they are created by human labour to meet specific requirements or whims and are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude people maintain for them.

Thus we speak of domesticated horses and wild horses, domesticated bees and wild bees, and domesticated plants -(think tobacco, and corn)- and wild plants. What turns a species from a wild to a domesticated form is human patience and careful breeding. But the late professor of anthropology Charles Reed (d. 2000) wrote that many animals are naturally tame - or at least not afraid of human contact:

Among these are manatees, who may not even move aside as one swim among them; sea-otters, from whom one can take the young without any defense by the mother; various basking seals, elephant-seals and sea-lions, among who (other than the males in breeding season) one can walk unconcerned, and whose young, if they've lost their mothers, will follow any human hoping to be fed; various of the porpoises and dolphins, who seem to have no fear of man, and even the great whales.

Can Wolves be Tamed?

The Mishnah on today's page of Talmud stated that six species of animal can never be relied upon to have been domesticated. One of these is the wolf, which seems kind of reasonable, even allowing for the fact that our dogs are descended from them.  But wolves have also been successfully raised as family pets, (though you should probably check with your spouse before bringing home a wolf cub for the family). "Actually" wrote Charles Reed, "wolf pups reared as a group in Alaskan isolation or a single pup brought up with children and dogs in an urban family are wonderfully affectionate, social, dynamic, interesting, and of course intelligent fellow citizens." Which sounds rather like the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar, who believed that wolves, (and bears, lions and leopards) may be tamed so successfully that they end up about as aggressive as domestic goats.

Wild animals ain’t so wild, as shown again by a wild-caught penned wolverine in Alaska, which, within a few days of capture, was taking food from the hand...when the hand was empty, the wolverine gently, with its incisor teeth, held the lady’s fingertips without braking the skin.
— Charles A. Reed. Wild Animals Ain't So Wild, Domesticating Them Not So Difficult. Expedition 1986. 28 (2) 8-15.

A Pet Grizzly Bear called ben franklin

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eleazar spoke not only of a tame wolf-  but of a tame bear.  While our modern sensibilities would be outraged at the notion of raising a wild bear as a pet, these sensibilities are, to be sure, modern indeed. In a charming article published in the American Naturalist in 1886, John Caton described the domestication of the grizzly bear. Just to remind you- a small grizzly bear weights 400 pounds and stands about six and a half feet tall. Now read on:

Among others he [a certain James Adams] fairly domesticated quite a number of the grizzly bear (Ursus ferox Lewis and Clark) with complete success. This is the largest and fiercest known of all the species, and it might be expected the most intractable or unsubmissive to human control, yet such appears not to have been the case.
The first specimens experimented with were two cubs, over a year old when caught, taken in Washington Territory, between Lewis and Clark's fork of the Columbia. They were brother and sister; the latter was retained by Adams, and his experiments were principally conducted on her, which he called " Lady Washington." She seems to have been the more tractable and submissive. The male he parted with to a friend, after he had received but the rudiments of his education. At first they were chained to trees near the camp-fire, and resisted all attempts at familiarity and kindness; then severity was adopted, until they finally submitted.
Soon after the male was parted with, and we have no account of his subsequent career. The female was always after treated with the utmost kindness, and in a few months became as tractable as a dog. She followed her master in his hunting excursions, fought for him with other grizzlies, and saved him from the greatest perils.
She slept at his feet around the camp-fire, and took the place of a most vigilant watch-dog. He taught her to carry burdens with the docility of a mule, and as she grew up her great strength enabled her to render him great assistance in this way.
Another bear of the same species he captured in the Sierras in California before its eyes were open, and raised it on a greyhound bitch in company with her own pup. This he called Ben Franklin, and proved more docile even than the first. He never found it necessary to confine in any way this specimen, but he was allowed to roam and hunt with his foster brother, the grayhound [sic]. They were inseparable companions, and seemed to have as much affection for each other as if they had been of the same species, Before he was full-grown, when his master was attacked by a wounded grizzly, he joined in the fight with such ferocity as to save his master's life, and though he was severely wounded in this contest, with careful nursing he survived, and ever after showed as much courage in attacking his own species as if he had not met with this severe punishment.

I know what you are thinking: grizzly bears are found only in North America, but bears in Israel were a species of the brown bear called Ursus arctos syriacus, or the Syrian Brown Bear. Well that's true, but it's not only grizzly bears that make cuddly pets; the same owner of Ben Franklin, the pet grizzly, also kept black bears (and who knows, perhaps brown ones too):

He found the black bear, when raised in camp, as readily domesticated as the grizzly, and as fond of his society, following him about the camp and through the woods with fidelity and attachment.

So there we have it. Evidence to support Rabbi Eleazar's dissenting opinion that many wild animals may become as domesticated as a dog or cat.  Still, best to stick with dogs and cats as pets.  They take up far less space than the enormous, though very cute, grizzly bear.

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