Sunday 31 January 2016

Victorian Snobbery about Cats as Pets

Last week I asked if you own an iPhone. This week my question is: Do you drive a Skoda or a Ferrari?

The reason is to illustrate how the Victorian’s could be very sniffy about cat-ownership. If we think of this snobbery in terms of cars (rather than cats – See what I did there), those people who own and drive a luxury brand such as Ferrari or Porsche, wouldn’t be seen dead anyway near a humble Skoda. Likewise, you may form a very different mental picture of a stranger based on the vehicle they drive. Thus was also the case for pet ownership in the 19th century.

The Victorian’s jumped to a lot of conclusion about your status and importance, based on the pets you kept. When it comes to our feline friends the very attributes that made them ideal pets in the middle ages made them less acceptable in the 19th century. Quite simply, the idea that cats caught mice gave them the mantle of a “poor man’s pet”.
A lot of responsibility was placed on the furry (or feathered) shoulders of a Victorian pet. For a start, an animal that was welcomed into the home was expected to ditch their “beastly” attributes and become civilized. Indeed, the pet’s behavior reflected on the morals of the owner, so the independent nature of cats, plus their propensity to roam and find boyfriends, made them far too base and lascivious for Victorian tastes.
Louis Wain's "The Bachelor Party" - Cats behaving badly

Indeed, dogs were thought to show masculine qualities (and were therefore superior) such as heroism and loyalty, whereas cats exhibited inferior female tendencies such as perfidy and sexual inconsistency. In fact, in the early 20th century militant suffragettes sought to dissociate the link between women and cats in order to get men to take them more seriously.
Anyhow, I digress. Most pet cats were expected to catch mice, and to encourage this cats were often kept hungry.
“…the cruel mistake of supposing that a cat will be a keener and better mouser if not sufficiently fed.”

However, there were some people who kept cats and were proud of it. But if they decided to sell the cat, for whatever reason, they tended to stress their practical qualities.
“Angora cats. Several very handsome ones, splendid mousers.”

So whilst the Angora was a rare and expensive breed, it was still thought best to point out their hunting prowess. Indeed, the breeding of pedigree cats was considered second rate compared to that of dogs, and ranked alongside breeding rabbits, guinea pigs and other pets of the working man.

It took the founding of the National Cat Club in 1887 for the social status of cats to see an upward swing. However, in part this was done by arranging working men’s cats to be exhibited in a separate class, as if to emphasize the difference between cats belonging to the less affluent and those of the middle or upper classes! Evidently this was a sort of social segregation for cats, or a feline apartite, the like of which would hopefully never see the light of day in the modern age. 

Sunday 24 January 2016

The Importance of Pets to the Victorians

Do you have an iPhone 6?
If so, why did you choose it: Did you buy into the latest trend or was it because of the functionality (or a bit of both)? In the 19th century consumerism was in full swing, and pets were every bit as important to advertise your disposable income as an iPhone 6 is in the 21st century.
Control and discipline of pets
was a must
Indeed, the 18th and 19th centuries there was a huge upsurge in pet keeping and activities such as visiting the zoo. By 1851 over half the population of England lived in cities, and yet this was a time when people were still strongly connected to animals. You only have to think of the horse troughs in High Streets to realize how different life was back then.
But the role of animals was changing from being beasts of burden or livestock, to something altogether more social. The new phenomenum of keeping animals as pets was catching on. Indeed, visiting zoos became hugely popular, where the exhibits were regarded as public pets and objects of scientific interest.
The idea of the hidden beast within man led to some confusing ideas

However, keeping pets was more complicated than having a cozy companion to snuggle on your lap. The Victorians, being Victorians, believed that an animal’s behavior was a reflection of their owner. Therefore the lapdog, caged parrot, or house cat became a symbol for the morals of their owner. Indeed, the human – animal bond became an expression of many of the inequalities of Victorian society such as social hierarchy and class, and your gender or ethnic origins.
Good behavior reflected well on the owner
This belief system intensified with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859). This stimulated debate (amongst other things) about how man’s genetic kinship to animals and amplified anxieties about the hidden beast lurking within man.
It became doubly important to have control over your pets, because well-behaved animals were an indicator of a harmonious household run by a civilized master. Hence there was a strong emphasis on discipline when it came to dog training – and the beginnings of the misplaced “wolf-model” of dog behavior are evident, with it being crucial to dominate your dog in order to prove man’s superior status.

At the same time, another side of pet-keeping was growing – that of “Animal Fancies” or breeding animals to enhance beauty. In the latter part of the Victorian era this saw the rise of dog and cat shows, as well as exhibitions to display the latest in pet-keeping accoutrements such as cages, collars, and luxury beds.

The singular relationship of Victorians to animals was recognized by foreign nations, who frequently gifted exotic animals to the crown or her government in order to curry favor. But this gives just a hint of the complex flavor of the Victorian’s attitude to pets… to be explored in future posts. 

Sunday 10 January 2016

What is a Pet? A Historical Perspective

Pets are important to me and I can’t imagine life without them. Fortunately, in the modern day pet keeping is accepted and thought of as normal – but this wasn’t always the case.
In medieval times it was the strongly held Christian belief that God created animals for the use of man. Animals had the status of slaves, there to serve, with man as their superior. It was held that a deep affection for a pet was a sin.

Times were tough so you can understand this functional outlook on life. After all if you were a regular man or woman struggling to feed your family, then it could easily be argued it was a sin to put food into the mouth of an animal that didn’t have a use or purpose.
Although people did keep pets in the dark and middle ages, this was largely the preserve of the wealthy. Any self-respecting Lord and his lady kept pets because they had the money to do so and wanted to advertise the fact as a sign of their status and power. Indeed, these pets were often overweight as they were overfed to make it obvious that their owner wanted for nothing.

In medieval times people expected animals to live outdoors and to be functional, so the idea of indoor animals that existed purely for companionship or amusement seemed alien and extravagant.
It took a shift in attitude in the 18th century, for pet-keeping to become more widely accepted. This change took place because of a philosophical argument that taking good care of animals articulated what it was to be a human or “humane”. Keeping a pet was looked on as a sign of moral-care rather than profligacy.
In the 18th century saw the birth of consumerism. More people were living in towns and cities, and so more people were spending more time indoors. The idea of “indoor animals” or pets was truly born. As the British Empire expanded and travelers returned with exotic animals, this coincided perfectly regular people having a modicum of disposable cash and their interest in keeping pets.

But what of the word “pet” itself?
The first reference to a “pet” comes from 1539 and refers to a lamb hand-reared in the house. These two characteristics, being tame and living in the house, formed the basis for the definition of pet but fails to hint at the favoritism with which pets are held.
A modern definition is: “A domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.”
And finally, historian Prof Keith Thomas proposed three defining features of a medieval pet:
·         It’s kept in the house
·         It’s given a name
·         It’s never eaten…

Can’t say fairer than that! 

Sunday 3 January 2016

Van Amburgh: Animal Trainer or Bully?

Many things interest me- from animal behavior to history. So it was with interest that I came across a reference in a Victorian book to training cats.  The author (Henry Ross) was talking in general terms about the independent nature of cats.

“It must not be inferred, however, that they [cats] are untamable, for every creature is capable…of being trained by man, provided it [the animal] receives due attention.”
This sounds promising – and I went on to read:

“We have sufficient evidence in the feats performed by the lions and tigers of Mr. Carter and Van Amburgh that felines are by no means destitute of intelligent docility.”

Keen to know more, I researched Isaac Van Amburgh, but was horrified by what I read. 

Van Amburgh’s Legend
Born in 1811, Van Amburgh started out from humble origins working as a cage cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York. He became fascinated by the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den and the idea of dominating big cats. Indeed, as he went about his work cleaning out the lions and tigers, his employer noticed the commanding control he had over them.

An animal dealer, Titus, with links to the Zoological Institute saw the potential for a novel act, where a man “tamed” wild animals. In his own words:
“Novelty plus publicity meant money.”
Van Amburgh in his early costume of a Roman toga

Titus’ instincts were correct, and the act that made Van Amburgh a rich man, went from strength to strength. He entered a cage containing a lion, lioness, panther, leopard, leopardess, and a black-maned lion. The animals shrank away from him, such was his commanding presence. Then he reclined and commanded each animal to approach him, one by one, and lick his feet in deference.

“The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder .... 

Indeed, Van Amburgh was a sensation not just in America, but in England where he performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He refined his act, adding in such spectacular feats as putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Victoria, filled with admiration, even commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer to paint Van Amburgh’s portrait. 

Van Amburgh’s Methods
Van Amburgh was a mega-star in his time and his act made him a wealthy man. However his methods were not without controversy, even during his life time, and looking back it has to be said that his training methods were shameful. However, his immoral methods paid off, he earnt a fortune and died a wealthy man safe in his bed.

He regularly beat the animals with an iron bar, and his “training” method was to intimidate the big cats using pain, fear, and hunger. Van Amburgh’s publicity agent  even admitted the lions were starved for days prior to a royal performance, as if this was something to be proud of.
Landseer's portrait of Van Amburgh

In fairness, right-minded Victorians were horrified, but Van Amburgh’s defended his methods by quoting the bible, and Genesis 1:26 saying that God had given man dominion over the animals.

Van Amburgh appears to have been an early proponent of an extreme form of dominance method of training,  so popular in dog obedience circles until it’s debunking in recent years. The physical and mental abuse of animals for human entertainment completely immoral, and beating animals into submission is wholly unacceptable.

Let us hope against hopes that if in the modern age a similar misuse of animals took place for our entertainment, we would not be taken in and object in the strongest terms.