There are two basic theories used to explain animal behavior, nature and nurture. Animal rights and even scientists argue them almost constantly as to which is the most important. The disagreement has been going on for centuries and will likely continue on into the distant future! Let’s first define what they are.
Nature refers to the natural instincts of a given species of an animal but is often extended to include individual animals. For example a carnivore eats meat and a herbivore eats plants because that is what their digestive systems are designed to eat. One can force or trick a carnivore to eat plants (much cat-food now contains soybeans) or a herbivore to eat meat (cattle diets often contain meat by-products), but in the wild they will not naturally eat these types of food on a regular basis.
Nurture refers to the way an individual animal is raised rather than to characteristics of a species. Tigers can be raised not to kill and dogs can be taught not to bark, but this is not the way they live in the wild. Nurture is training and that can mean training out the natural instincts.
Defining is simple, determining which is more important is a lot more complex. Scientists have taken identical twins separated at birth and raise in completely different environments, and then compared their behavior. This has been done with both animals and humans! The results are interesting.
It seems that somethings are in a creature or person’s “nature”. Things such as intelligence and even in cases of humans, preferences (similar jobs, spouses and hobbies). Some things were based upon how the subjects were raised, diet and aggression were the most common.
What does this mean when discussing animal behavior? A bear will hibernate when it becomes cold because that is in the nature of bears and “programmed into their genetic structure. Raccoon will always “wash” their food because a lack of salivary glands makes it difficult to swallow otherwise. But Pit Bulls are not naturally aggressive and cats don’t always kill birds, those are actually learned traits that are propagated by the parents and the owners.
Is one more important than the other? It depends on the context and the trait, an animal with a limited intelligence will not be able to learn quickly, it is naturally slow and all the nurturing in the world will not expand its mental capacity! With hormonal or genetic traits, nature wins. As for can natural traits be overcome by proper care and nurturing, as long as they do not stop the animal from surviving they will work. The conclusions aren’t clear cut, so the debate will continue.