Background for Teachers

Cover-Wild SideThis month “Keep Texas Wild” teaches students that dogs and cats are related to wild animals that still roam in Texas.

Here are two very important words students need to understand: domesticated and wild.


Dogs and cats are domesticated.  That means that they have lived around humans for many years.  They evolved in places where humans live and now rely on us to help them survive.

Feral is also an important word for students to know. An animal is feral when it isn’t normally a wild animal, but lives like one. An example of a feral animal is a cat with no home.  Ask students if they have ever spotted a feral cat in their neighborhood. Explain to them that these are not pets and that if they tried to pick one up it would most likely scratch and bite, much as a wild animal would. Encourage kids to leave feral cats alone! Dogs can be feral, too, and students should also be discouraged from trying to make friends with them. 

Where do feral dogs and cats come from? Sometimes animals are born and do not have a home so they run wild. As they grow up, these dogs and cats get used to being wild.  Since they are not used to having humans take care of them, they react to humans as if we wanted to hurt them, just like many wild animals do. Feral animals can often carry diseases that pets can get such as rabies.

Encourage your students to keep their pets contained so that their animals don’t socialize with feral dogs and cats. 


The other animals mentioned in the magazine are wild animals.  That means they don’t usually have contact with humans and can completely take care of themselves without our help. That also means that their parents were not domesticated.

Coyotes, red foxes, swift foxes, gray foxes are dogs’ wild cousins that live in Texas. Both gray wolves and red wolves used to roam here, but no longer. In general, gray wolves have not lived in Texas since the 1920’s, but in 1970 two crossed the border from Mexico (they were later killed). Those were the last gray wolves ever seen in the wild in Texas. The red wolf last ran wild in the state in 1980, when the last of them were collected to start a captive-breeding program.  Coyote populations, on the other hand, continue to increase for two primary reasons. One is that with the loss of both species of wolves, the coyote has filled their ecological niche. The other is that, by nature, the coyote is highly adaptable and loss of habitat is not affecting it to the same degree that it affects many other species such as the swift fox, which today can only be found in a small section of the Texas Panhandle.

Mountain lions, bobcats, jaguarundis, and ocelots are cats’ wild cousins that live in Texas.  Jaguarundis are extremely rare.  In fact, there have been no confirmed sightings of one since 1986. Ocelots are also rare in Texas, but conservation efforts are underway to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. So far, efforts have been met with mixed success and, while no one is exactly sure of how many there are in the wild, estimates range from only 80 to 120. 

The Story of Dogs   

Scientists believe that about 10,000 years ago some wolves started hanging around humans because of the trash we created and that this was the impetus for domestication. The trash was an easy way for the wolves to get food and with time, the certain traits became dominant in canines that hung out with humans. These traits eventually led to the dog as we know it today. As mentioned above, we no longer have wolves in Texas (but there are still wolves in other parts of the United States).

The Story of Cats  

Although the issue periodically comes back up for debate, the safe estimate for domestication of the cat is about 5,000 years ago. Their domestication occurred for the same reasons as the dog’s: They started hanging around places where humans lived because it was easier to get food. 

When the switch from hunter/gatherer to agriculturally based human societies occurred, the extra food we grew had to be saved for later. Stored crops, like grain, attracted mice and other rodents, which began living in and near the food.  As a consequence, so too did cats, who found that the abundance of rodents made hunting easier.

Even though cats and dogs became domesticated for similar reasons, cats did not evolve from a different kind of cat like dogs evolved from wolves. Cats did not evolve from bigger cats like lions or tigers either. Instead, scientists believe that wild cats looked a lot like today’s domesticated cats.  


Two more important words for your students to understand are: inherited and learned.
Both words refer to how animals act, or to their behavior.

Inherited Behavior

Inherited behavior is how an animal acts even if it wasn’t instructed to behave a certain way. For example, no one has to teach a female coyote how to take care of her babies because she is inherits the behavior.

Ask students if they’ve ever wondered why their dog growls or their cat hisses. Explain that behaviors such as growling and hissing are inherited behaviors left over from their wild ancestors. Then, continue by discussing the additional inherited behaviors on the Student Research Page

Learned Behavior

Learned behaviors are ones that animals have to be taught.  Explain to students that when they teach their dog to walk on a leash the animal is learning a behavior that otherwise would not come naturally.  

Using Texas animals featured in the magazine you can explain to students that foxes, coyotes, and wolves teach their young how to hunt. For these wild canines, hunting is a learned behavior.  This is true also for the wild cats featured, especially mountain lions.

Learn More

Cat got your tongue?
Cats’ tongues are very interesting! Both domesticated and wild cats use them as tools. Find out what is so special about their tongues and make a list of the ways cats use them. [For GT students you might also want them to explain to you why cats’ tongues are so usable.] Visit:
What Do Foxes Sound Like?
Dogs That Changed the World
This video from the PBS show, “Nature,” explains the evolution from wolf to dog:  (All three segments are together in one video, but you may stop at anytime.)
Segment 1 is about 6 minutes long.
Segment 2 is about 5 minutes long.
Segment 3 is about 2 minutes long.
Short Videos Featuring Canines [ALL VIDEOS ARE 2 MINUTES OR LESS]
Wolves: Even though wolves no longer live in Texas, this short video featuring gray wolves, shows how they interact with one another. This will help students connect today’s pet dogs with the idea that wolves are their ancestors.
Coyotes: Students can watch how a father coyote plays with his babies.
Swift foxes: Today, these endangered canines live only in the Texas Panhandle. They are the smallest of the American foxes.
Short Videos Featuring Felines [ALL VIDEOS ARE 2 MINUTES OR LESS]
Ocelots: In Texas, Ocelots live in the brush country, not in the jungle as is shown in this video.  However, this video does not focus on habitat. Rather it provides your students the opportunity to watch how much the ocelot’s behavior is like the domesticated cat’s. 
Jaguarundi: Like Ocelots, Jaguarundi in Texas live in the brush country, not in a jungle as shown in this video. However, kids can take note of the jaguarundi’s movements and note how the unique looking animal’s behavior is similar to the housecat’s.
Cougar: This shows how the interaction between juvenile cougars resembles the interaction between two domesticated kittens.