Michael Burns

  • Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives edited by Aubrey Manning and James Serpell
    Routledge, 199 pp, £35.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 415 09155 1
  • The Beast in the Boudoir: Pet-Keeping in 19th-Century Paris by Kathleen Kete
    California, 200 pp, £22.50, August 1994, ISBN 0 520 07101 8

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.

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