Reading within the field of animal studies you often come across the assumption that the proliferation of pet owning at least in the West in the last three hundred years or so is because it rebonds us in some way with the natural world, that it maintains a contact that, living in cities as so many of us now do, we would otherwise lose. To have an animal in our homes, so this theory says, restores a kind of eco-mental balance, necessary to us as creatures who also once lived “out there.” This is an assertion that has perhaps more of an emotional than a strictly historical truth to it, although it’s one that we’ll come back to (in Chapter 7). Thousands of animals followed us from the wild into these new habitats: the squirrels or raccoons in every roof space, the wild birds in the gardens, the mice and rats always and everywhere. As I look from the kitchen window of my partner’s apartment, along with the cats dividing up the monorails of walls and fences, there are brown and black squirrels, once a mother raccoon and her three kits; there are blue jays, red cardinals, sparrows aplenty (far more than in London these days, sadly); there are pigeons and, unsurprisingly, given this furred and feathered bounty, there was once a red-tailed hawk. This is in Brooklyn. Peregrine falcons hunt from the top of the skyscrapers opposite my front windows in London; and in the waters of the dock outside, taunting me with its uncanny knowledge of when I’m there not with my camera, there is a seal. These wild creatures are more common in our cities than we think. Growing up in Suffolk, in all my childhood I saw one fox, one time only: just the brush of its tail disappearing into the exuberant verdant edge of an unharvested field. Living in West London, as I walked one evening to the pub, a magnificent dog-fox, booted and suited, sauntered nonchalantly past me down the pavement. And yes, I did feel singled out and touched by the experience, and my friends in the pub marveled at it, too.
For various hunter-gatherer communities around the world, the same small mammals provide both pets and prey. A hunter killing a nursing mother will take her infant back to the village, where it may be raised and cared for with great tenderness by the hunter’s wife, even to the extent of nursing it at the breast as she would her own children. In this way, supposedly, the hunter propitiates any offense given to the true masters of the forest, the spirits who live there; balance is maintained, and the hunter “keeps right” with the powers that determine whether he lives and his own family eats.12 Sinning against a taboo in the natural world has been with us ever since Eve ate the apple and is by no means limited to the West: in Buddhist Japan, the release of animals back into the wild was historically seen as so meritorious an act, so creditworthy in terms of individual karma, that their supply became a business, with birds, fish, and tortoises bred and sold specifically for the purpose. You may well feel this rather removes the point, but the gods were less judgmental.13 Leonardo da Vinci, who according to his biographer Giorgio Vasari “delighted much in horses and also in all other animals,” performed the same act for real, buying wild birds from their captors and releasing them there and then.14 So here is another possible subconscious reason why we do this: that our own pets in the here and now, far from forests and their spirits, still serve some purpose in keeping us “right” with a natural world that yet exists in our heads.
So they may—but equally, for the animal’s companion, our animals may also balance, if not offset, a world where others are mistreated, abused, and injured by us, all the time and everywhere. If our exploiting of animals somehow poisons the relationship between us and the natural world, is the keeping of and caring for pets an antidote? If we are at the top of the evolutionary tree, the responsibility of being there is something we still seem unable to support consistently, and depressing as this is to contemplate, perhaps the importance of pets in the lives of so many of us is also partly to compensate for all those animals we can’t look after and fail to protect. It’s part of that business of division into categories again. We can’t take care of those animals—but these, we can.
Although there is another possibility. It may be doing no more than reinforcing our sense of having mastered nature, that we can take some animals from it and into our lives by choice. We seem equally able to support the two opposite beliefs—simultaneously, if need be.
Ultimately, of course, the wild is where all our pets came from, gathered up for centuries, willy-nilly. In ancient Rome, as well as the infamous lapdogs, they are supposed to have made pets out of crickets, locusts, hares, dolphins, cheetahs, and snakes, as well as turbot, lamprey, and moray eels.15 The eighth-century Irish Bretha Comaithchesa, or Laws of the Neighbourhood, yields a list of pets taken from the wild that includes stoats, otters, cranes, ravens, rooks and jackdaws, red squirrels and badgers, all of them with owners responsible for fines for their animals’ misbehavior. Medb (or Maeve), the warrior-queen of Irish mythology, is supposed to have had a pet pine marten that twined seductively around her throat and shoulders, a form of carrying that marks a truly exceptional degree of trust between owner and pet. Rather smaller, but historically rather more recent and reliable, Alfonso X, King of Castile from 1252 to 1284, kept a weasel for a pet, an animal that delighted him with its “scampering and jumping,” enclosing it in “a pretty little wooden cage… for he was very afraid of the cat.” Very wise, you may think, but in this case near-death came from Alfonso’s own affection for the creature. Oh, the heartaches of being a pet owner:
He was riding down a road when he took the weasel from its cage, and being a very quick creature, it fell under the horse’s feet… the King cried out in alarm “Holy Mary, save my little weasel and do not let death take it from me!” All those there were very distressed because the King’s horse had stepped down on it very hard. The King cried “Oh, men, can you see it?”…
Holy Mary intervened as requested, and when the horse finally lifted its hoof the weasel came out from under it unharmed, and the episode became one of 420 songs of thanks to the Virgin composed or commissioned by Alfonso over the course of his reign.16
Weasels are tiny, but no one’s told them. Lithe as a snake and hyperactive as a silicone-rubber ball, they seem to exist in a state of overpowering fury with most of the rest of creation. Over the course of my childhood interactions with critters in the wild, among the most non-cute memories are those of having an abandoned nestful of sulfurous bantam eggs explode in my face like a bomb, being bitten by a centipede, setting my four-year-old foot down on an adder, being pursued along the banks of the River Deben in Suffolk by wasps as by a lynch mob, and having my finger punctured down to the bone by a shrew, but the only one that bit and then hung on, swinging from my hand as I tried to rescue it from my cat Freddy, was a weasel. I don’t think Alfonso need have been concerned. Yet where once we had cantigas to the Virgin, now we have Ozzy the Adorable Desk Weasel, YouTube star. It may be a cigarillo-size killing-and-eating machine, but someone will still make of it a pet.
But then badgers are formidable carnivores as well, and the artist Giovanni Bazzi, aka Il Sodoma, depicted himself with two of them walking at his heels, obedient as dogs. The same 1502 fresco in which we find the badgers also contains the faint and faded ghost, as you might describe it, of his pet raven, a bird that had been tamed, according to Vasari again—
to speak so well that in some things it imitated exactly the voice of Giovanni Antonio himself, and particularly in answering to anyone who knocked on the door, doing this so excellently that it seemed like Giovanni Antonio himself, as all the people of Siena knew very well
—which must have endeared him to them greatly, when they came knocking on the door to ask him to keep down the noise from his “badgers, squirrels, apes, marmosets, dwarf asses… little horses from Elba, jays, dwarf fowls, Indian turtle doves and other suchlike animals, as many as he could lay his hands on.”
Birds were among the easiest of pets to abstract from the wild, and just about every owner whose experiences are examined in this book, certainly up to the turn of the twentieth century, seems to have helped themselves to one—as the historian Ingrid Tague puts it, “to respond to nature’s beauty by trying to turn it into property.” You get some idea of the almost limitless range of birds so adopted from Giovanni Pietro Olina’s Uccelliera of 1622, which includes every tweeting, chirping thing from quails to nightingales. Olina was one of Europe’s first ornithologists, gathering together much invaluable information on bird habits and bird lore, but he was also completely unself-conscious in presenting this information alongside an account of any bird’s utility to us, whether as singer or indeed as foodstuff. “The bird is more esteemed for its loveliness than anything,” Olina declares lyrically of the lapwing, then adds “they are also suitable for eating, being of quite good flavour and nourishment.”
Birds may have been the commonest pets to be so obtained, but they were certainly not the only creatures we helped ourselves to. Gilbert White (1720–93), one of those leisured English parson-naturalists to whom the science of natural history owes so much, and inheritor, via his aunt, of perhaps the most famous pet tortoise in history, also kept at his rectory at Selborne in Hampshire a tame robin redbreast, tame brown owl, and another tame raven, as well as a tame snake and a tame bat “which pleased me much.” White was of the opinion that “every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents and things in the sea is tamed, and hath been tamed, of mankind,” and who is to argue with him?17 The poet William Cowper, White’s contemporary and another country parson, kept three wild hares as treasured pets. He named them Tiney [sic], Puss, and Bess, and fed them on bread and milk and apple rind. A century later, the American poet and abolitionist Sara Jane Lippincott, who under the pseudonym Grace Greenwood penned The History of My Pets (1853; Nathaniel Hawthorne described it as “one of the best children’s books he had ever seen”), kept a tame robin; a hawk, which she named Toby; and a raccoon.
Sara Jane’s contemporary in England was Emma Davenport, a prolific children’s writer and author of the rather alarmingly entitled Live Toys of 1862. Her pets included Puffer the pigeon, Pricker the hedgehog, a jackdaw, a sparrow hawk, and Dr. Battius, another bat. But both women are completely eclipsed by the Reverend John George Wood, a tireless advocate for the natural world and the closest thing Victorian England had to a figure such as Sir David Attenborough today. Wood wrote and lectured in both England and America and became so well known that he was referenced by Mark Twain on one side of the Atlantic and by Arthur Conan Doyle on the other.18 His son, Theodore, described him as “never more happy than when surrounded by animals with which he was intimate, and which, to him, were not only companions but true and actual friends.” And judging by everything he wrote, this was indeed true. Yet even Wood, although he could be passionate and even maudlin on the wickedness of depriving songbirds of their freedom, speaking of a lark in a cage as “a prisoner in solitary confinement… no more will it seek its mate and know all the joys of nest and children,” could speak with a chuckle of how “to possess a tame squirrel is often a legitimate object of a boy’s ambition,” and inform his readers that the jay was “a rare bird, and seems yearly to be diminishing in numbers” without apparently for one instant connecting this with the very nest-robbing, trapping, and caging he was instructing them how to do.
As onetime editor of the Boy’s Own magazine, Wood had clear ideas on how an English boyhood should be spent: abstracting animals from the wild (“every boy should be ashamed if he cannot catch a young jackdaw for himself”) and constructing cages in which to keep them. His own pets from the wild in youth, again according to Theodore, included “bats, toads, lizards, snakes, blindworms, hedgehogs, newts and dormice.” Reading Wood, who is in every other way something of an animal hero, you truly are brought face-to-face with one of those areas where attitudes toward the natural world and toward pet ownership have been totally transformed. Owls, Wood felt, also made pleasing pets, once the “chief drawback” of their “nocturnal habits” had been corrected.19 One dreads to imagine how.
Ravens, such as Il Sodoma’s, and other corvids (crows and jackdaws) are intelligent and adaptable, which would give them at least a chance of thriving in our ownership. They became particular favorites in the nineteenth century—Charles Dickens owned three, all named Grip, the first of which was both the inspiration for the raven in Barnaby Rudge (1841) and via Barnaby Rudge, the bird in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” of 1845, which is a literary pedigree to be proud of. An unexpectedly harsh yet familiar-sounding squawk from the gardens behind me has just taken me to the kitchen window of the apartment in Brooklyn, and there on the electricity and telephone wires, along with the squirrels and the pigeons, were two parakeets, the first I have seen here. Parakeets in the wild are found almost anywhere with warmth and trees, across Africa, Asia, and Central America. They were popular as pets with the ancient Greeks and Romans, supposedly having been brought from India via the armies of Alexander the Great, and ever since have continued merrily hopscotching their way around the planet from one green space to the next.20 Since the 1990s they have been found in flocks in West London, where their lime-colored presence and tropical squawk, so unexpected among the London pigeons, have given rise to urban myths to account for them.
Here is another of our human characteristics—that we seek to account for things. Supposedly the first London parakeets, having been taken from the wild, escaped from the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Isleworth Studios in West London in 1951. Alternatively, Jimi Hendrix is supposed to have released his pair of pet birds in Carnaby Street in the 1960s—a connecting of two new exotic species perhaps: the fashionable male of the 1960s and the psychedelic bird. (Something similar happened in the London of the 1760s, when the new exotic species of monkey arriving in the city as fashionable pets were linked in popular imagination with the dandies, or macaronis, arriving in the city fresh from the Grand Tour.) There are established flocks of feral parakeets in Brussels, Cologne, and Rome, in Chicago, and apparently most recently in Tokyo. They came from the wild and insofar as our cities provide “wild,” the parakeets have returned there. They are an urban feral success story. Like the corvids, they are smart, and like the corvids, they find our human world accommodating; and you can see perfectly well what will happen next—chicks hatched in the wild will be adopted, fed from the nest, and raised as pets, and so the cycle will begin again. Like the old lady said, it’s turtles all the way down.21
Raccoons, for example, were commonplace as pets in sixteenth-century Mexico and are still hopping merrily if unwisely back and forth across thresholds in the United States today.22 I’ve walked within a couple of yards of a raccoon in New York’s Central Park at dusk, and it appeared as unperturbed by my proximity as it was by the rest of Manhattan going about its nightly business around it. Judging by its girth, its choice of territory was serving it well (it was Halloween, and this particular raccoon was as round as if it had swallowed a pumpkin whole). In Australia it is dingoes that drift in and out of human lives and spaces. Aboriginal communities in Australia take in orphaned dingo pups—which, yes, they have often themselves orphaned by killing the mother—sleep with them for warmth, and use them as sentinels and as companions; once the pups reach sexual maturity, they are allowed to wander off—a sort of dingo walkabout—to go make more puppies and so repeat the cycle.23 The suitability, or lack thereof, of a dingo (or, come to that, a raccoon) as a pet and the desirability or not of creating “tame” dingoes is an area of much scientific conversation and dispute, with some states in Australia still outlawing their ownership (but when did that ever stop anyone?) even as the Australian National Kennel Council published a breed standard for them. Are these the next two to cross the species line? Will there in future, along with wild and pet parakeets, be both wild and pet raccoons, and wild and pet dingoes? Just as there are wild (green and yellow) and pet (green, yellow, turquoise, blue, gray, violet, white, and even crested) budgerigars, and wild (round face, round eyes, small ears) and pet (triangular face, almond-shaped eyes, and ears the size of bird wings) Siamese cats? And how different might we make one type of raccoon, say, look to the other? Coloring, like the budgerigar? Or, like Siamese cats, their entire morphology?
It’s the timing of the taking from the wild that is the crucial factor. If the animal is young enough—as happened with Ozzy the Desk Weasel, found half dead and almost newborn—you can make of it a pet, and for millennia, so we have. In the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress, the prerequisite for thirteen-year-old Aisholpan to acquire her eagle from the Altai Mountains in Mongolia is to find an eaglet sturdy enough to survive being taken captive but still young enough to accept captivity. But if the creature taken from the wild has progeny, the process of accustoming them to domestication will have to be gone through all over again. Being tamed is not the same as being tame; wild stays wild. My mother treasures a photograph of my brother, on a trip to London in the early 1970s when he was about six years old, holding a lion cub in his arms. They had gone into Harrods, which for two East Anglian children was the equivalent of landing on a different planet, one composed of escalators as tall as our house and so much gilt and marble that even Kubla Khan could not have asked for more, and with a pet department, the Pet Kingdom, that, before the Endangered Species Act of 1976, would sell you lions and tigers as happily as designer dogs and cats. Noël Coward bought a baby alligator there in 1951 and Ronald Reagan a baby elephant in 1967. This is the very small part the Harvey family played in the game of How Times Change: my mother took my brother up to the top floor to see the animals, and there was a man with a lion cub and a photographer, and she handed over five shillings, perhaps, or its new decimal equivalent, and in return got a photograph of her son hugging a real live lion cub as if it were a favorite teddy bear.
Come to think of it, the 1970s were a different planet. Pet Kingdom has closed (albeit only in 2014), and nothing in that encounter could be repeated today, from the presence of a wild animal of a vulnerable and decreasing species in a department store to its being handled by a child; and you have to say, good thing, too. Yet you should see the delight in my brother’s grin. And looking at the photo recently, looking at the cub and then looking at my brother, what I was seeing was the same—the same high, rounded forehead, the same oversize eyes, the same big head on small body. And when we started to pick and choose among those adoptees from the wild, when we made the passage over our threshold permanent, that look, that baby face, was part of what we made permanent, too.