Would a Velociraptor make a good pet?

File:Velociraptor Restoration.png
A modern artistic reconstruction of Velociraptor, feathers and all!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_Restoration.png

If you have no idea what a Velociraptor is, or only know of them from pop culture, then let’s start this blog article off with a bit of creature building. Take a medium to large sized Eagle (like a Golden Eagle for example). Eagles are a good place to start to build as they are also predatory animals that possess a full coat of feathers, long sharp talons and a powerful, wickedly hooked beak. Next we make the Eagle flightless by reducing its wings down until they are not large enough for flight. Then we replace its beak with long, slender reptilian like jaws full of sharp teeth. Then we enlarge both of its legs, reflecting a land based lifestyle, and greatly increase the size of the curved talons on each foot. We finish by lengthening its tail, giving it a strong and rigid bony structure. The resulting animal is close to what palaeontologists believe a Velociraptor looked like; a ground dwelling predatory animal that would’ve looked like a bird but with more basal, classically dinosaurian features. This sort of creature building is incidentally the basis of the “Chickenosaurus Project”. This project involves scientists (e.g. the famous palaeontologist Jack Horner) “switching on or off” certain genes in chickens in order to turn bird like features into more basal dinosaurian ones. By doing this the scientists aim to not only bring a non-avian dinosaur like animal back, but also increase our understanding of the relationships between genes and an animals development and anatomy. The “Chickenosaurus” produced from this would not be a true non-avian dinosaur, both in appearance and genetically speaking. Instead it would look like a Chicken with some Velociraptor like features (e.g. toothed jaws, a long bony tail etc.).

Velociraptor lived in Mongolia and Northern China during a period of the Mesozoic era dubbed the Late Cretaceous, (roughly 83 to 72 million years ago). It belonged to a family of dinosaurs known as the Dromaeosaurs. This group generally consisted of lightly build carnivores (though some of the largest members, like Utahraptor, were more stocky), and are commonly known by their nickname of “raptors”. This is not to be confused with the nickname for modern day birds of prey, who are also called “raptors”. Dromaeosaurs are known by dinosaur enthusiasts as one of the families of non-avian dinosaurs most closely related to birds, and as the description of Velociraptor at the beginning shows, dromaeosaurs would’ve been very bird like in appearance. In fact if they were around today (and especially if you didn’t know as much about dinosaurs) then you might easily confuse one with a large ground dwelling bird from a distance. Now before I go any further I think I need to address the Sauropod in the room, Velociraptor is a name that is familiar to the general public due to its starring appearances in the Jurassic Park films. I’m not going to talk about those particular Velociraptors, nor am I going to point out the huge number of scientific inaccuracies that they possess. There are plenty of blog articles and YouTube videos that cover that topic in great detail. Instead this blog article will concentrate on the real Velociraptor, the one that once walked the same planet that we do now, and try to answer a fun question; Would Velociraptor make a good pet?

Before we get into answering this it must be stated that this question is purely hypothetical. Despite what Jurassic Park or the Chickenosaurus project suggests it is not possible to bring any true non-avian dinosaur back from extinction. This is because DNA, that key ingredient required to clone any animal, is easily biodegradable. Therefore it can’t survive for any longer than a million years or so, and that’s with ALL conditions in favour of its preservation. This is also true even if it’s within blood found within mosquitos trapped in amber! Therefore for this “new pet” scenario we will assume some fictional science will make it possible to resurrect the Velociraptor. Furthermore in all likelihood if Velociraptors were alive today they would probably be (or at least behave like) wild animals and so you can’t just take one from the wild and expect it to be a great pet. So another assumption must be that the Velociraptors in this scenario have been captive bred and imprinted on the owner from birth, or are selectively bred to be pets.

Velociraptor is an interesting little dinosaur, and yes I do mean “little”. A fully grown Velociraptor measured only around 1.8-2.0 metres long (up to 2.5 metres in the largest estimate), less than a metre tall and weighed roughly 15-20 kilograms. This makes it similar in size to a modern day Labrador retriever, which is relatively small for a non-avian dinosaur! The feature that characteristically defines Velociraptor, along with all Dromaeosaurs and a closely related family known as the Troodontids, is an enlarged, sickle shaped toe claw found on each foot often dubbed the “killing claw”. These wickedly sharp instruments might look intimidating to many pet owners. But bear in mind that even domestic cats also possess sharp claws, we just don’t always see them because they’re retracted into their paws a lot of the time. If a Velociraptor were kept as a pet then an owner might wish to get their Velociraptors killing claw trimmed regularly (or even cut off entirely) to avoid furniture, carpet and skin getting punctured by it!

File:Velociraptor size.png
A size comparison between Velociraptor mongoliensis and a human. This comparison is using the upper size estimate of 2.5 metres for Velociraptor
Image Credit: PaleoNeolitic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_size.png

Another factor in favour of the Velociraptor pet movement would be the coat of feathers that covered their whole body except for the feet, jaws and claws. These feathers also included wing feathers on each arm and a long fan of feathers covering the tail. Velociraptor feathers would’ve had multiple uses. A downy coat would’ve kept them warm during cold desert nights, and maybe (and I’m speculating as we don’t know the colour of Velociraptor) they could’ve been sandy coloured to camouflage against the desert sand. Feathers could’ve also aided in courtship and maybe have been used to differentiate males and females, uses both seen in modern birds. Examples include the extravagantly coloured peacocks and birds of paradise, to the male/female colour schemes on some bird species found in the UK, such as Greenfinches; where males are yellow/green all over while females are a dullish grey/brown with yellow wing and tail edges. We can only speculate what a potential Velociraptor courtship display might have looked like (if it had one), but I think it might have involved the male performing a dance routine, consisting of flaps of its short wings, bounding movements and fans of its trail and accompanied by a soundtrack of hoots, rasps and gasps. The wings wouldn’t have enabled Velociraptor to fly (as stated in my Dakotaraptor blog article from late 2019, I couldn’t even imagine how threatening a large flying Dromaeosaur would’ve been!) but would have had other purposes. As well as potentially aiding in courtship, the wings would’ve allowed Velociraptor to maintain its balance when making tight turns at high speed. Flaps of the wings would’ve also been used to help when balancing on and pinning down struggling prey. As a prospective pet these feathers might make Velociraptor look cute to prospective owners! Feathered coats are one of the features that make many species of birds, like parrots or budgies, favoured pets. Furthermore since the body feathers would’ve been more down and fuzzy like it’s not too much to assume that this soft texture would’ve helped the Velociraptors case. Maybe it was soft and cuddly!

Another argument for keeping a Velociraptor as a pet is that, due to their size and weaponry, they might make good guard animals (especially if there’s more than one!). We know from multiple studies that Velociraptor would’ve been an effective hunter, with acute binocular vision (even at night!), a good sense of smell and relatively long legs that powered it through its environment. A study conducted in 2007 by William Sellers and Phillip Manning used a musculoskeletal model of a Velociraptor, built from measurements from Velociraptor fossils, to indicate that it could’ve ran at speeds of approximately 10.8 metres per second. This equates to 38.88 kilometres per hour (kph) or 24.15 miles per hour (mph). By comparison the “average” human speed calculated in this study was 7.9 metres per second, which equates to 28.44 kph or 17.67 mph. In short, a Velociraptor could’ve run faster than the average human! Furthermore the researchers state that these values are a lower range estimate. This is because an animal is rarely needing to run at absolute top speed (why waste extra energy when you can already catch up to prey) or in ideal conditions. As a result it’s likely that Velociraptor could’ve reached speeds faster than this (though it’s difficult to exactly estimate an extinct animals top speed as we only have fossils and computer models to work off of). Another study conducted by Park et. al. in 2014 built a robot Velociraptor (I’m not joking!) in order to reconstruct its locomotion. On a flat treadmill the robot managed to achieve speeds of 46 kph/28.5 mph. However bear in mind that it was a robot, and running on a flat treadmill, so this value is another estimate. Once it caught up with its prey Velociraptor would’ve leapt on top of it, using its iconic killing claw to latch onto and secure itself while using its body weight to pin down its struggling prey. As this was happening it would balance itself with flaps of its wings and use its sharp teeth and claws to tear into its prey, wearing it down with deep wounds. This strategy was most effective on prey that was smaller than Velociraptor itself. So as a result Velociraptor main diet would’ve mostly been herbivores it could outweigh, such as small sized dinosaurs and the young of larger dinosaurs. This “pin down” method is not too dissimilar to how a modern bird of prey hunts, except that they swoop in from the air rather than chase on the ground. A lot of Dromaeosaur depictions show them swarming large herbivores in a pack, and the Jurassic Park movies also show Velociraptor living in groups. However there actually wasn’t a lot of evidence to back up this claim. The main piece was the discovery of several shed teeth and skeletons of a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus alongside a herbivorous dinosaur known as Tenontosaurus. While this was interpreted at the time as evidence of co-operative pack hunting it could also be interpreted in other ways. Maybe several independent Deinonychus had gathered to scavenge on the dead Tenontosaurus? Or they had opportunistically converged to finish off the injured animal without any co-operation? Fighting over the kill afterwards like modern day Komodo Dragons. Furthermore a study in 2020 (Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020) on a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus showed that the Carbon 13 isotopic values were more depleted in adult teeth than in juvenile teeth. Carbon 13 isotope values in teeth are influenced by diet, therefore it was inferred that adult and juvenile Deinonychus were eating different prey. This is not consistent with living and hunting in a pack as all animals in a pack would hunt and eat the same animals, producing similar Carbon 13 values. As Velociraptor is a close relative we can assume with some confidence that it too might have been solitary, however this doesn’t totally rule out juveniles staying together for survival or adults congregating together in exceptional circumstances, as animals such as Crocodiles and Bears do during mass migrations of their fish prey. For our question this means that you could maybe have been okay with keeping just one Velociraptor, though keeping two or even three (especially if all the animals knew each other from a very young age) could also be okay if you can afford it and have enough space.

A skeletal illustration of Velociraptor mongoliensis. This image shows its slender body, proportionally long legs and long stiff tail. These indicate that Velociraptor was built for speed and agility.
Image Credit: Jaime A. Headden, https://www.deviantart.com/qilong/art/It-Lives-Velociraptor-24578261?q=gallery%3AQilong%2F5004771&qo=83

Just like all predators, hunts didn’t always go smoothly, and prey would often fight back aggressively. This is captured in exquisite detail in the famous “fighting dinosaurs”; a beautiful pair of skeletons that preserves a Velociraptor locked in combat with a Protoceratops (a sheep sized four legged herbivorous dinosaur that was an early relative of the Ceratopsidae, the dinosaur family containing the famous Triceratops). In this encounter, a risky one since Protoceratops outweighed Velociraptor, the Velociraptor started the fight by attacking the Protoceratops from behind. This probably happened in dark or low light conditions such as at night, dusk or dawn as these are the times Velociraptor is thought to have operated mostly at. In response the Protoceratops managed to turn and bite down hard on the Velociraptors right arm with its sharp horny beak. The Protoceratops held the Velociraptor in that position while the Velociraptor tried to break free, stabbing and raking the Protoceratops’ chest and belly with its feet while grabbing its face with its claws. Locked in this position, and suffering massive blood loss and fatigue, the two dinosaurs perished together. Then they were buried by a collapsing sand dune to be preserved for roughly 72 million years until it was unearthed again by palaeontologists in 1971. This beautiful fossil preserves a predator prey interaction in exquisite detail and was also one of the most complete skeletons of Velociraptor ever discovered. However Velociraptor had been known to science before this. The first fossils to be discovered were found 48 years prior in the Gobi Desert in 1923. This material consisted of a nearly complete skull and a finger bones, and it was from these finds that American palaeontologist John Ostrom would name the dinosaur Velociraptor (meaning “swift thief”). Today two species of Velociraptor are recognised; Velociraptor mongoliensis, described from those bones found in 1923 in Mongolia, and Velociraptor osmolskae, described in 2010 from fossils unearthed in Northern China.

File:Fighting dinosaurs (1).jpg
The fighting dinosaurs fossil, which captures the final moments of the two dinosaurs in exquisite detail!
Image Credit: Yuya Tamai, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaiyuya/13446145343/

However, while they would make vicious guard animals, you probably would NOT be able to train them to do more than protect against intruders (while holding your arms out to a group of them like in that one scene from Jurassic World). A popular misconception about Velociraptor, one perpetuated by the Jurassic Park franchise, is that they would’ve been highly intelligent. However, while smart for non-avian dinosaur standards, Velociraptors wouldn’t have been on the same level as a dolphin or a primate. Instead would have been similar to other modern day birds such as chickens or hawks, and some mammals like rabbits. That being said their comparatively high intelligence would’ve given them an advantage over other dinosaurs it lived with, especially over their prey. Luckily for the prospective pet owner, it’s not going to be opening any doors and there probably wouldn’t be much chance of it performing complicated routines on command, or mimicking speech like parrots can.

One final thing to consider is how just how Velociraptor would fare being a pet. Plenty of animals are difficult to keep as pets or in captivity, requiring large sums to fund the building and maintaining of enclosures and to provide them with enough food. Owls, Eagles and other birds of prey, as well as Lynxs and large Catfish are great examples of animals that can be hard to keep as pets. A decently sized Velociraptor would perhaps require a similar level of commitment. So only someone with enough time, space and resources could keep one and ensure that it has a happy life. There might also be problems with regards to the pet trade. As well-known and popular dinosaurs, Velociraptors might be regarded as highly valuable, and sadly there would be people out there who would want to illegally profit from this at the animals’ expense.

Velociraptor, the swift, agile thief of the Late Cretaceous, was an animal that successfully continued the Dromaeosaur dynasty. One that had lasted for roughly 60 million years before it and is remembered 72 million years after it had died out. While it is quite different to the silver screen version, in my honest opinion the real Velociraptor was a much more interesting animal than the movie monsters of Jurassic Park. Now to answer the important question, would they make good pets? Well I reckon that Velociraptor would have enough going for it that there probably would be a market for it. Furthermore humans can always selectively breed them over multiple generations to gradually get rid of or dilute the less favourable parts. So if you want to own one the advice would be to always remember to keep the claws suitably trimmed and to give them plenty of food, water and warmth. But most importantly only get one if can afford to treat it well, and when raising one you must love it and treat it like a member of the family. Oh and make sure to take many cute photos of it too!

File:Velociraptor restraining an oviraptorosaur by durbed.jpg
An artistic interpretation of a Velociraptor mongoliensis hunting a juvenile Oviraptorosaur dinosaur. Here it is using the “pin down” (or “Mantling”) hunting method that palaeontologists think Dromaeosaurs used to catch prey.
Image Credit: Durbed, https://www.deviantart.com/durbed/art/Mortal-techniques-II-Velociraptor-279158025

References/Further Reading

Turner, Makovicky & Norell 2007 paper describing the existence of quill knobs on a fossil of Velociraptor. Evidence that these theropods possessed not only feathers, but small wings.

Turner, Alan H., Makovicky, Peter J., Norell, Mark A., Feather Quill Knobs in the Dinosaur Velociraptor, 2007, Vol. 317, Issue 5845, pp. 1721, DOI: 10.1126/science.1145076

King et. al. 2020 paper on the endocranium anatomy of Velociraptor, further proving that it could track prey effectively, was swift and could hear at a wide range of frequencies.

King, JL, Sipla, JS, Georgi, JA, Balanoff, AM, Neenan, JM. The endocranium and trophic ecology of Velociraptor mongoliensis. J. Anat. 2020; 237: 861– 869. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13253

Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020 paper examining tooth Carbon 13 isotope levels in Deinonychus teeth and what the results tell us about Dromaeosaur pack hunting.

J.A. Frederickson, M.H. Engel, R.L. Cifelli, Ontogenetic dietary shifts in Deinonychus antirrhopus (Theropoda; Dromaeosauridae): Insights into the ecology and social behavior of raptorial dinosaurs through stable isotope analysis, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 552, 2020, 109780, ISSN 0031-0182, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.109780.

Godefroit et. al. 2010 paper describing Velociraptor osmolskae

Godefroit et. al., A new species of Velociraptor (Dinosauria: Dromaeosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous of northern China, 2010, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 28, Issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1671/0272-4634(2008)28[432:ANSOVD]2.0.CO;2

Sellers & Manning 2007 paper estimating the top running speeds to Velociraptor and other dinosaurs.

Sellers, W. I., & Manning, P. L. (2007). Estimating dinosaur maximum running speeds using evolutionary robotics. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 274(1626), 2711–2716. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2007.0846

Park et. al. 2014 study that built a robot Velociraptor in order to study its locomotion and tail stability.

J. Park, J. Lee, J. Lee, K. Kim and S. Kim, “Raptor: Fast bipedal running and active tail stabilization,” 2014 11th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots and Ambient Intelligence (URAI), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2014, pp. 215-215, doi: 10.1109/URAI.2014.7057424.

Roach & Brinkman 2007 paper revaluating the idea of Co-Operative pack hunting in Deinonychus, a close relative of Velociraptor

Brian T. Roach, Daniel L. Brinkman “A Reevaluation of Cooperative Pack Hunting and Gregariousness in Deinonychus antirrhopus and Other Nonavian Theropod Dinosaurs,” Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 48(1), 103-138, (1 April 2007)

An excellent YouTube video by “Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” on Velociraptor.

A follow up video also by Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” correcting some information about Velociraptor made in the previous video.

A 2015 National Geographic article written by Riley Black on the feasibility of bringing non-avian dinosaurs back from extinction via the Jurassic Park method and the Chickenosaurus project.

Black, Riley, “What Could Live in a Real Jurassic World? A Chickenosaurus”, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com, 8th June, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/150618-jurassic-world-genetic-engineering-chickenosaurus

A Live Science article written by Laura Geggel (published on the 19th of May 2015) on the Chickenosaurus project

Geggel, Laura, “Dino-Chicken Gets One Step Closer”, Live Science, www.licescience.com, https://www.livescience.com/50886-scientific-progress-dino-chicken.html

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