Britain was once well known for its cruelty to animals. Bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog-fighting and cock-fighting were enormously popular amusements; the draught horses of the poor and the race horses of the rich were pushed to limits unimaginable today; vivi-sectionists practised their trade on monkeys and dogs with impunity; and many hunters, ignoring the rules of sportsmanship, imagined no greater enjoyment, as one enthusiast put it, than ‘whole hecatombs of slaughter’.
Such habits also prevailed beyond the British Isles, to be sure. Emperor Domitian tortured flies; Louis XI did the same to stags; Archduke Franz Ferdinand took pride in having killed more than half a million animals, including the 2150 pieces of small game he bagged in one day and the 3000th stag he shot shortly before Gavrilo Princip shot him. Through the centuries, in Britain and across Europe, cats had the hardest time of all, hurled from high towers, skinned alive, persecuted with the witches they befriended, and bundled in sacks to be roasted on bonfires. Popular wisdom had it that their ritualistic death ‘cleansed’ the community. And so it did: of cats.
Cats join dogs, sheep, cattle, horses and humans in Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives, a rich and instructive collection of papers from a conference held in Edinburgh. The studies, most of them anthropological, range from the cattle-culture cosmology of ancient Egypt (where royal men identified with large, brave and libidinous bovines, and ruled as ‘sun bulls’), through medieval perceptions of the animal as ‘other’ (and the grotesque links forged by zealots between animals and Jews, those other ‘others’ in Christian Europe), to the development of pet-keeping at home, pet-killing in contemporary animal shelters, and attitudes towards wildlife among today’s industrial nations. This last contribution upsets some national stereotypes and confirms others: Germans have the least interest in mastery and control over animals, while the Japanese, despite their aesthetic appreciation of nature, register high on ‘dominionistic’ and ‘negativistic’ scales. Individual plants and birds are honoured by the Japanese, Stephen Kellert suggests: schools of whale and expanses of tropical forest are not. It is no surprise that Americans consider hunting ‘a basic right of citizenship’, but interesting that less than one half of 1 per cent of the German public, most of it upper crust, hold hunting licences. A deer is more apt to be shot by an aristocrat in Germany than anywhere else in the world.
The book’s contributors touch on common themes. We learn a great deal from archaeo-zoologist Juliet Clutton-Brock, for example, about the significance of animal domestication ten thousand years ago, about the ‘resemblance between the husbanding of livestock and the keeping of slaves’ and about property, profit and ‘the control of subordinate individuals by dominant leaders’. Tim Ingold, an anthropologist, believes that the transition in human-animal relations which came with domestication should be described as one ‘from trust to domination’: unlike the nature/society dichotomy ‘of Western provenance’, hunters and gatherers merge with nature into a ‘single field of relationships’. Drawing on evidence from the ‘savage’ (the word is Darwin’s) inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to the Cree Indians of Northern Canada, Ingold explores the highly developed respect that hunter-gatherer societies have always held for animals, and the ways in which a variety of beliefs, including metempsychosis, influence the hunters’ treatment of their prey; in Cree lore, for example, ‘animals will not return to hunters who have treated them badly in the past.’ Some revisionist anthropologists, not represented here, question the neatness of this ecological equipoise, but Ingold’s basic message is convincing: a ‘profoundly arrogant’ contemporary world, marked by the alienation of humanity from nature, should draw new lessons from ancient hunters and herdsmen.
Following domestication, write James Serpell and Elizabeth Paul, religious and secular ideologies reinforced ‘hierarchical notions of human separateness and superiority’, and the idea of animals as somehow equal with humans gave way to the world described in the Book of Genesis. Evolutionists and creationists may argue over the origins of life, but they agree on the salient point that animals came first, whether concocted in primordial slime or fully formed by their creator on the fifth day and sixth morning. From the Biblical point of view, however, they barely caught a breath of freedom before God gave humans (created on the sixth afternoon) ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’. That dominion remained relatively benign for six chapters of the Hebrew Bible, until the Flood covered the land. Then, telling Noah and his sons that ‘the fear of you, and the dread of you, shall be upon every beast of the earth,’ God made humans into carnivores.
A number of contributors to Animals and Human Society discuss the religious and secular debates over dominion and stewardship, which began early and continue to this day. From Aristotle and the Bible, and on to Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes and others, the point was made that rational human beings, the creatures with immortal souls, were the pinnacle of creation. But if animals were always and everywhere inferior, the dilemma persisted (at least for the interested few) about how to treat them. Should all living creatures be respected and protected? Or should there be a hierarchy of concern, with insects (two-thirds of all the species) at the bottom, and horses, oxen and working dogs closer to the top? Should there be any limit at all to the exploitation of animals for the benefit of human progress? In this volume’s longest and strongest chapter, a historian of medicine, Andreas-Holger Maehle, traces the debate on these and other questions after the 17th century.
Descartes seems to have harboured no hatred for the lower forms of life, but his ‘beast-machine’ theory, oversimplified by his followers, encouraged the idea that animals were absolutely insensitive to pain. Humans had no obligations towards them, insisted Samuel von Pufendorf, the 18th-century advocate of natural rights; in fact, humans confronted animals in a constant ‘state of war’. Taken to the extreme, that point of view led to the most callous cruelty, though most people had no need of Cartesian theory to feel easy about beating dogs, whipping oxen or torching cats. But the ‘beast-machine’ theory also prompted a wave of criticism from the religious, who believed that tenderness should be extended to all God’s creatures, and that humans should act as stewards of the natural world. At the same time, increasing numbers of secular philosophers rallied to the defence of animals, and warned about the ‘dangers of brutalisation’. The question attracted an illustrious gallery of commentators and illustrators, including Locke, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Hogarth, whose engravings, The Four Stages of Cruelty, traced the downfall of an animal tormentor. Kant thought that cruelty to animals might gradually obliterate compassion for human suffering; and Bentham, an incorrigible pet lover, challenged the Cartesians with Descartes’ own logic: ‘The question is not, Can [animals] reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’
The sentimental education of the 18th century prepared the way for the animal welfare legislation of the early 19th century, above all in Germany and Great Britain. The age of revolution and the Rights of Man was also the age of the Rights of Animals (though in France animals, like women, attracted little legal interest early on). Harriet Ritvo examines the transitional period in Britain, when old habits of cruelty were slowly and unevenly eclipsed by greater kindness and concern. She is superb on the ‘complicated attitudes and competing categories’ of human-animal relations, but her evidence confirms the trend towards more positive feelings and more specific legislation: an 1822 Act of Parliament outlawed cruelty to horses and cattle; the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came two years later; and in 1876, Britain enacted the world’s first law regulating experiments on living animals. Owners still had broad control over their living property, as they do to this day; but for the first time on a significant scale, the public and private sectors had mobilised in defence of animal welfare.
Pets played a role in the transition, as what Serpell and Paul call an ‘ethical bridge’ across the chasm of human-animal relations. They remind us that pet-keeping has a long and global history. Hunting societies often named pets and cared for them like children; they were protected during their lifetime and mourned at their death; and some Amerindian groups kept them secluded like human adolescents ‘to make them more beautiful’. In Europe, the list of notable pet-keepers is grand and familiar: Sir Thomas More surrounded by his dogs, rabbits and monkeys; Montaigne with his favourite cat (‘who knows whether I am not more a toy for her than she is for me?’); Bentham, one of the founders of the concept of animal rights, who befriended mice as well as cats, but who cherished his old dog, the Reverend Doctor John Langborn; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her spaniel Flush, immortalised by pet-lover Virginia Woolf; and so on.
The significant point is that, more often than not, pets help humans to acquire ‘sympathetic tendencies’, as Locke insisted, and here the contributors to Animals and Human Society miss an opportunity to enlarge their canvas. The hermitage life of early Christian ascetics and medieval monks, for example, marked by close contact with nature, also encouraged tenderness towards animals. More could be said, too, about the later influence of popular, and highbrow, literature on contemporary attitudes towards animals generally, and towards pets in particular. Black Beauty is mentioned in passing, but nowhere do we hear about the Romanticism that may have helped shape the strong and affectionate feelings that Germans even now hold for animals and nature; nor do we meet Eliot’s cats or Kipling’s rich menagerie. Writings in which animals are imbued with human characteristics and treated with sympathy are surely as central to the story of ‘changing perspectives’ as the theoretical treatises of Enlightenment thinkers.
Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir focuses on the way in which pet-keeping in 19th-century Paris ‘restates in another mode the century’s central intellectual ideas – ideas about modernity expressed in literary and artistic representation and in ordinary 19th-century lives as well’. She sets out to demonstrate how pet-keeping ‘was the way bourgeois talked about themselves’, with the caveat that this is not a study of class struggle, ‘but an elaborate construction in the pet-keeping world of affect and fantasy – set against a recognisably imperfect world – that includes the important problem of class’.
To enter that fantastic world, Kete draws on a variety of archival evidence, from pet-keeping manuals and anti-vivisectionist tracts, to municipal tax records on dogs, police reports on rabies, and popular illustrations of animals dressed in ‘little shirts decorated all over with narrow bands of Valenciennes lace’. The book is strongest on fish and cats, and on what they represented to the middle-class people who kept them. Exotic aquariums, with tiny ruins and weird vegetation, became, in Kete’s analysis, the little dream-worlds of the bourgeois interior; and cats, long considered devilish animals, dangerous and sexually charged, went through a process of domestication (Kete calls it embourgeoisement) that, by the end of the century, made them the equals of pet dogs. From the Fin-de-Siècle to the eve of the first World War, ‘rehabilitated’ cats enjoyed their own belle époque. It is curious that Kete never mentions the ubiquitous Parisian posters and drawings of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, because they support her argument that cats had become a major icon of the modern age. And their lives had improved into the bargain. If Kete is hard on the bourgeoisie (‘an increasingly cruel bourgeois and urban world, male, alienating and relentlessly unsentimental’), her feline subjects would have disagreed: the soft lap of a hypocritical banker must have beaten the bonfire of an angry peasant.
So it went for the dogs of the middle classes, who got good meals and shelter from the cold, and all in exchange for a little guard duty (if big) or a little conspicuous ribbon-wearing (if small). Kete tells splendid stories about 19th-century systems of pet-training and the hairdressers who made house calls; she uncovers the ‘feminist discourse’ on animal welfare; she evokes the horrific sounds of those less fortunate dogs who yelped out from vivisectionists’ laboratories; and she follows bourgeois pets to their final reward – either taxidermy (a thriving 19th-century enterprise) or entombment in one of the elaborate pet cemeteries that developed in response to the pollution created by hurling dead animals into the Seine.
On the question of canines, Kete suggest that bourgeois dogs were the only ones to ‘present an interface between the home and the outside world’. But in town and country, dogs by nature, not by the class of their masters, suspect strangers and ‘recognise those friends of the household [they] must always make welcome’. In a long chapter on rabies and the bourgeoisie, we are presented with dramatic material on the spread of the disease and the often irrational fear it engendered; and there is no question that some bourgeois observers linked the threat, literally and figuratively, to the rabid ‘virus’ of the working classes, who were considered as dangerous and dirty as their dogs. But was the fear of rabies revealing only of ‘the implosive nature of the bourgeois interior’, of the high anxieties of the middle classes alone? How did the seamstress who kept a cat in her boarding room and the rag-picker who bedded down with his dog under a bridge feel about the disease? Many of the impulses attributed here to a terrified class are generally human rather than specifically bourgeois.
Between 1872 and 1885, the number of dogs in France increased by nearly half a million; and by the turn of the century, the total number had grown to almost three million. The statistics confirm that ‘the taste for dogs is expanding’ (as one contemporary wrote). They are most suggestive in the broader demographic context, which Kete leaves unexplained; the French dog population exploded at the same period when the human population stagnated. At a time when the threat of dénatalité obsessed the defenders of French grandeur, the nation was literally going to the dogs.
But it went in style. Two chapters on ‘Dreamworlds of the Bourgeois Interior’ describe the high culture of dog-breeding and the pedigree of the dogs and the bourgeois who bred them. Most members of the breeding societies in the late Second Empire and early Third Republic were ‘fashionably titled’; many were women, and the language of breeding, grooming, training, and showing that appeared in their handbooks suggests a strong connection with the horse world in general and the Jockey Club in particular; many of the husbands of pedigree dog-owners probably belonged to that élite and politically powerful coterie. The Beast in the Boudoir would have done well to consider the domesticated horses known by every Parisian of every class, and to visit the town houses and club rooms of the haute bourgeoisie for whom dog-breeding, horse-breeding, racing and hunting were in extricably linked. Kete draws on an array of 20th-century cultural critics, from Benjamin to Barthes, to support her thesis that pets served as an index of modernity. But theory cannot unlock the mystery of human-animal relations, and it often obscures the simplest point of all; that a companion pet is companion.