In 1529 Federico Gonzaga, 1st Duke of Mantua, was busy wooing Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato, and as one of the chess moves in his campaign to make Margherita his wife, he had his portrait painted by Titian, no less. The Gonzagas were both dynastically and territorially one of the great families of Renaissance Italy, yet when Federico came to have his portrait painted, it was not in some grand interior, with his lands visible through a window and a mighty hunting hound of some sort leaning against his legs. It was against a plain, dark wall, with a table beside him and, lifted up onto that table, a fluffy little lapdog.
Federico was the son of Isabella d’Este, and Isabella was passionately fond of pets, which she collected as she seems to have collected just about anything. Guests were warned of her imminent arrival among them by the yapping of the many lapdogs who ran along at the hem of her skirts. So Federico would have been brought up with animals, and as we know, being brought up with them is more or less a guarantee that you will have pets yourself. But the fluffy little dog in this painting is not there as a companion—it’s there as an ad. Margherita was hesitating; the Gonzagas were notoriously bad husband material; and the little dog is there to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective. It’s there, in other words, to help Federico fashion the image he wanted her to have of him.
Whether we intend it or not, those animals we take into our lives say things about us in the same way as the places we choose to live and the clothes we choose to wear. The qualities we attribute to the animal reflect on us, just as they did when our clothes were their skins or they were painted on our shields. At one end of the scale are those muscular young men photographed by Pieter Hugo, using their pet hyenas to declare that they are themselves just as powerful, macho, and not to be messed with. Or Herbert Gustave Schmalz, a raffishly handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter, who was extraordinarily successful in his day but is practically unknown today, was in the habit of leaving his enormous mastiff, Sultan, on the pavement outside the Grosvenor Gallery in London’s West End, to advertise the presence of the virile owner within. At the other, there is Federico Gonzaga, using that fluffy little dog with its supplicating paw to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.1 The mechanism of image making, even if we are unaware of it, is going on just the same.
As you might expect, the individual owner has been the subject of much research by the pet food industry, in particular what the pets we have say about us as people, so here is an overview. In brief: women who own cats are seen as submissive and gentle (I’m not entirely sure this is so); whereas people who own pet birds are seen as unpretentious and sociable. Men who own horses are seen as dominant and aggressive, and men with large, ferocious dogs are said to be compensating for something very intimate and very small. The list goes on: owners of snakes, such as my awe-inspiring Burmese python, are seen as unconventional, which seems fair; indeed so-called pariah pets of all types (cockroaches, tarantulas) have become the living heraldry of the unorthodox, the free spirit, the punk and the Goth, whereas rats and even hermit crabs, which used to be unusual, are now almost commonplace.
Those who share their lives with turtles are seen as hardworking and reliable, which is nice, since as we know there are a lot of them—all the way down.2 Amusing to speculate how appalled the flaneurs of nineteenth-century Paris, those idle young men who walked turtles up and down the Parisian shopping arcades at the reptiles’ own pace as a symbol of their detachment from all around them, would be by this assessment. Moving on: owners of ferrets are seen as careless; of rabbits as complex, yet relaxed; and of hedgehogs (it really is extraordinary how specific some of these surveys have been) as unsympathetic and sloppy.3 So much for Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
In every case the animal is seen as defining the human owner. In this way our relationship with our pets, which seems so much something that happens on our side of the front door, is in fact public and communal, and society as a whole claims a role as stakeholder and the right to give its opinion of you in response to whichever of the above you snuggle up with on your sofa. As James Serpell puts it, “In our relationships with animals… emotional and materialistic considerations are both important and, at the same time, frequently in conflict.”4 All this is doubly true if the animal is rare or unusual in some way.
John Caius, the dog man of Elizabethan England, typified the English in 1570 as being “marvelous greedy gaping gluttons after novelties, and covetous cormorants of things that be seldom, rare, strange and hard to get,” but our appetite for the seldom, the rare, and the strange is far older than that. Archeologists have unearthed the bones of a Barbary ape from Navan Fort in Northern Ireland, a hill fort in use from the Bronze Age to the first century AD, where it must have been some high-ranking owner’s pride and joy, although as Barbary apes are native to the high, dry regions of Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, you do worry a little how this one adapted to the gentle wet of Ireland. But you can only conclude that for as long as there have been people to marvel at them, exotic pets from far away have been desired and sought for and marveled at. Which brings us to Isabella d’Este, Federico’s mother, and her hunt for a “Syrian kitten.”
Isabella was one of the most determined collectors Europe has ever seen, and as a state of mind, obsessive collecting is its own feedback mechanism—each acquisition proves you deserve it but, to preserve that sense of self-worth, must be joined by others. The more, in other words, the more.5 This is the spiral that, much lower down the economic order, ends in those sad souls who harbor animals in the dozens in conditions of revolting squalor; but in Isabella’s case was joined to a hefty disposable income and a European-wide network of agents ready to do her bidding. So when in 1496 Isabella decided that what she wanted was this alluring-sounding cat, the hunt was on. But what is a “Syrian kitten,” and what made it so exotic and desirable?
It takes a little detective work. We have a description of the “common English catt” as being “white with some blewish piednesse… a gallipot blew,” and there is an example of this kind of cat in a painting by Gillis d’Hondecoeter (c.1575–1638) of Orpheus Enchanting the Animals.6 The cat, splotched with a bluish-gray on its otherwise white coat, crouches just to the left of Orpheus and looks none too impressed with his musicianship. These exotic and unusual Syrian kittens, as advertising for Isabella’s own status and resources, must have looked very different from d’Hondecoeter’s, therefore. They were valued completely differently as well—the chronicler John Aubrey, to whom we owe the description above, records William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, as paying five pounds for one. It’s a challenge to relate purchasing power from one era to another, but that might equate to as much as £8,800 or more than $11,000 today. Their cost, and the mention of the Near East, makes one think these cats might have been Persians, as being one of our own most expensive and exotic contemporary breeds, but no. Persians were unknown in Europe until the 1630s, so Isabella would have needed to be supernaturally well informed to be aware of them. Syria, however, was known as an exporter of watered silk, the type that reveals its patterns of dark and light as the material moves; “tabby” silk, as it was known, named for the Attabiya district of Baghdad, where it was perhaps first made. And genetic research on feline DNA has revealed that sometime in the Middle Ages, somewhere in the Middle East, we began breeding, or you might say, “fashioning,” cats with fur patterned in stripes and spots.7 In other words when we look at the cat in the Grimani Breviary, we are looking at exactly what Isabella’s agents were looking for, and Isabella’s exotic Syrian kitten is today’s garden-variety tabby. You hear that, Daisy?
Much of the activity of Isabella’s agents in tracking down her Syrian kitten was focused around Venice, the great entrepôt for all things luxurious and Oriental. If you were looking for the highly fashionable, the rare and exotic, then a seaport such as Venice would be a very good place to start. The speed at which demand drove supply was extraordinary: a mere two years after Columbus landed in the West Indies, parrots from the New World were being traded on the other side of the Atlantic in the port of Cadiz.8 In the years before you could Google a likely list of breeders, or simply walk into a pet shop, almost any harbor would have a local dealer in foreign exotica. In her memoir of her childhood pets, Emma Davenport writes of walking along a quayside where “many vessels used to come in from different parts of the world, and I suppose the sailors brought with them all sorts of animals and birds, for the houses looking on the quay… were almost entirely shops of birds and monkeys.”9 Dumas’s monkey, Mademoiselle Desgarcins, who so captivated the writer when she reached out her hand to him, together with her friend the parrot, was acquired in this way, in the port of Le Havre, from a “dealer in animals.” (The real Mademoiselle Desgarcins graced the Paris stage for a scant decade as one of its greatest tragediennes and died insane in 1797. It’s tempting to imagine that the monkey’s pathetic situation, when Dumas found her, suggested the name to him.)
Or one might entrust a naval friend with a specific commission. J. G. Wood would write of the African Grey parrot that there were “several modes of obtaining this bird, such as requesting a naval friend to bring one home on his return.”10 An African Grey, with its white clown face, steely black beak, and shocking pink tail, could be worth as much as six months’ wages to a common seaman, well worth the trouble of acting as courier.11 Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond (1647–1702), renowned for her beauty, famous as the model for Britannia on British coinage, and reputedly one of the very few women to turn down Charles II, owned what must have been one of the first African Greys in England. The bird died shortly after its mistress and was stuffed and displayed besides Frances’s own wax effigy in Westminster Abbey, which Frances had dressed in her coronation robes and set up as her memorial, and which suggests just how much the presence of the bird had become a part of the public image of its owner.12
A few decades later, and you need go no further to view such exotica than your favorite London coffeehouse. Here, as you blitzed your brains on caffeine (the designer stimulant of the day) and caught up on all the latest gossip, you might be further entertained by the antics of the creatures kept in the coffeehouses themselves. Birds of every description, a live crocodile, monkeys galore, opossums, and rattlesnakes were all being exhibited in London coffeehouses in the 1730s and 1740s.13 Is this the precursor to the cat café of today? You could even buy one of the animals watching you take your coffee, if you wished, and take it home. Many of these creatures would have arrived in the London Basin on slavers making the return Atlantic leg of their journey, some of them mooring in the dock now overlooked by the front windows of my flat, where I stand on many a morning, holding my once so fashionable, then discarded, then recycled-as-a-rescue little tabby cat in my arms, the two of us part of one of those overlapping Venn diagrams in human history that leaves you marveling quite how much of it can map onto the same few hundred yards. And how narrow the line between status as living creature and disposable piece of property can become, too.
We refashion them through breeding, fashion ourselves with them as exotic possessions, and then set about styling them with the latest uber-chic accessories, too. Patrons of those eighteenth-century coffeehouses, perusing the newspapers also on offer, would have found in them advertisements not only for ever more exotic animals but for all the extras to go with them: a monkey offered for sale with a suit of clothes “and a neat house,” for example.14 Indoor-dwelling lapdogs also had their own exquisite little houses. Marie-Antoinette’s gilt and pale blue velvet doghouse, or niche de chien, is of such artistry that it is today preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1768 Jean-Jacques Bachelier painted what may well be another Havanese like Purkoy with such a niche de chien behind it, plus what looks suspiciously like its owner’s well-chewed slippers, thus suggesting that no matter how long we have been presenting them with possessions of their own, the belongings our animals have always preferred have been those that used to be ours.
The Havanese in this painting has also been “clipt,” in fact it has virtually been topiarized. Clipping and grooming is another means of styling a pet, and again of elevating the public image of the owner. The first dog “barbers” appeared in Paris in the eighteenth century. Being French, they were roundly satirized by the British, notwithstanding the theory that the fashion originated when poodles were hunting dogs for waterfowl, and their heavy coats were clipped to stop them becoming waterlogged as they forced their way through marsh and reed bed.15 J. G. Wood positively splutters with outrage at the notion of barbering your dog—“Do not on any account clip his hair in the stupid and ugly fashion that is so often adopted and which was first imported from France,” he thunders, but he was fighting a losing battle. Browns of Regent Street was already offering the same service in London.16 There were summer and winter cuts for fashionable dogs in Paris (one was the “lion cut,” now seen on both cats and dogs), and with an eye, no doubt, to the difficulties of bathing your dog in a small Parisian apartment, dog bathing was also offered along the banks of the Seine to rid the animals of fleas and odor.17 A tiny and no doubt sweet-smelling little black dog sits beside two women, one older and one younger, in the foreground of Édouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries of 1862. It has its own chair, and despite the fact that it looks as if it would be hard put to force a path across anything more resistant than a deep-pile rug, it, like they, is accessorized with blue silk ribbon, holding back the hair over its face as if it were growing out a fringe. Does this mean the animal was seen by its owner, one of those two women, as no more than a fashionable accessory itself, as consumer goods? Or does it mean that it was seen, and benevolently, as a small human? Bachelier’s Havanese also sports a bow—pink, in that case. Supposedly again the fashion had a hunting origin, to make dogs easier to spot. That sounds suspiciously like special pleading to me.
A hair bow is one thing, but what on earth would the Reverend Wood have made of the fashion of dyeing a dog’s coat to match your own? What are any of us to make of it? Cora Pearl, a notorious Parisian courtesan, was at the height of her fame in the 1860s when Manet was painting in the Tuileries, and was notorious for having dyed her dog blue to match her gown. The dye was toxic, and the dog succumbed. In the 1920s, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, a professional exotic herself, prowled the streets of Venice with her cheetahs and blue-dyed greyhounds. We have, thank God, moved on from this, at least by a little. When Parisian model Lia Catreux appeared on Instagram in 2015 with her Pomeranian dyed fuchsia pink, the response was anything but impressed. “Our pets are living creatures,” said a statement from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), “and dyeing them in this way sends out an extremely worrying message that they could be viewed as novelty accessories rather than intelligent, sentient animals.” PETA also had a view: “PETA would urge people to let dogs be dogs: Love and appreciate them for their natural beauty and leave them out of our confusing human shenanigans.”18 Quite.
Writers train themselves to live pretty frugally, for the most part. We have a quietly paranoid relationship with our incomes—no monthly topping-up, just a steady whittling down, one fat year followed by seven lean ones. But where I hesitate on purchases for me, I readily buy toys and treats for my cats, partly because it’s an expression of the affection I feel for them but also because watching them play is a source of huge amusement to me. It surprises me how infrequently you find this given its proper weight in studies on the nature of our relationship with our companion animals, as a reason for us having them about us in the first place—simply, that they make us laugh. Watching Bird and Daisy rolling around as they press catnip mice to their muzzles like Victorian ether addicts, or pursuing a Ping-Pong ball madly up and down the hall, tails a-fuzz with high spirits and feline electricity, has me in tucks of laughter every time and costs me almost nothing, nickels and dimes. This market in “extras” gives the pet trade a second engine, if you like, and reaches from one end of the economic scale to the other, from Marie-Antoinette’s niche de chien right down to the street described by Louis Wain in 1892. No Swarovski-studded cat flaps ($1,644/£1,250) or dog tiaras ($4.2 million/£3.1 million—seriously) here.19 Instead, somewhere in London’s East End, there was this, a narrow thoroughfare:
occupied by shops where birds, dogs, cats, pigeons, fowls, guinea-pigs, mice, rats, goats, rabbits, and fish, were on sale at the lowest market rates. If the quantity and quality of the livestock was remarkable, the number of articles which was necessary for the comfort of their daily life was nothing short of staggering, especially in the bird line. Cages for birds, fountains for birds, nests for birds, seeds for birds, baths for birds, musical instruments for birds, paste for birds, nets for birds, traps for birds—the catalogue is endless…20
Many of the birds for sale down such a street in 1892 would have been canaries. You may think there is little to say about canaries as an example of the fashionable pet, but you would be wrong. The pet canary is a perfect example of manufactured exotica. The canary was once a small greenish bird, about the size of a sparrow and almost as nondescript, whose only noteworthy characteristic was the volume of its song. Louis XI of France bought canaries as songbirds in 1478, and there is nothing like a royal owner to raise an animal’s prestige. Canaries also have a natural color variation in their plumage, which we were quick to exploit. By 1657 all-yellow canaries were in existence and as rarities much in demand; that man of fashion Samuel Pepys received two from a naval friend, Captain Rooth, in January 1661. Only a couple of decades later, however, yellow canaries need no longer come via an obliging sea captain. By the 1680s they were being bred in England and were available widely and cheaply enough to be sold like Morland’s guinea pigs by street vendors door-to-door.
For centuries the canary breeders par excellence were the miners of the Harz Mountains in Germany. For them canaries were sentinel birds—canaries are extremely susceptible to toxic gases and would selflessly keel over at the least trace of methane or firedamp in the air of a coal tunnel, thus giving the less susceptible human miners a chance to make their escape and creating the folk belief that these delicate little birds could be used to absorb human ailments like so much feathered blotting paper.21 But the miners also bred and trained the birds as singers, as did the exiled French Huguenot weavers of the English city of Norwich.22 Tim Birkhead, in his The Red Canary, makes the wholly believable suggestion that for homeworkers such as the weavers, the canary’s song provided the kind of company now to be found by having a radio burbling away in the background.23 And what songs: a top Harz Roller can trill its way through an entire tropical forest of notes and calls, plus a sort of falsetto imitation of a tommy gun and one that sounds to me exactly like a squeaky toy being trodden on. Malinois canaries produce “Klokkende,” which sounds like water drops, and “Fluitenrolle,” like a long breath on a flute, and all, coming from such tiny birds, are mesmerizing. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a good living could be made by professional trainers of canaries, or siffleurs, who were employed by the most fashionable owners to expand their bird’s repertoires with flutes and water-whistles. So by this point we had not only changed the bird’s color, we had changed its voice as well, and somehow, in the cultural subconscious of the day, separated it entirely from its natural origins. So ubiquitous was the canary’s caged presence in drawing rooms across Europe and America that bird and cage came to be seen as one.24 “The cage is its native element,” writes J. G. Wood:
Even the genuine British soldier can hardly be more helpless when deprived of ordinary military routine than is a canary-bird when set free and forced to fly alone in the world.25
The precursor to the pet shop of today was perhaps to be found in Paris in the twelfth century, with the bird sellers who plied their trade around the door of the church of St. Geneviève la Petite or on the Pont au Change.26 The precursors to the PetSmart or Petco of today were the brothers Charles and Henry Reiche, who founded a commercial empire on the import of canaries from Germany and then their export right across the United States on the new transcontinental railroad.27 Ten million canaries were imported into the United States in the first four decades of the twentieth century alone. This was perhaps the high-water mark in the pet canary’s fortunes—Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who was possibly the most untypical owner a little canary bird has ever had, published his best-selling Diseases of Canaries in 1933 with as many as three hundred of them sharing his cell. (But then Stroud, a two-time murderer who spent fifty-four of his seventy-three years incarcerated and forty-two of those in solitary confinement, is possibly the most untypical best-selling author who has ever lived, to match.) And then, still not satisfied, we changed the canary’s color once again. You can turn canaries orange, as the breeders in Norwich discovered, by feeding them red peppers; and if you interbreed with red siskins, after decades of experimentation that has left the siskin itself as an endangered species with maybe no more than six hundred pairs left in the wild, you can produce the red-factor canary, which looks like a grenadine cocktail balanced on a pair of hat pins. What Nature gives with one hand, however, she takes with the other. For all its beguiling-sounding chirps and trills, compared to a Harz Roller, the red canary can’t sing worth a damn.
It is all so much easier for us now. Today, if you wish to discover what is new, what is exotic, and what is newly fashionable, you simply go to a pet show.
The first official dog show was held in Newcastle in the north of England in 1859, the first cat show in London in 1871. Here is a little historical connective tissue: the man who organized the 1871 show was Harrison William Weir, who would have been well known to his contemporaries as an engraver and illustrator of, among other works, the highly popular Illustrated Natural History of the Reverend J. G. Wood. Such shows were small and regional, but they were an instant hit, and they grew to be very large and international; and among other breeds introduced the general public to Chihuahuas, Pekingese, and the Persian cats that were first exhibited at that London show in 1871. I went to farming shows that were small and regional as a child and spent hours in the tents devoted to rabbits and guinea pigs, or in fascinated terror, nose pressed to the pane of glass that was all that separated me from the interior of a real live beehive, trying to spot the queen. Such shows had a breezily amateurish quality to them; they were punctuated by deafening announcements for lost children, and many of those showing their prize sheep or pigs or bulls or pots of lemon cheese, or the prowess of their offspring on a Thelwell-shaped pony, wore exactly the same suits to do so, if they were men, that they had worn to their own weddings, or if they were women, their one and only hat. I miss them. When I found myself at the Rare Breeds fair up in the Midlands, I felt at home at once.
The pet show today is a different thing altogether. It is as sophisticated an experience of commerce and marketing as is walking into a major department store. It is so stage-managed that you come out of it with head awhirl and feeling like you, the consumer, have somehow become a product yourself.
Just as in a department store, the first stands you are likely to encounter are selling the small stuff, the impulse-buy belongings, the toys and beds and feeders; fencing to keep your indoor cat indoors; litter for anything that poops; “eggloos” that enable you to turn the balcony of your flat into a hen run for bantams. As a necessity in the well-regulated household, even Mrs. Beeton had time for bantams, no doubt because of the glorious golden color imparted to anything made with their eggs.
The first living creatures you are likely to encounter are fish, which could be something of a disappointment, except that I think they are there to keep the unwilling male, trailing behind his cat- or dog- or rabbit-obsessed female partner, happy. Fish don’t need cute little coats; they need manly stuff like pumps and filters and LED lighting. They need the kinds of things you can putter about with in sheds and improve at your workbench. They need (apparently) miniature landscapes to swim over of the sort you might create as background for a model railway. According to my friend Eve, fish are décor, but if that’s so, they are very beautiful décor, and the kit for them is praiseworthily imaginative. At one show I was very taken by a tank that could liven up your tropical fish’s day by simulating a tropical storm. Would the fish—tiny, darting little gummy bears, zipping about in their tank in strict formation—ever have experienced a real tropical storm? “Not in the wild, no,” said their breeder. So we would be creating an artificial version for them of a natural phenomenon that they had never, naturally, experienced? “That’s about it.”
Next stop on from the fish are usually the birds. If my observations hold true for all pet shows, you will know when you have reached the bird section because these brilliant, squawking, sulking, teeter-totter, paint-box-colored creatures inspire a livery among their owners, too. Thus my notebook for one such show reads “lots of funky hair colors on the parrot people.” Well, fine—if anything is to have dyes of one sort or another applied to it, to declare its solidarity with the animal that shares its life, then far better us than the pet. One aisle on from the parrots at this same show and I found myself deep in the territory of the background artistes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—the Death’s Head cockroaches and Curly-Hair tarantulas; a giant African millipede named Mollie (which to my thinking is simply perverse); a Rose tarantula, which looked just like a little curled-up pink sea anemone; Cuban tree frogs; and a Red Tegu (for the unfamiliar, a breed of lizard that grows to the size of a large dog or small child, brick-red, and with jowls like a Victorian alderman). It was being admired by an outsize fan, glinting with studs and chains himself and wearing a lumberjack shirt the breadth, across his back, of a picnic blanket. “What a beauty,” he was saying, as I passed by, “I need one,” thus encapsulating the entire arc of why we do this in two sentences. And yes, there were plenty of Goths and punks among the crowd of onlookers, too, eyes a-shine with desire for a cockroach or tarantula of their own.
You have to persist, guided by those unmistakable Oriental meows, or the odd deep woof, to reach the sections of such shows devoted to what most of us would think as being our animal companions. I may be imagining it, I may have been biased, but it did seem to me that everyone in the crowd in the “World of Cats” at my first such show had a broad grin on their face—everyone, that is, except for the male half of the couple walking ahead of me. “Anna,” he announced as he peeled away, “I’ll be in the fish.” The other thing that always strikes me, compared to the size (now) of my two, is how tiny the pedigreed cats are. I have a quick sketch I did of a Cornish Rex, half of whose head was ears, which were far and away the biggest thing about him. It always makes me wonder, must pedigreed cats be like supermodels and stick to a diet all the time?
The other thing you notice at once is how everyone crouches down to get on eye level with the animals at such shows. Katherine Grier makes the point in Pets in America that a portrait of an owner with pet on lap is saying something very different about that relationship than one where the heads of pet and owner are level with each other.28 We don’t want to look down on the animals at these shows as specimens in cages; we want connection with them as individuals. It was also notable how children were at once admitted to the front of the crowd. In 1763, in his Jubilate Agno, the poet Christopher Smart, owner of Jeoffrey, defined his cat as “an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon,” and it seems it’s a lesson we still value. At this particular show I saw one small girl in the crowd, face-to-face with a Somali, quite clearly falling in love: her eyes wide, her expression smoothed of everything but joy. There were Somalis, there were Siamese, there were Thai cats, Ragdolls, Maine coons, and Burmese. Seated in a baby buggy, sleeping peacefully away, was a Sphynx. “She’s a rescue,” said her owner. How on earth does a completely hairless cat become a rescue? It’s not as if this was an animal you would bring into your home without realizing what you were getting into.
From treasured exotic to rescue cat—where had I come across that before? I reached down and touched the Sphynx’s pink flank and have to report that it was as soft and as dry and as pleasing to the touch as a rose petal. The little girl nose-to-nose with the Somali was still there, enraptured, when I moved on, her parents standing behind her, the father with a look of comedic resignation on his face, and his wife’s hand upon his arm. She was stroking it.
Time, as they say, to go to the dogs.
Everything we have done to the canary has been doubly endured by the dog. We have bred them this way and that, up or down, out and in; changed their coats, changed their color; and then intervened mechanically if that was the only way to get the animal we wanted. We have clipped their ears into more pleasing shapes (more pleasing to us) and docked their tails. We have inserted “neuticles” into empty scrotums so that a castrated dog might still look as if it has its bollocks, even if only, one assumes, to any of us sniffing its butt—talk about confusing human shenanigans!—and we have removed their troublesome claws.29 I chewed my fingernails as a child, and declawing is the equivalent of solving this problem in your offspring by amputating the top joint of their fingers. Seriously, if the state of their furnishings means more to an owner than their animal’s paws, they should stick to soft toys. If they need a pet, go get a Furby.
There were just fifteen or so distinct breeds of dogs at the beginning of the nineteenth century; there are some 340 as I write. Breeds fashionable in Darwin’s day, such as the Dandie Dinmont, popularized by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Guy Mannering of 1815 (an early example of later crazes for Dalmatians following Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, perhaps, or of clownfish after the release of Finding Nemo), are now worryingly rare; while new breeds are being created at a rate that is equally troubling. There are now even “wolfdogs,” an attempt to turn the wheel of evolution full circle, which has produced a rangy, gray-and-yellow German shepherd–type dog that does, yes, remind one instinctively and immediately of a wolf. I’ve seen a pair of Czech wolfdogs being positively mobbed by admirers at a dog show. Just the name was enough to draw a crowd. Meanwhile the Pomeranian, like Lia Catreux’s, which was once a sizable dog itself, had its size decreased by half and more than half during the nineteenth century and became the toy breed familiar today. Queen Victoria was a great fan of Pomeranians and had much to do with popularizing the smallest versions of the breed; she and her German consort, Prince Albert, also introduced the dachshund to the fashionable fireside, and again, favored smaller and smaller variations. Nothing, as we know, like the royal seal of approval; then along came World War I, and any “German” breed fell completely out of favor. Poor dogs; we have even made them subject to our human politics. How insane is that?
You can argue, obviously, that owners have always bred from favored animals, else where does the whole notion of pedigree come from? Pepys, once he had settled down into the role of owner, soon came to pride himself on his eye as a dog breeder, too, organizing an assignation in his closet between Fancy and a dog belonging to “Mrs. Buggins”: “by holding down the bitch helped him to line her, which he did very stoutly, so I hope it will take, for it is the prettiest dog that ever I saw.”30 There is always someone who will be left unhappy: breeding, according to Yi-Fu Tuan in his famous essay, has made of the Chow “a stodgy teddy bear,” but I would not expect any owner of any Chow to agree.31
You could also take the view that this is no more than dogs doing what dogs have always done. J. R. Ackerley was fascinated by Queenie’s coming in and going out of season and determined that she should experience motherhood—just as soon as he had managed to locate a suitor. His telling of the hunt for the perfect mate for her reads almost as a knightly quest. (In the end, Queenie took matters into her own hands with a mongrel from next door.) I used to know a very elderly and dignified Pekingese named Wilfred who, years before and on the day his people moved to the other end of the country, managed to impregnate a neighbor’s standard poodle by making use, so the story went, of a convenient field stile.
The difference is that then, this would have got you crossed off the Christmas card list, whereas today, it creates a designer puppy with a premium price tag attached. Money is involved. The changing whims of fashion are involved. The dog’s agency in the matter is minimal; ethical issues of respect and dominion and control are involved. I hope no one is genuinely breeding a Brat (American rat terrier × Boston terrier), a Shocker (cocker spaniel × Shiba Inu), or a Poxer (you can, I am sure, work that one out yourself), simply because you can give such a crossbreed an amusing name, but I am far from confident they’re not. I found one website with seventy-six such hybrids listed under the letter A, and 169 under the letter B, and there were twenty-four more letters of the alphabet to go. The vast majority come with photographs, to prove someone’s really gone and done it.
It must be acknowledged that some of the dogs produced by these crosses are cute (or kawaii, as the Japanese, the nation that pretty much invented postmodern cute, would describe them) to the nth degree. Others do not shed or provoke allergies, thus making pet owning possible where it would not have been before. And it is reassuring that every owner who posted a photograph of their crossbreed described their animal with great affection and with the conviction that no dog could be better, and the website has its own warning that “choosing a dog simply for its looks is a foolish way to choose a dog.” But equally, so is breeding for them. Wally Conron, the Australian who bred the first Labradoodle in 1988, has spoken of his regret, now, at doing so, at the tsunami of homemade hybrids his act unleashed, and the fact that, as he has put it, conditions such as hip dysplasia or breathing difficulties or eye problems might unknowingly be bred into dogs, as opposed to being bred away from. This is a serious concern, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being left uneasy at the idea of dog DNA being mixed as if by some crazed bartender let loose on the cocktail cabinet. How far are we from the dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s rakunks and pigoons—or how near? And this is even before we get into the true Victor Frankenstein–type activities of those who deliberately breed for deformity because it has income-generating qualities of rarity or cuteness, and create dwarf cats with shortened limbs and kangaroo cats or squittens with forelegs they cannot use at all—or, indeed, El Rey Magnum, the Arab foal who looks (to me) like the result of some dreadful collision in the gene splicer between a horse and a Barbie doll.32 Whether his extraordinarily distorted profile compromises his ability to breathe or not, it certainly compromises his ability to look like a horse. It won’t make him gallop faster (it may indeed have exactly the opposite effect), it won’t make him stronger; it has nothing whatsoever to do with augmenting his primary abilities as a horse and everything to do with making him correspond to a human aesthetic. His breeder has described him as a step toward perfection.
Not that any of this is new. In Japan in the eighteenth century a favorite pet was the “waltzing mouse”—mice with a neurological disorder that caused them to bob and tilt their heads and to run in circles. Waltzing mice were bred to be better and better waltzers, never mind the distress in which the mouse itself lived out its days. One of my girlfriends lives as the willing slave to an elegant black cloud of a Persian cat, Mrs. Peel, who was bred with a nose of such exquisite minuteness that every so often Mrs. Peel has to stop whatever bit of devilry she is about and clear her airways with a tiny sneeze. There are teacup Chihuahuas—minuscule, hand-size creatures that do indeed seem to spend their lives like the beasts listed in Jorge Luis Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, trembling as if they were mad, but even in 1875 a French journalist was writing in alarm at the “terrier microscopique” to be met with on the streets of Paris.33 We want kawaii and we will have it (just ask El Rey Magnum), with nothing but the ever profounder concerns of animal welfare and our own ever deepening insecurities as checks on our pursuit. It’s comforting, in a way, to find that back in 1792, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern scientific taxonomy of animals, was already complaining that the “dog of Malta,” the literally archetypal lapdog from Roman times to the present day, had been bred down to the size of a squirrel. Yet the Maltese is with us still. Hooray for the human race that our level of acceptance is so much higher than it was, that Grumpy Cat, who was born, not bred, with feline dwarfism, wasn’t immediately drowned in a bucket and instead became so well loved a public pet and such an Internet star. God help us that somewhere out there you can be sure there will be someone deliberately trying to create her successor.
And yet, and yet—devoted breeders have also preserved animals that would otherwise have vanished and been lost. Wolfhounds were saved by Captain George Augustus Graham in the 1880s when, there being no more wolves in Ireland, these huge dogs were rapidly following them into extinction. Wolfhounds now have the blood of the Borzoi, the Great Dane, the Scottish deerhound, and the mastiff in their veins, along of course with that of the original wolf. Here we are again with the difference between the generality “out there” and the specific animal one knows personally: the only Labradoodle I have known was a gorgeous dog—loyal, companionable, smiley-faced, and with a lion’s mane of wayward curls around his shoulders, who took on the empty role of alpha male within his family without hesitation.
The question remains, however, why? Why turn a greenish bird yellow, and then a little yellow bird red? Why breed the African Grey to be shocking pink all over? A perfect Red Factor African Grey today can be worth as much as $150,000.34 Is it simply because we know we can? Are we all obsessives, like Isabella—the more, the more? Why pursue the fashionable and exotic at all?
Because the irony here is that if we want the best life with and for our companion animals, the way they look is very low down the list of component factors. If we want that one special animal, the difference is made by the quality of our relationship with them, the depth of our comprehension of them, and the strength of our connection to them. Fashion has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Back in the late seventeenth century, many of the first London coffeehouses were businesses with Dutch connections, and it was the Dutch king of England, William III, and his English spouse, Mary, who began one of the early documented crazes for a fashionable pet when they brought their pugs into England with them in 1689. How very different these dogs looked to the pop-eyed, flat-faced little snorters of today: those first trotting around Hampton Court Palace had protuberant snouts, bigger, terrier-like bodies, and longer legs, too. Times changed and the craze for them ran its course, and Dutch pugs fell out of vogue, such that Dr. Johnson’s friend Hester Lynch Piozzi, traveling in Italy with her second husband in 1785, would single out for special note the fact that pugs were still popular in Padua:
the little pug dog or Dutch mastiff [of] which our English ladies were once so fond… has quitted London for Padua, I perceive; where he is restored happily to his former honours, and every carriage I meet here has a pug in it. That breed of dogs is now so near extirpated among us that I recollect only Lord Penryn who possesses such an animal.35
Fashionability mattered not a jot to William Hogarth, however. The English painter left us not only a perfect record of the pug’s appearance in the mid eighteenth century but also one of the finest “animal’s companion” portraits you could ask for, with the animal very much center stage and the companion minding his place in the background. There is Hogarth, in cap and wrap and with a noticeable dint in his forehead, gazing out at us with challenging mien from a fictive self-portrait, and there, seated before it in all his four-legged and three-dimensional reality, is his pug. The owner here is reduced to the piece of property, available to buy or sell; the dog is the active, living creature.
Hogarth’s liking for pugs was attributed by the man himself to his own pugnaciousness and the tenacity with which he held to his own beliefs. (In one work, his pug became his actual proxy, and was shown peeing on the words of one of Hogarth’s critics.) Hogarth was also one of the first, in his etchings The Four Stages of Cruelty, to put forward a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to your fellow man, a connection still being debated by psychologists today. “I am a professional enemy,” Hogarth declared, “to persecution of all kinds, whether against man or beast.” But London in the eighteenth century was what it was, with its Carry On humor and all those jokes about the Queen’s ass, and Hogarth’s sense of irreverence was as broad as that of any man of his times. When it came to naming his unfashionable little pug, etiquette be damned. His dog, so beautifully and honorably elevated in their double portrait, apparently had a specific habit for which Hogarth wanted it to be remembered, and he named his dog Trump.
“Trump” had various meanings in the eighteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one well-known definition was to cheat or deceive; and another, to sing one’s own praises. But another of the word’s most common uses was as jocular slang for a fart.
And so we come to naming.