Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1647/Pets

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From The Saturday Review.


Man has been distinguished from brutes as a cooking animal. But he has another characteristic almost equally distinctive. He keeps pets. It is true that sometimes this characteristic is shared by individuals of other races. A horse has been known to become attached to the stable-cat, and to pine in the absence of pussy. So, too, dogs have often allowed a corner of their kennel to some stray animal domesticated about the house, and odd friendships have been cemented between creatures as different as a goat and a jackdaw, or a rabbit and a foxhound. Such brotherhood between tame beasts, all living in a state more or less artificial, is only as natural as the talking of a parrot, the piping of a bullfinch, or the trained labour of a canary taught to work for its living by drawing its water with a bucket and a chain. We never heard of a cat that loved a dear cricket to cheer with friendly chirpings her leisure on the hearth. No puppy has been known to lavish tender caresses on the radiant head of an iridescent bluebottle. The hen whose limited intellect reels before the watery instinct of a brood of ducklings is the victim of parental affection labouring under a base deception. But men pet many creatures besides their offspring, supposititious or other. It is true that a modern naturalist finds in an ants' nest certain well-cared-for beetles, and endeavours in vain to account for such a mysterious fact. Are the beetles scavengers, or are they pets? Or are the ants endued, like men, with superstition, and do they venerate, like the ancient Egyptians, a coleopterous insect? Stirlings show a preference for certain sheep. Every crocodile may be supposed to be the favourite of a particular lapwing. But these instances answer rather to the sportsman's predilection for a well-stocked moor, or the fly-fisher's love for a shady pool. No kitten leads about a mouse with blue ribbon round the little victim's neck, as a child caresses the lamb which it may one day devour. The child shows its petting instinct at the earliest age, and loves a woolly rhinoceros as soon as it loves sugar and apples. Long before the baby can speak, as soon as it can open and close its tiny hands, it longs for something soft and warm, and, above all, something moving, which it may grasp and pinch at will. No worsted poodle, however cunningly contrived in the toy country, can compete for a moment with a real puppy. The pleasure of breaking all the legs from off all the quadrupeds in Noah's ark pales into insignificance beside the rapture of pulling pussy's tail, and half blinding a living terrier. The cat and dog endure from the infant the tortures of Damien without complaint, and purr or wag their tail at each fresh infliction as a new manifestation of regard. Vivisection is a trifle compared with some of the unwitting cruelties of the nursery; but the victims seem to understand that their pains are not intended, and it would be well if a like self-sacrificing enthusiasm could be fostered in the scientific laboratory.

That people do keep pets and do misuse them is a plain and unquestionable fact. Why they keep them is another and much more difficult question. Some, it is true, have a dislike to the destruction of animal life. Cardinal Bellarmine would not disturb the fleas which got their livelihood in his famous beard. Others, again, have been driven to love a swallow from the mere loneliness of prison life, and the only reason for doubting the truth of the legend which connects the name of Bruce with a spider is that similar tales have been told of other famous men. The story of a Lady Berkeley who insisted on keeping her merlins to moult in her bedchamber, and her husband's consequent displeasure, occurs among the annals of the fifteenth century. Little dogs figure on brasses; and the names of "Terri," "Jakke," and "Bo" have come down to us as memorials of pets beloved five hundred years ago. Cowper, besides his hares, petted all kinds of animals, and remonstrated in verse with his spaniel for killing a fledgling. Oldys apostrophized a fly, and Burns a mouse. We think it was Carnot, in the Reign of Terror, that lavished caresses on his dog, while he sent hundreds of human victims to the slaughter. In fact, there are few people come to mature years who at some time of their life have not loved a dear gazelle or other domesticated animal, and been gladdened by its affectionate eye. A taste which is so peculiarly human may be humanizing if properly directed. The child, indeed, will rob a nest to satisfy its longing for a pet. But it is easy to demonstrate the cruelty of interfering with natural laws, and the speedy death of the half-fledged nestling demonstrates clearly enough the futility of the childish aspirations. The sympathies of Bill Sykes, callous as he was, were awakened towards his dog, and even Charon may be supposed occasionally to bestow a friendly pat on one of the heads of Cerberus. Although it has often been remarked that love of the horse accompanies, if it does not cause, the degradation of many a man, yet it would be hard to ascribe the iniquities of a blackleg to any true love of the animal on which, he lays his money. Doubtless the horse of Caligula preferred his oats ungilt, and it is the uncertainty of racing rather than any fault of the racer that attracts rogues to Newmarket and Epsom. A horse would run quite as well, the race would be even more often to the swift, if betting could be abolished. And our prize costermongers and cabmen find kindness to their animals, like honesty, the best policy. The donkey that is starved and beaten seldom favours his driver with more than a spasmodic gallop, while the sleek ass we now occasionally notice in our streets draws more than his own weight of heavy men at a cheerful and willing trot. The principle on which pets are kept is, however, sometimes difficult to find. We were all horrified lately to read of an old lady who starved a houseful of cats, and every Indian traveller tells shocking tales of the cruelty of the Hindoo to the humpbacked cow which he worships as a divinity.

Cruelty to pets is only one aspect of the matter. There are people, especially in towns, whose kindness to their pets is exercised at the expense of their neighbours. So long as they are an amusement to their owners without being a nuisance to the public no one can complain. There are, it is true, crusty people who would like the world better if it contained neither kittens nor babies. But it cannot do real harm to anybody that an old lady should turn rabbits loose in her garden in order to reduce the excessive corpulence of her darling pugs by a little wholesome coursing. It is good for her pets, and does not hurt the rabbits. Nor does it injure the public that twice a year she finds herself under the necessity of posting to the seaside in order to give her favourites the constitutional refreshment of a few walks on the shore. She must post all the way, because it would be impossible to let them enter the cruel den set apart for mere dogs on the railway, and the company will not let her hire a first-class compartment for their use. Even the collier who feeds his bull-pup on beefsteaks and milk, at the cost of half-starving his wife and children, may at least plead that he does not interfere with the comfort or convenience of his neighbours. But it is a little odd that there is no way of restraining him if he would go further. He may, as far as the present state of the law can control him, cause his dog to be a nuisance and annoyance of the worst kind to all who live within hearing; yet it is apparently impossible to interfere with him. It may be right enough that a man should be free to make the lives of his wife, his children, and his servants as miserable as he pleases, but it does seem strange that he may extend his attention to his neighbours with equal impunity. The general public, and especially that considerable section of it which consists of helpless invalids, have no remedy against a crowing cock or a barking dog. In extreme cases it is possible that a physician may be able for a time to abate such a nuisance as being dangerous to his patient's life; but there seems to be no redress unless in cases of life and death. In London a sufferer from such a complaint as chronic neuralgia may be kept in torture all day by the barking of a dog in the mews behind the house, and may pass a wakeful night owing to the howling of the same animal when chained up. There is no choice but a change of residence, if the invalid cannot bear the noise of cabs and milk-carts at the other side of the house. An appeal to the police magistrate only elicits another and perhaps more dismal tale of suffering. His worship is but human, and he too has had days of illness prolonged into weeks owing to the zoological propensities of his neighbours. He can do nothing for himself, and nothing for the complainant. The law says nothing about such annoyances. It says that "every person who blows a horn or an unusual noise and disturbance in the night-time" is guilty of a nuisance; but it makes no provision for cases in which the noise is produced without the intervention of the horn, and apparently does not forbid even a "noise and disturbance," provided only it be usual. True, a civil action may be brought against the owner of the animal making the noise, if the sufferer has been injured in the pursuit of his lawful calling or occupation; but, as he probably carries on his occupation miles away in the quiet recesses of the city, and is chiefly employed at home in what appears to be the unlawful occupation of resting himself, he has no ground for action. We have some imperfect sort of protection against brass bands and barrel-organs; why not against singing-birds, which might, as in "Charles O'Malley," be interpreted to include fighting cocks? An extreme course alone is open to the sufferer at present. We are not concerned to point it out too plainly. But, short of this desperate and certainly objectionable remedy, there is no way, so far as we can see, of interfering with any development, however disagreeable, of the petting faculty. We may habitually wear cotton-wool in our ears, or, if we like it better, we may leave our house and take another, but it is not clear we have any power at present to prevent our next-door neighbour from confining a pack of hounds in his stable, suspending a row of macaws on his balcony, keeping choruses of cats on his leads, and a laughing hyena in his back kitchen.