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Pets in America

A History

by Katherine C. Grier

Hardcover, 377 pages, Univ of North Carolina Pr, List Price: $38.95 |


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Pets in America
A History
Katherine C. Grier

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Book Summary

Filled with illustrations reflecting the whimsy, the devotion, and the commerce that have shaped centuries of American pet keeping, a portrait of Americans' relationships with animals shows how the history of pets has evolved alongside changing ideas about human nature, child development, and community life.

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Excerpt: Pets In America

Pets in America

A History

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2006 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2990-0


A Modern Pet Owner

My mother, who has the most reliable memory of anyone in the family, informs me that my first word was "kitty." This fact alone is probably sufficient as an explanation for the existence of this book.

Relationships with animals have been a big part of my life since that first recognizable word. I grew up in the suburbs and spent my years from age six to thirteen in a new housing development outside an industrial city in upstate New York. Across the street from my house was a vacant lot with a shallow creek, and on the other end of the large cul-de-sac, which was ringed with split-level and ranch houses, was what we children called "The Woods," which featured a marshy area dubbed "The Swamp." The fields that covered most of our township were still part of working farms, home to herds of dairy cows. Our housing development was populated by a large number of school-age children and by family cats and dogs who were allowed to roam freely and were identified by both first and last names (Moose Pryor, Tipper Mitchell). Our basset hound Gussie liked to sleep on the warm blacktop road in front of our house, and our neighbors knew to drive slowly and honk their horns to urge her up and out of the way. She also knew how to beg treats from the neighbors and made regular rounds in search of leftovers and dog biscuits.

In this setting, I grew up observing, collecting, playing with, and caring for a variety of small animals. In fact, I grew up in a family of pet keepers. Animals, both wild and tame, were cherished by my parents, by their parents before them, and by several generations before them. Their stories were part of family lore, and several are part of this book. But let me share one I particularly like that didn't fit anywhere else. My great-grandfather had a wooden leg-not a peg leg like a pirate, which I would have regarded as glamorous, but a slightly scary carved calf and foot that strapped on and was covered with a sock and shoe. When I was very small, he and Great Grandma had a big white cat named Snowball. When Snowball was a kitten, Great Grandpa got a laugh out of encouraging him to jump out from under the furniture and attack the wooden leg, which of course did not feel anything. However, Snowball soon learned to hide and attack everyone's legs. Visiting their house was suspenseful; when and whom would Snowball attack? No one considered getting rid of the cat, of course. Visitors simply had to be prepared in case of feline assault.

So I grew up in an indulgent environment for a child with an interest in animals. My brother and I collected pollywogs from The Swamp and were allowed to keep them until they metamorphosed into frogs, when they had to be returned to the setting of their nativity. We caught toads at a nearby quarry and transplanted them to my mother's rock gardens, where they seemed to thrive catching bugs. My dad knew a man who owned a pet store in an old building in downtown Utica, and he used to bring home surprises like a horned toad (it did not live long, I fear) and African diving frogs for the fish tank that sat on the breakfast bar between the kitchen and the dining room in our ranch house. The tank contained a huge goldfish named Ralph who was exceedingly tame and would take food from a hand.

I now realize that my parents were quite progressive pet owners for the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the pets of many of our neighbors, our cats and dogs were always "fixed" (that is, spayed or neutered) before they could procreate, and we always took them to the veterinarian when they were sick. My mother also worked to instill other kinds of responsible behavior toward animals. She understood that asking children to be the primary caregivers and trainers for kittens and puppies was tantamount to sanctioning neglect and anarchy, so she assumed those responsibilities herself. However, my brother and I could have other, smaller animals if we cared for them. We complained, but we cleaned the hamster cages and guinea pig hutches built by my great-grandfather, although he did not care much for our "rats." One rule was always very clear, however: deliberately hurting an animal was never allowed. Nor was animal suffering. The message of our special responsibility was most profoundly apparent when an animal had to be "put to sleep," as we called it. (We used a Victorian euphemism for death without realizing it.) We all felt awful when that happened, but in my family there was no question that sometimes it was the right thing to do.

My connection to livestock was less constant, but I now recognize how fortunate I was to have some firsthand experience with large animals. As I child, I don't think that I ever considered the connection between hamburgers and cows, or bacon and pigs. The presentation of meat in paper trays covered with plastic in the markets where my mother shopped did not help clarify the relationship. Still, I had some exposure to life with livestock on a small farm. When my brother and I visited my great-aunt and -uncle in southwestern Virginia, a pair of resolutely old-fashioned people who had electricity but still used an outhouse, we drove their handful of cows from pasture to barn and helped (or tried to help) Uncle Norwood with the milking. I remember that the barn cats would sit around him while he milked, waiting for him to shoot milk directly from the cow's teats into their mouths. I fed my great-aunt's chickens and gathered the eggs-and got a case of bird lice while I was at it-but I never actually saw one killed for dinner, although those were the chickens we ate. Even if I had, I am not sure that it would have bothered me much; small children are pragmatic and often quite bloody-minded.

The greatest joy of my young life, and my most profound contact with large stock animals, occurred when I got my own horse at the age of fourteen. I had wanted and dreamed about horses for years. It's a good thing that Buck was a hardy animal of no particular breed because, in retrospect, he should have suffered both laminitus ("founder") and colic because of the way I fed him, and he probably had some kind of intestinal parasite most of the time. But he seemed to thrive despite my somewhat scattered ministrations. I even nursed him back to health after he suffered a deep wound in a trailer accident, and I was proud of my skill at caring for him. He was, in fact, my pet, although he kicked me a couple of times and tried to rub me off under trees periodically. I was sorry to have to give him away in college, but I could not afford to keep him. I hope that he had a good end at the hands of a kind owner, but I have learned that this is often not the case. Buck might have been sold for killing, and that thought still haunts me.

In my college years and during my twenties, even though my somewhat nomadic existence (group rental houses, graduate school, and a move across the country for my first professional job) should have precluded keeping pets, I am sorry to report that I continued to acquire cats and dogs, several of whom I deposited on the doorstep of my tolerant parents. I look back with shame on the story of one particular dog I took in, a Great Pyrenees who was beautiful but peculiar, the victim of a divorce in which no one wanted custody of the dog. She should have been guarding a flock of sheep somewhere, for she really did not like life indoors. Amanda escaped from every fence behind which she was confined, and she took the screens out of windows and doors so that she could go "walkabout." She suffered from strange rashes and, in retrospect, probably had undiagnosed food allergies. She was terrified of thunderstorms, moreover, which I suppose would have limited her sheep-guarding career, and she had to be tranquilized every time she heard a clap of thunder. I had to euthanize her after she was hit by a car.

I never thought much about our familial habit until one day in 1984 when one of my graduate school mentors, George Basalla, and I started talking about pets. Professor Basalla, now retired from the University of Delaware, is a historian of science and technology, curious about everything, and more widely read than just about anyone I know. The subject came up because the cultural geographer Yi Fu Tuan, whose work we liked, had recently published Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets. Tuan explored the interplay of dominance and affection in the human desire to control and reshape the natural world, including gardens and domestic animals.

As a pet keeper, I remember that I had trouble acknowledging the role that my ability to dominate played in an activity that I loved. I still struggle with it, although I now think that accepting my own power to control or at least partly direct animal behavior is an inevitable part of choosing to share space with creatures whose wishes and natural behaviors are not always compatible with my routines. Ultimately, the issue becomes how much control is too much, how much has bad consequences for the animal, and how much coercion, no matter how well-intentioned, makes me a bully, too. Pet owners draw their lines in different places. For example, I spay and neuter my cats, a profound surgical intervention on their behavior and natural life courses, but I would never declaw them, another profound surgical intervention on behavior. I can offer a long explanation for why I accept one and reject the other, and some of the reasons make me what my community calls a "responsible pet owner." But in the end, I have set the line based on what I am comfortable with, the particular circumstances of my life, and what I judge is good for them.

At any rate, George Basalla and I agreed that someone should write a history of pet keeping. I was already well into my dissertation research on a less interesting topic, but I filed the thought away. Every time I found something about pets in nineteenth-century magazines and books, I photocopied the item and stuffed it into a file drawer. Although this is not a recommended research strategy, eventually I realized that there might be a project in that drawer. I also discovered that my hunch was supported by several important books. British historian Keith Thomas laid crucial groundwork for me with his wonderful Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (1983), and Harriet Ritvo published her provocative study The Animal Estate: the English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age in 1987. I knew quite a bit about pets from my own experience, and after reading these two books and shuffling through the contents of that file drawer, I was certain that there was more to be said.

This history, which is only a first look at a complicated subject, grew out of my own experience. That's what makes working on, or even simply reading, the history of everyday life a source of so much pleasure. Not only does this kind of history make the ordinary things that we do part of the permanent record of human activity, but it gives us an opportunity to think about what those ordinary things mean as part of the grand narrative of changing times. I pored over old magazines, scraps of paper written by people a century ago, weathered little books offering well-intentioned advice, brittle photograph albums, and artifacts that no one bothered to discard, and I listened to hundreds of stories. In the process, I realized how much pet keeping reveals about this society's complicated and not fully congruous or even fully acknowledged ideas about animals. It also addresses even more general questions about how we define the characteristics of a good society.

I have never been without at least one animal. The most notable, a nondescript tabby cat named Margaret, helped me write my dissertation and revise it into a book and helped with the early stages of this project. She sat on my desk every day, sometimes directly on my notes and drafts, and I still miss her loud purr and comforting presence. It has been interesting to be an active pet keeper while writing a history about Americans and their pets. I believe that it has made me more sympathetic to pet keeping than some other authors on the subject have been. I also think that my own experience has helped me to understand better the day-to-day texture of pet keeping in the past. I wanted to understand the story behind the daily routines I know so well: feeding, grooming, training, doctoring, cleaning up, and playing. I knew that the animals I enjoyed so much in my own life were sometimes the subjects of my intense attention; at other times, they were part of the background of daily living. But regardless of my level of my attention, my pets themselves lived out every day with their own established rhythms and routines. It is the interplay of these two kinds of agency, theirs and mine, that makes my relationship with the animals in my household so compelling. I hoped that I could capture a bit of that interplay in past relations between people and animals.

Working on this book over the years has also made me more thoughtful about my own relationships to animals-the ones I take care of, the ones that cross my path, and the invisible animal workers whose lives support my own. No historian is ever truly neutral about what he or she chooses as the subject for years of research and writing. We owe our chosen material due care and candor, not a pretend neutrality. My own ideas about my responsibilities as a steward to both domestic and wild creatures continue to evolve. This project has left me more self-conscious about the difficult questions of human responsibilities toward animals, and it has changed some of my own behavior. I hope that my work will provide historical context for some of the issues with which my readers grapple, whether in their personal lives with animals or in their volunteer or professional work on behalf of animals.

What Is a Pet?

Before summarizing the contents and arguments of Pets in America, a definition of the word is in order. "Pet" has a complex history and obscure origins; its age suggests when people became self-conscious enough about the idea to wish to label it concisely. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may simply come from the root that gave us the French word "petit," meaning "little." First applied to people, "pet" was used by the early 1500s to describe "an indulged or spoiled child; any person indulged or treated as a favorite." By the mid-sixteenth century, "pet" included animals "domesticated or tamed and kept for pleasure or companionship." The term was especially applied to orphan lambs that required raising by hand. It morphed into a verb, meaning to fondle an animal, by the early 1600s, although it did not become slang for sexual foreplay until the early 1900s. Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 also defined "pet" as a "lamb brought up by hand," or "any little animal fondled and indulged"; as a verb it meant "to treat as a pet; to fondle; to indulge."

These definitions are based on human perception: no people, no pets. They also call attention to proximity and the importance of touch, and to ongoing care of the animal. In the eighteenth century, writing about pet animals still almost always used the word "favorite" instead of "pet." This usage suggests the most fundamental characteristic of pet keeping, the act of choosing a particular animal, differentiating it from all other animals. I know people who insist that their pet selected them first-and if you know dogs and cats, there is some reason to believe that this is true-but in the end, we choose to become their stewards. And it is not an equal relationship, although pet animals are capable of truly awe-inspiring displays of their own ideas about the way things should run.