One of the first books I put together as an editor was a celebration of surviving breeds of traditional farmyard animals. Not black-and-white Holsteins but cherry-red Lincoln cattle and mighty Longhorn bulls. Not pork as in run-of-the-mill pork chops in the supermarket fridge but pork as in piebald Gloucester Old Spots, the pig that spends its life rootling around for wind-fallen apples in cider orchards, and whose meat is every bit as delicious as that description would suggest (and which, at this event at least, had been obtained as it always should be: from mature animals, slaughtered on their home turf, instantly and painlessly and out of sight of their fellows). The photographer for the book, his two assistants, and I spent a weekend at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust annual fair, up in the English Midlands, where my job was to race around the pens minutes behind the judges, convincing owners of the prize-winning animals that what they really wanted to do now was not celebrate with a pint but bring their prizewinners to be immortalized in our makeshift traveling studio: a canvas draped over a wall where to left and right the photographer had set up two immense, fizzing spotlights.
It was like being a model’s booker for Noah’s Ark. By eleven a.m. we had a line of rare breeds and their owners, all queuing like starlets waiting for their close-ups. There was a Clydesdale horse (the Russian weight lifter of the equine world) waiting patiently behind a Tamworth pig (streamlined as a ginger seal, but with a snout), waiting behind a Scots Dumpy cockerel (exactly as its name sounds), waiting behind a Leicester Longwool sheep. Leicester Longwools have fleece that spirals down in dreadlocks to their ankles—Rasta sheep, complete with a suitably mellow outlook on life (or on what one assumes they can see of it, through their jaw-length fringe of ringlets)—and rapidly became my favorites. My other favorites were the Middle White pigs, who sport the sort of chinless faces and turned-up snouts only achieved by generations of careful breeding within the human race, too. The Rare Breeds fair was also where I discovered that if you find the sweet spot to scratch on a pig’s back, they uncoil their tails and stand there wagging them in ecstasy, like dogs. And they had plenty of time to do so, too, all because one little Soay sheep, after its fifteen seconds in front of the camera, was refusing to find first gear.
Soay sheep are not among my favorites. Munchkin size but vastly overendowed with ’tude, they are rumored to be the descendants of animals that swam ashore from wrecked vessels of the Spanish Armada, so to call them “tough” barely begins to do them justice. Genetically they are linked to the ancient Mediterranean mouflon but have been living semi-wild on the St. Kilda Archipelago, beyond the Western Isles of Scotland, for so long they have turned into something else altogether. That something has a remarkably solid skull and satanic yellow eyes with pupils like the machine-gun slits in a pillbox. There are species where those horizontal pupils seem to speak of ancient wisdom, but with the Soay they speak of knee-high malevolence and the trigonometry of the head butt, for which they also come equipped with a pair of sharp little horns. I tried to encourage this particular Soay out of the spotlight; it butted. I clucked my tongue, crouched down, held out my hand; it butted. I turned my back on it; it butted—and then at once returned to the prime spot in front of the camera. We had a dozen animal portraits we were hoping to knock off the list in that one morning, and the photographer was getting restive. The photographer’s assistants were getting restive. The Clydesdale was getting restive. Even the Leicester Longwool looked as if it might ask, if it could, who was harshing the vibe. And under those fizzing spotlights it was much more than comfortably warm. In desperation I turned to the Soay’s owner, a young woman with the kind of complexion only possible if you have forty miles of running sea between you and all sources of urban pollution. “Does it have a name?” I asked, thinking that calling it might do the trick of getting it to move.
“Nooo, it does nae,” came the reply, in tones of withering contempt. “They’re nae pets.”
No indeed. The value—and genetically, it’s immense—of these rare breeds is their ability to withstand disease, do well on scrappy pasture, not succumb to foot rot, recycle wind-fallen apples, calve or foal without supervision, and preserve a chromosomal treasure chest of riches; but to be petted, named, and tamed is not a part of the plan. If you want to make a pet, you start by looking for something else altogether.
Writing a book makes you a hermit, a troglodyte, a recluse—no wonder St. Jerome (also an animal’s companion) kept his lion in his study. It might have been the only creature he spoke with all day. To remind myself that the outside world still exists, I go running. On such a run I found myself approaching one of the many lengths of railing near my flat in London that separate quayside path from water, one that in this case had been adopted by a mix of seagulls who had arranged themselves along the rails both high and low. Naturally as I drew nearer they took off with the usual squawks and squabbling, but not all of them did. Those that stayed in place were of all types and shapes, but the one thing they obviously had in common was the ability to tolerate my proximity without feeling threatened by it. When they saw me, their flight-or-fight reflex was not immediately drenched in cortisone, and their wings did not at once lift them up into the air.
Cortisone is the battery acid of hormones. It’s released by the adrenal gland in response to stress—a deadline, say; a growling dog; pursuit by a hungry lioness or by your Stone Age neighbor armed with a flint axe. It makes your heart thud and your blood pressure soar. Its opposite is oxytocin, which is the hormonal equivalent of mother’s milk—literally so, in that it’s produced in response to breast-feeding. It helps us bond, it helps us trust each other, and it’s one of the feel-good endorphins released for both of you when you pet your dog or cat. And just as with those seagulls on the railing, there are those individuals in any species who produce it more readily, who are simply a little more chill than the rest. Puss, one of the poet William Cowper’s three pet hares, took happily to life indoors—“gentler Puss,” the poet calls him, while “Old Tiney” remained “a wild jack-hare”:
Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.1
During the 1950s a Russian scientist called Dmitry Belyaev played a hunch along this line of thinking and began an experiment with a population of silver foxes to test it out. Belyaev’s work is much better known now than it was, but a quick recap, just in case. Belyaev suspected that the progression from wild wolf to tame dog could have come about simply and logically by breeding for tameness—the quality that means an animal will neither attack nor run from you, but will at worst tolerate your nearness and at best might even be actively welcoming of you.2 Obviously, the animals that displayed this characteristic most strongly would also be the ones early humans would have encountered most frequently around their dwellings and with whom they would have had the most contact—interesting, in this context, to discover from Marion Schwartz, in her A History of Dogs in the Early Americas, that the word the Amazonian Achuar people used for “tameness,” tanku, means exactly that, having the capacity to live with people. So Belyaev began selectively breeding from among his silver foxes, choosing those animals that seemed least ill at ease around him and his workers.
Tameness, it turns out, is one of those elegant states of being that reinforces itself. Before Belyaev’s experiment, it was assumed that the process of moving from merely tolerant to wholly tame would have taken thousands of years of accident and happenstance. But Belyaev and his right-hand woman, Lyudmila Trut, who supervised the breeding of the foxes, saw a difference in behavior within just four generations, which is less than the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and within forty fox generations, or about twenty-five years, they found they had a population who displayed all the behavioral changes seen in domesticated dogs—wagging tails, seeking physical contact with humans (all that lovely doggy business of leaping into arms and licking faces), yipping and whimpering to attract attention, responding to the sound of a name, and coming when called. And what would have been the expected cortisone levels in these foxes had halved.
All that is groundbreaking, but it didn’t stop there. As the foxes grew tamer and their cortisone levels dropped, there were changes in their appearance as well. Their ears began to flop and those wagging tails to curl. Some were born with parti-colored coats, with splotches of white or light brown among the dark gray. Their skulls changed shape—shorter snouts, higher foreheads. They even lost that rank, wild-garlic fox smell, which is the closest many of us come without even knowing it to an encounter with a fox in the wild: just its scent on the air.
These changes in appearance and behavior—the higher foreheads, the yipping and whimpering—are characteristics of infancy in the wild, but in these foxes, and in our other companion domestic species, they become fixed. They persist into adulthood and are passed on to the animals’ offspring. And because they go along with docility and tameness and cooperation, and because we find their effect on an animal’s appearance pleasing, we breed for them still. We like animals with short snouts and high foreheads, because we associate these characteristics with all infants, our own included, and they set off that good-feeling, oxytocin-producing response in us. We even select for them in the toys we buy our children—Mickey Mouse has grown progressively cuter over the years, from the rat-tailed, small-eyed, dunce cap–nosed original; while the first toy teddy bears did indeed look like bears, some of the earliest coming with Hannibal Lecter–type muzzles, just to prove these were wild and unpredictable animals for real—very different from the short-nosed, squishy creatures of today.3 We also like smallness in our pets—we find this cute and a catalyst to our nurturing side, as well as smaller animals being so much more tractable (unless they happen to be Soay sheep). There is evidence that even as early as the Natufians, we were breeding dogs for smaller size.4
And we like light, pale colors, which we associate with domesticity and tameness, in an animal’s coat as opposed to dark. Pangur Bán, the cat immortalized in the ninth century by his Irish scholar-owner in the poem beginning
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night…5
was in all likelihood named for his desirable white fur, as the “pangur” part of his name refers to the word for a fuller, or one who bleached wool using Fuller’s earth, a natural clay that has some of the cleansing properties of soap. The fullers using it became covered in its white dust. (Pleasingly, one of the uses for Fuller’s earth today is in cat litter.) Pangur sits close to the beginning of a long tradition of monks and cats—with monastery scriptoria full of expensive vellum and edible animal glue, hungry mice were a constant hazard.6 Not that choosing to keep cats in the scriptorium was without its dangers, either—a fifteenth-century manuscript from Dubrovnik still bears the inky paw prints of the cat who walked across it all those centuries ago, thus proving that cats have been walking across our keyboards since before there were keyboards for them to walk across.7 There is another white cat in the illustration for the month of February in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry of c.1410. This work inspired the later Grimani Breviary, and both include the charming incidental detail of wild birds, pecking in the snow for the grain scattered there—in the Très Riches Heures by a peasant who has left only his footprints behind, creating a small historic testament to our care for the animal world from six hundred years ago.
White as the color of tameness, as an outward sign of an inner evolution, changed our attitudes toward even those creatures that in their natural form were loathed and feared, such as the urban brown rat. Jack Black, who in mid-nineteenth-century London styled himself as Rat-Catcher to the Queen, bred from any variegated rats he caught and would sell them as pets “to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages.” Black was one of the celebrities in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1851 and could in fact have preempted Belyaev by a century: interviewed by Mayhew in his Battersea sitting room, complete with pet gray parrot, pet white ferret, pet linnets, and a cage of captured sparrows, Black missed by only a whisker the connection between his specially bred rats with their coats of “fawn and white, black and white, brown and white, red and white, blue-black and white, black-white and red,” and the fact that “they got very tame, and you could do anythink with them.”8 It’s as if tameness and everything it has come to mean to us—in behavior, in coat color, in the lineaments of the baby face—was all there behind the one single door. And then you begin to look at the effect opening that door had on us, and it all becomes rather more complicated.
So long as both we and the animals we lived among were equally likely to be hunter and hunted; so long as either dog or boy might provide supper for a cave bear (the thinking goes), there was a sort of equality between us. If we tried to work out what went on in animals’ heads, it was as our peers—different, but not inferior. Domestication changed all that.9 On the one hand it introduced “social” relationships and made possible what has been described as the “durable bond of domestic partnership” between us and those animals we took into our lives.10 On the other, it set up a hierarchy. It separated the human from the animal, and it put the human in charge. Those dogs who hunted the same prey animals as we did, and who supposedly became our tools in the chase, would have been of very little use to us if they had simply piled in and started pulling the prey to pieces themselves, as foxhounds do unless prevented with riding crop or whip. For this reason the theory that wild dogs at first simply hunted alongside us, and thus our deep association began, has never struck me as convincing—you had to train the dogs to wait to be fed, and they had to trust that they would be. In other words, you had to have tamed before you could have trained. And at that point there is a dependency and authority in the relationship that was not part of it before. J. G. Wood used the metaphor of guardianship, one that we still resort to:
Let us enjoin on every intending rearer of a pet to consider well before he takes on the sole guardianship of any creature… [it] ought to incite in every right-feeling heart a strong compassion for the helpless state in which the creature is placed, and an unshakeable resolution to make it as happy as it can be…11
And there is responsibility as well. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, a fable whose continuing fame strongly suggests we are all just as sentimental as one another, the strange little Fox encountered in the desert by the strange little Prince explains to the Prince that “you are responsible for ever for that which you tame.”12 As a child Antoine de Saint-Exupéry supposedly stepped off the path in his grandmother’s garden to avoid treading on caterpillars, which is charming; but as an adult he would also plaintively ask his soon-to-be wife, “Don’t you want to tame me?,” which is rather less so. It does at least make no bones about who gets to abnegate responsibility for being in charge in the relationship and who is meant to assume it.13
The philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan, in his essay Dominance and Affection (a work you will find quoted in every history of the pet there ever was), is blunter, arguing that it is dominance plus affection that makes the pet. Dominance without affection, on the other hand, without that sense of responsibility to the other, creates a slave. There is a sad and subtle portrait by Velázquez, from about 1645, of a dwarf from the court of Philip IV of Spain, standing beside one of King Philip’s hunting hounds, which leaves you to decide for yourself on the similarities between the two, and which has a greater degree of autonomy over his own life. Isn’t it extraordinary down what deep and overgrown paths being an owner can take you; and how indicative they are of the profound significance of animals in our lives.
There is a logical connection between understanding an animal in order to be able to hunt it and entering its mind in order to create with it what Jessica Pierce, author of Run, Spot, Run, calls “a meaningful friendship.” That’s the ideal, but if an animal becomes one of an owner’s significant others, you have to ask who that otherness is most significant to. On one side of the relationship there is control and selectivity and choice; and on the other, there is not. Instead, there is a tamed creature and with all it has come to symbolize, there is the baby face.
We like animals with faces we can read, that strike us as expressive in the same way as ours. The particular proportions of the baby face are our own. We like dolphins not simply because they are warm-blooded mammals like us but because they have high-domed foreheads bespeaking large brains and they seem to be smiling. The larger the brain, the higher we believe an animal’s intelligence to be, and thus the more “like us,” which as soon as you think about it, is the oddest possible yardstick by which to measure an animal’s smarts, but still, we do. And we like best those animals, in fact we like them very much indeed, that have what appear to be engagement with us, some mutual understanding, some human aspect to their face or behavior. One of the things we all do as owners is read into our pets, endlessly, emotions that we suppose they share.14 It’s been described as one of the characteristics that marks us as human, this assigning of human values to non-human entities. After all, anyone can approach an animal—you don’t even have to like them to do that. What registers and matters to us is their engagement in response to ours. We want them to reciprocate, which is exactly what we look for in our human relationships, too. It’s telling in this context that the one indigenous animal not represented in the Chauvet cave is the human one. We know all about us; it’s they, the animals, who fascinate, and whom we try so hard to understand, and who so delight us if we feel we can read into their physiognomies (or thoughts, or actions) something in common with our own.
One such being Purkoy, a small fluffy white dog (note the size, note the coat color) originally belonging to Lady Honor Lisle but made over as a gift to Anne Boleyn. Purkoy earned his name from what, to his human owners, was his inquisitive expression and habit of tilting his head, “Purkoy” being a kind of balky Tudor French for pourquoi, or “why?” and it does sound as if he was very cute indeed. I feel there should be a round of applause here for all such little fluffy white dogs, in recognition of the enormous role they have played in our history as our companions. They could form a line that would extend from Issa, the little white dog owned by Publius, governor of Malta in the first century AD, and praised by the poet Martial—“When she whines, you would think she was speaking!”—right up to Nero, the boon companion of Jane Carlyle, wife to the historian Thomas Carlyle, in London in the 1850s. Indeed Jane and Nero formed a unity as tightly bound to each other as the better-known pairing of the poet Elizabeth Barrett and her spaniel, Flush.
Both Issa and Purkoy may have been early forms of the Maltese; but it’s been suggested that Purkoy’s famous inquisitive expression implies that he could have been a proto-Havanese, from the newly discovered island of Cuba, or Isla Juana, as it was then.15 The Lisles had marmosets from the New World, so it’s conceivable they might have had a dog as well. Owners in the nineteenth century had Maida, Sir Walter Scott’s “Scotch greyhound,” who was also celebrated for his “human” expression, in this case a dog grin so famous it got an honorable mention in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).16 We in the twenty-first century have Grumpy Cat (more than 8 million followers on Facebook, 21 million views on YouTube, 1.54 million followers on Twitter). One of the bantam hens I grew up with, Cookie, is there in my head infinitely more vividly than all her brood of sisters or chicks, but not for the gorgeous golden lacework of her feathers, nor for her comely feathered feet, but for the aggrieved old-lady manner in which she would tap on the kitchen window when she wanted feeding. If that didn’t work, she would walk into the kitchen, into human space itself.
You do have to ask yourself, looking at some animals and their owners, if choice of the uniquely privileged animal in the uniquely close relationship is not predicated in some way around shared characteristics—in which case you could argue that we are again choosing our animal companions in the same way we choose our human ones, and place right there the beginning of the idea that people grow to be like their pets—or that, rather, they choose pets that are like them in the first place. We all have our personal aesthetic for what is attractive and what is not, and we can all think of a case similar to the novelist Barbara Cartland, with her dandelion-fluff hair and her kohl-rimmed eyes, and a Pekingese with dandelion-fluff fur and black-button eyes perched on her lap. Like choosing like has certainly been true of some of the owners in this book. Horace Walpole, for example, was eighteenth-century London’s most irresistibly bitchy chronicler, and in his own infirm old age notably favored “small, tetchy dogs with chronic illnesses.”17 Walpole’s near contemporary, the painter William Hogarth, bore more than a passing resemblance in both character and features to his pet pug. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was plumply built, had a particular affection for the rotund little wombat, of all unlikely creatures, declaring them “a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness,” and owned two as short-lived pets, celebrating them in pen-and-ink sketches and mourning them in verse. Elizabeth Barrett’s likeness to her spaniel, Flush, is unmistakable, with her hair falling around her face in those annoying nineteenth-century ringlets just as Flush’s silky ears fell about his, and further would write to her lover, Robert Browning, “He is my Flush, and I am yours.” The Royal Photograph Collection includes a snapshot of George V holding a pug in his arms, over whose head he has carefully draped his handkerchief. I defy anyone looking at the dog, with its dewlaps and protuberant eyes, not to be put in mind of the famous portrait of George V’s grandmother Queen Victoria, in old age and wearing her white lace widow’s cap, which is no doubt why this supposedly irascible monarch is smiling quite so broadly. (It’s startling how subversive you can get away with being if the vehicle for that subversion is an animal. It’s how Ratatouille gets away with asking questions in a children’s cartoon about the mentality that allowed the Holocaust to happen and how War for the Planet of the Apes can reference the murder of Eric Garner.)
Which all raises a rather interesting possibility. Maybe there is more at work here than simply our choosing the pets who look like us. We select for the characteristics of the baby face in our own mates, too, passing over those with low foreheads and unbalanced proportions to their faces as unattractive in the extreme, and opting for those with big eyes, big foreheads, small noses, and regular features instead. So maybe this “reading into” has become reciprocal as well, although we know it not. Dogs in particular, our first and oldest animal companions, are exquisitely, almost painfully good at reading human faces, picking up tiny clues to our mood and intentions from changes in expression or body language of which we may be completely unaware.18 If we are breeding not only them but ourselves to have this irresistible baby face, this particular neotenized cast of features, is it possible that our dogs are now reading us, with our uneven gait, our high, smooth foreheads, our short snouts, and our big eyes, as great ungainly infants of some sort?
The less readable, hence less reachable, animal has nearly always had bad press. Now that, in Bird, I own a black cat myself, I wonder if one of the reasons why they are so often the first to be abandoned, the last to be adopted, isn’t solely to do with the fact that along with all the associations around their color (witchcraft, bad luck, death, and mourning; the opposite to the hearth-and-home of white), their faces with dark mouth and nose are just that bit more difficult to read. I wonder too if Bird’s impressive vocabulary of squeaks and creaks and chirrups, along with the regulation meows, isn’t the result of my being otherwise too dense to work out what it is she’s after.
But then there are animals that we all, for the most part, seem instinctively to react against. Contrast our affection for dolphins with our loathing for sharks; our bafflement at so many cold-blooded creatures in general. At one pet show in 2017, I watched as a tiny baby, who couldn’t have been more than a few months old, encountered what must have been its first snake—a ten-foot albino Burmese python, a vast curved mound of white-and-yellow marble as sculpted by Gaudí, a creature of such grandeur it would have excited the natural admiration, you’d think, of anyone. As the baby’s father held it up to the side of the snake’s vivarium, where the python dozed under a bank of lights, the baby put its hand against the glass. One Burmese ruby-red python eye opened in its mighty skull at once, it minutely adjusted the weight of its coils—and that was all it took. The baby instantly produced a clinically perfect shudder response and began to wail.
Those animals we have tamed are in fact by far the minority. There are five species of wildcat: we have succeeded in taming just one, Felis silvestris lybica. We have tamed horses, ponies, and wild asses, but no one has ever been successful in reliably taming a zebra. Queen Charlotte was presented with a zebra, which lived in an enclosure outside the then Buckingham House, in 1762. It was the first ever seen in London and became one of eighteenth-century England’s favorite public pets—due no doubt to the number of opportunities it gave ribald Londoners to joke about seeing “the Queen’s ass”—but the only other thing the unfortunate beast is remembered for today is the unalterable vileness of its temper. The Asian water buffalo has been domesticated for about five thousand years, but the African buffalo remains not only wild as the wind but one of the most dangerous animals, by repute, in the whole of Africa. Possibly almost any animal can’t, in fact, be tamed; perhaps the essential predisposition to lower levels of cortisone and to all the changes that come in its wake are rarer than we think.
As for Soay sheep (“Semi-wild,” I kept telling myself, “only semi”), it transpires that the way to get them moving is to grasp their horns with one hand, and with the other give them a wallop on the rump. Our pushy little star allowed itself to be led away by the girl with the wonderful skin as obediently as if it were a dog.
Of course it is not simply a question of us choosing them. In the aptly named If You Tame Me, Leslie Irvine quotes a study from 2003 in which “the most common reason people adopted a particular cat was the belief that the cat had chosen them.” Culturally we put great value on this notion of spontaneous attachment, of “love at first sight.”19 As I write, in the United Kingdom there is an entire TV advertising campaign for the Dogs Trust animal adoption agency, geared around the idea of dogs looking for their #specialsomeone, but it’s an idea with a long history. Pepys was less than enthused when his wife’s little black dog, Fancy, first joined them in their London home as a gift from his brother-in-law (whom Pepys didn’t entirely approve of, either), but even he is tempted in August 1661, while visiting Hatfield in North London, to make off with “a pretty dog that followed me.” John Hogg, creator of The Parlour Menagerie, a best-seller of the 1880s, walks into a dealer in birds and spots a ragged-looking nightingale, and is captured instantly. “There was something about this bird’s eye—something in his bearing,” he writes, “that won my heart over at once.” Elizabeth von Arnim, encountering Cordelia the dachshund for the first time in her new marital home in Germany, writes of how “we immediately loved. At first sight we loved.” J. R. Ackerley, a man of letters in the England of the 1950s who created not so much an Arnim-style biography by dog but a co-biography with dog in his account of his relationship with his German shepherd, Queenie, wrote:
I came late in life into the domestic pet world, and I had no intention of entering it at all… but I chanced to do some kindness to Queenie when she was very young and in need of help and from that moment she marked me as her own.
In fact, enchanted by her beauty, he relieved the parents of one of his gay pickups (“some working class people”) of her, while Freddie Doyle, the young man to whom she originally belonged, was serving a prison sentence.
Even the scientists among us are not immune to this idea of being chosen. Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, found the successor to her beloved Pump when an anonymous puppy leaned against her in the noisy chaos of the animal shelter. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted one of the most important experiments in animal-human communication and whom you would anticipate having as rigorously objective a stance in such matters as could be asked for, meets a baby parrot who waddles up to her foot, and all scientific detachment falls away: “The little seven-and-a-half-week-old had chosen me. I simply could not resist.”20
If such judgments are indeed being made on the animal’s part, then they are not always in our favor. There is something particularly demoralizing in being rejected as an owner, again, I think, because of the weight we put on an animal’s judgment. We’ve been found wanting in ways we can’t even recognize. John Caius can therefore use the tale of a greyhound belonging to Richard II that, even before Richard was deposed in 1399, “utterly left the king,” and swapped its allegiance to Richard’s usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, to make a political point about Richard’s inadequacy as monarch; Charles Dickens uses the same trope in Oliver Twist (1839) to signify Bill Sikes’s final desertion of and by all that’s decent by having even his dog, Bulls-eye, turn its back on him. Emma Davenport, along with Pricker the hedgehog, Puffer the pigeon, and Dr. Battius the bat, lists among her Live Toys two kittens, although Blacky, to her distress, made a selection of his own and “was pleased to be much fonder of my sister than of me,” while Dash, the beloved pet of the young Queen Victoria, was originally her mother’s dog and not Victoria’s at all. In 1835, Victoria notes in her journal that her mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a new pet parrot “of which Dash is very jealous,” and by the end of the same year, Dash had bonded with Victoria while she was recovering from illness at Ramsgate. Dash, Victoria wrote during her convalescence, in a perfect example of pet/owner identification, “passes his little life with me upstairs.”21 No wonder she was so attached to him. You may spoil and indulge them all you like, but our pets can be so fickle.
Sometimes the animal seems to come looking for us. Alexandre Dumas acquired a favorite black-and-white cat, Mysouff, when it simply wandered in one day; the same happened to the curator and broadcaster Sir Roy Strong. “A new black cat has adopted us,” records the entry in his Diaries. “Large and furry and affectionate… We call him Muff.”22 The artist Louis Wain owned a black-and-white kitten, Peter, “a series of irregular circles, such as a geometrician might have made in an absent moment: two round eyes, one round head and one round body,” who was either a wedding present or was discovered mewing in the Wains’ garden during a rainstorm. In either case, Peter became the solace for Wain’s mortally ill wife, Emily, and a vital element in the artistic inspiration of Wain himself, and for a now undeservedly forgotten memoir Peter: A Cat o’ One Tail, which Wain wrote with the journalist Charles Morley in 1892.
Cats seem to have a particular propensity for wandering into our lives, no doubt linked to their original solitary character. There can hardly have been a month in my mother’s life when she hasn’t been feeding a stray from somewhere, or someone else’s less than happy former pet, sharing her seventeenth-century cottage with them in a manner that, when her cottage was newly built, would very likely have brought the Witchfinder-General to her door. I joked with her that she must have the cat equivalent of the tramp’s mark on her fence—whatever arcane symbol serves to pick her out as the one whose kitchen floor will always sport a saucer of cat food—then discovered that the real hobo sign for “kind lady lives here” is, you guessed it, a drawing of a stick cat. Bob the Street Cat chose James Bowen, rather than have James choose him, but then Bob is plainly one of those very chill cats with an extraordinarily positive attitude toward people and toward his person in particular, with his trick of traveling happily (and calmly) on James’s shoulders. According to J. G. Wood’s son, Wood’s cat spent mealtimes on his owner’s shoulders, too; while in 1939 the novelist Elinor Glyn caused a sensation at the Savoy Hotel in London when she attended a literary luncheon wearing her Persian cat, Candide, around her shoulders like a stole. I have tried this with both of mine, and they were having none of it.
And as before, it is so often touch that seals the deal. Dumas came away from a trip to Le Havre with a new pet monkey and macaw, convinced it was they who had chosen him, the macaw simply by a look, the monkey by reaching out a hand through the bars of its cage. As he put it:
I am very amenable to demonstrations of the kind, and those of my friends who know me best declare that for my own good name and my family’s, it is a very lucky thing I was not born a woman.23
We might say today that Dumas, whose vast, good-humored sonic boom of a personality comes across unhindered by the filters of time or of translation, supports the suggestion put forward in 2000 by James Serpell that “studies [of pet owners] may in fact be registering some genetic predisposition to be more emotionally responsive to the apparent emotion of another,” and by Margo DeMello in 2012 that “some very preliminary studies are showing that there is a link between positive attitudes toward animals and a more compassionate attitude toward people.”24 Unfortunately, no matter what the hoboes hoped, these studies are very preliminary indeed, with no proof one way or the other that the animal’s companion is different from other members of their species in any specific way—other than that we all go on believing that we are.
It is a different thing if the relationship with an animal is chosen for you. Fancy joined the Pepys household in early 1660 and first makes an appearance in Samuel’s diary as the cause of “high words” between man and wife, “upon my telling her that I would fling the dog her brother gave her out of the window if he dirtied the house any more.”25 Predictably, his attitude was to change. Horace Walpole, who really must have had “dog man” written all over him, received two of his favorites as bequests. The first, Patapan, another little white dog like Purkoy, was a gift from a friend in Florence, Elisabetta Grifoni, while his final favorite, Tonton, was bequeathed to him by another female friend, Madame du Deffand, in October 1780. Walpole was sixty-three at this point, and Tonton was spoiled, bad-tempered, and boisterous; nonetheless it is not inaccurate to describe the dog as being the central, stable relationship of the next nine years of Walpole’s life.
The most famous tortoise in all tortoise history was also a bequest, this time to Gilbert White from his aunt Rebecca Snooke. Timothy, who was in fact female, was already some thirty years old when White took charge of her, she having been purchased by his uncle in 1740 from a sailor in Chichester on the South Coast for two shillings and sixpence. In White’s famous Natural History of Selborne, she is referred to resolutely as “it” throughout and seems to have lived the whole of her life outside, yet was the object of the most attentive observation by White, who knew her favorite foods (“milky plants, such as lettuces and dandelions”), remarked how she recognized his aunt (“as soon as the good old lady comes in sight who has waited on it for more than thirty years, it hobbles towards its benefactress with awkward alacrity”), and was highly amused by the tortoise’s dislike of rain:
No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner.26
Hard not to see this as typical of the attention and “reading into” of the indulgent owner, no matter how man and tortoise had been put together. One of the dearest and most entertaining cats I have ever been privileged to care for, Miss Puss, was chosen from a pet shop but not by me, and initially our relationship needed the kind of active work on my part that I hadn’t experienced before with an animal, and still didn’t truly settle. Then I came down with atrocious and maddeningly persistent eczema, and she did the same, and we bonded, as partners in adversity. Whatever gets you there.
The pet shop, which is now such a ubiquitous element in the bringing together of pet and owner, is in fact a fairly recent development. If the surrounding fields, woods, barns, or neighbors couldn’t provide you with what your heart yearned for as a pet, there was always the peddler, selling them door-to-door. George Morland’s 1789 oil painting Selling Guinea Pigs shows such a transaction in progress and incidentally demonstrates that the pester-power of a child for the small, furry, and pick-up-able was as much a feature of acquiring a pet two hundred years ago as it has always been. I looked for something on the selection and care of the non-human members of the well-run household in the writings of Mrs. Beeton, whose Book of Household Management of 1861 made her the Martha Stewart of her day, but there is disappointingly little, and guinea pigs Mrs. Beeton anathematizes as “rats without a tail.” Morland, however, seems to have rather liked them, painting them at least twice.
Not until the nineteenth century did the practice of going to a pet shop become one of the means of acquisition, and even then it was uncommon. In 1877, Sarah Tytler (in fact the Scottish writer Henrietta Keddie) could still write that in the whole of her own connection with dogs, only one, Rona, “became ours by purchase.”27 Even as late as the 1950s, buying a pet was unusual. Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House, also wrote two extremely funny memoirs of family life in which her cats figure largely. Jackson was the creator of some of the scariest prose in American literature and had a lively personal interest in witchcraft, so with one exception the cats were always black, and either given to her by friends or found as strays. In Raising Demons (1957) she recounts her one and only experience of purchasing a cat, a supposed expert mouser, Ninki, an “elegant gray golden-eyed cat,” who declares war on all the other household animals but catches not a single rodent.28 Of course not. After Ninki has created chaos throughout the household, her daughter suggests it might be simpler just to adopt the mice as pets instead.
Acquiring a rescue animal, which is where many (but still nothing like enough) of our pets come from today, is a very different matter. Acquiring a rescue animal is, in the long, long history of the pet owner, a relatively new phenomenon. Princess Alice of Albany, whose Jack Russell terrier, Skippy, was adopted from Battersea Dogs Home in the 1880s, was a trailblazer. Today, at least in my experience, choosing a rescue animal is so regulated, so carefully sequenced, that it sits somewhere between going to a matchmaker, going on a blind date, and being checked out by an adoption agency. “We have to vet you,” as the administrator explained to me, straight-faced. It was by no means either a short or simple process; and it was one that involved my being in orbit around my local rescue center for weeks. When would the right cat for me be there? (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match!) And what would they be like?
For Bird and her sister Daisy, their trajectory into my life was much more straightforward—after they were rescued from the cupboard in which they were locked whenever their owner wasn’t around, a volunteer at the center attached my name to theirs as soon as they entered its care. But I was the one who had to pass muster for suitability; I was the one chosen for them. Which you can only say is how it should be. And yes, the matchmaker made a great match. And yes, I do feel that they chose me, and yes, again, it was touch that sealed the deal, in that I knew the mangy, pissed-off-looking little tabby and her skinny black spider of a sister would be coming home with me, despite the fact that they were everything I was not looking for, when the tabby let the weight of her exhausted head rest on the finger I had placed beneath her chin and simply closed her eyes.
It was no surprise after that to learn that along with online sites that will “match” you with your ideal pet, there are pet-dating sites for the single pet as well as people-with-pet dating sites for the single owner. At the time of writing, Date My Pet, PetPeopleMeet, Doggone Singles, and Leashes and Lovers are thriving. Twindog (“It’s Tinder—but for dogs and their people”) takes it further and will set up a date for you or your canine companion.29 Because we want to get that match right. The pets we choose say important things about us to others of our own species, too.