Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Our pets - Part 1

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Illustrated by Joseph Wolf.

Part 2


Sarah Stickney Ellis's tame birds.jpg

There are two very different ways of enjoying the companionship of tame animals. One is by petting and fondling them without regard to their natural habits and individual happiness; the other is by cultivating their friendship, and engaging their affections, and at the same time allowing them free scope for the exercise of their peculiar tendencies of character. For that animals have distinctive character, and differ individually one from another much in the same way that human beings differ, is a fact universally acknowledged by all who have studied them in their natural condition. If anything could destroy this individuality it would be the uniformity of the purposes for which animals are employed by man, such as the daily work of the horse, which requires that all engaged in one kind of labour should move alike in the same routine manner.

When we speak of tame animals, however, we generally mean such as are tamed for our pleasure, not employed for our use; and these being various in species, as well as in the treatment to which they are subjected, cannot be prevented by any law of uniformity from developing their natural peculiarities of character. In this respect, then, as well as in many others, we may derive from the society of tame animals a fund of perpetual amusement.

Amongst our cats, for example, one may very possibly be an animal of the most staid and sober habits, while another may exhibit the most eccentric propensities, and this not only in its kittenhood, but up to maturity, perhaps perching herself where no cat was ever seen before, or cultivating the affections of some dog with whom her parents and relatives had lived at deadly strife.

But as one who has known, for no inconsiderable period of human experience, what it is to dwell in close intercourse with such associates, I will speak of some of my own personal friends, in evidence, not only of the amusement they have afforded me, but with a deep sense of gratitude for the many hours which they have beguiled of weariness; the many otherwise solitary moments they have cheered, and the kindly feelings they have often awakened in the midst of circumstances highly calculated both to disturb and embitter.

A motherless childhood may have been one cause why I sought this companionship more eagerly than others; and yet I think the tendency ran in the family; for we all had it, though not in an equal degree. But we were all accustomed to observe what was stirring in the natural world, and would bring in our separate anecdotes for the amusement of the social circle with as much zest as young ladies generally tell of their balls, or young gentlemen of their exploits in the cricket-field.

My first strange pet—I mean foreign to the household—was a buzzard, a large and noble bird which I used to carry about on my arm or shoulder when I was about seven years old. I called him Nestor, he looked so grave and wise; and though I loved him very much, or thought I did, and took him often into the fields to spend my time with him alone, I always regarded him with a certain kind of awe, especially when he stretched out his great brown wings, and closed them over his head, as he always did in the act of eating, holding the food in his claws, and devouring it beneath this natural veil, as if the act of eating was too sacred and important to be exposed to vulgar eyes. I do not think my venerated friend was very amiable, or cared much about the laceration of the small arm on which he was carried, and which often bore the marks of his powerful talons. Nor am I sure that I was myself quite clear of blame in exciting his savage, propensities; for I remember a terribly wounded leg of his, the consequence of my chasing an old woman in the harvest field with the great bird held out in my arms, his beak and claws very formidably presented to the old woman, who turned sharply round and struck him with her sickle, to my indignation and dismay; though feeling that I could say little in the way of complaint. Of course the wounded warrior was carefully attended to, and soon recovered from the blow.

All the while that this intimate acquaintance with the buzzard was carried on, we had large supply of household pets, consisting of cats and dogs of various kinds and characters, guinea pigs, rabbits, white mice, and birds of many descriptions, though seldom or never kept in cages, for in caged-birds we took no delight. I must honestly confess to the clipping of a wing now and then; but in almost every case the wing was allowed to grow, so that the bird might take flight on the return of spring, when the temptation of a mate, or the excitement of nest-building generally robbed us of our one year’s companion.

Besides those that were regularly domesticated, we had many shy friends of the fields and the garden who maintained a more stealthy intercourse with us, coming to be fed on a little raised table which we had placed near the dining-room windows in order to enjoy the pleasure of seeing them plentifully supplied, or hopping upon our hands and shoulders when we sate upon a very retired old garden seat kept almost sacred to this kind of intercourse. Here my father especially delighted in the intimacy of a robin, and often visited the solitary spot for the sake of inviting his little friend to perch upon his hand. Like us he persisted in believing everything that was good of all robins, and of his robin in particular; until one day, when a certain phase of the robin character was developed which appeared to shock and disappoint him a good deal. He had caught a stray bird of this species in the house, and took it in his hand to show to his little friend in the garden; when the latter, furious with jealous rage, flew at the stranger, and my father believed would have torn it in pieces, had he not permitted the wild robin to fly away. Whether it is the pretty little red-breast which awakens such wonderful tenderness on behalf of this bird, or the touching story of the “babes in the wood,” or its sweet plaintive song in the autumn when other birds are silent, or the peculiar way it has of looking at you and seeming to attend upon your steps as you tread the garden walks, or, more than all, its willingness to perch at the window on cold wintry days, and to accept food at the hand of man—whatever the cause may be, the robin has certainly obtained a place in the human heart to which its own exemption from unamiable passions would never have entitled it. But so let it be. Human hearts are not apt to admit too much into their warm recesses. The greater would be the pity for even a little spiteful robin “to be discarded thence.”

The birds with which my private menagerie was supplied were chiefly birds of prey, such as owls of various kinds, hawks, &c., with rooks, ravens, jackdaws, and magpies, and once a beautiful falcon, almost as large as an eagle, brought in a ship, on which it had alighted, from the coast of Norway. This bird I lost, it is to be feared after much suffering on its part, from not knowing that sand or gravel was necessary to enable it to digest its food.

Of the owls I never could make much in the way of companionship, simply because my day was their night, and vice versâ. Moreover, I had always on my mind the impression made upon us all by the reading of a useful and most charming little book, now lost sight of, called “Talking Animals.” It was very graphically written, and better calculated than any grave discourse I ever heard to awaken in the hearts of children a real interest in animals, with pity for the sufferings which injudicious or ignorant petting must inflict upon them. Particularly were we all affected, I believe to frequent tears, by the history of a family of owls torn from their parent’s nest, and exposed to all the horrors of glaring, mid-day captivity without a screen to shelter them from the hated sun, and the still more hated eyes and hands of their persecutors. The book was written on the supposition of a number of animals meeting together, each to relate the history of his own captivity and treatment at the hands of man, just as the circumstances had been in their effect upon himself, not at all as they had been intended; and that of the owl, especially, was so well told, and so true to nature, that it quite cast a damp upon my intercourse with the whole species, because I could not bring myself to let in upon them more than a kind of dim twilight, nor liked, even at any time, to intrude upon that strange, mysterious majesty in which even a very juvenile owl seems always to shroud himself.

Thus my knowledge of the owl character is rather limited, though I had many, both horned and common, at different times under my care: for the people in the neighbourhood, as well as our house servants, knowing my fondness for animals, used to bring me all kinds of maimed and sometimes savage creatures, many of which I succeeded in curing, and others in taming; though, I am sorry to say that our solemn visits to a little shady corner of the orchard, designated the “cats’ burial-ground,” were more frequent, and that the little mounds erected there were more numerous than we always found it quite cheerful or pleasant, to reflect upon. We did the best we could for them while under our care, but sometimes they were too badly wounded to recover—sometimes it was more kind to kill than to keep them alive—and sometimes we made grievous mistakes in the way of food and treatment. Once—only once, I believe—we were guilty of absolute cruelty from unpardonable neglect: we forgot to feed our rabbits, of which we had numerous families in a large place my father had allowed to be fitted up for the purpose of keeping them in health and comfort. They were entirely dependent upon us. It was our pride that they should be so; and we once forgot to feed them for so many hours that two or three were found dead. I shall never forget that time, nor the awful visitation of shame and compunction that fell upon us. My father’s treatment of the matter was such as to produce a life-long impression. He was not so much angry as shocked—absolutely grieved in spirit; and the very work-people cried shame upon us. Indeed, I do not know that for any later sins I have felt condemnation so severe as for that. And if we estimate our sins by the principles they involve rather than by the effects they produce, I think we were all right in feeling as we did; for the principle was just that of neglecting the claims of those whom we had voluntarily brought under our own power, thus tacitly engaging to guard and provide for them, and at the same time cutting off their means of doing this for themselves. A sense of injustice and wrong was consequently mixed with that of cruelty, which, in my case, at least, rendered the recollection of the hungered rabbits indelible.

I should think, as a whole, that more mistakes were committed in our establishment by over than by under feeding, for we were not at all like my father in being scientific or philosophical in our zoological studies. We might have been if we had so chosen; for one of his intimate friends was a gentleman of high literary fame in the region of entomological science, William Spence, who used to visit much at my father’s house, and whose society afforded pleasure to us all. But somehow the structure of animals was never so interesting to us as their characters; and when another scientific friend of ours. Professor Phillips, used to tell with exultation of some of his invertebrate favourites—how they could live as well and as happily when turned inside out as when in their original position—I always retained the same preference, which holds to this day, for animals that have back bones, and that do feel a choice as to whether they shall be turned inside out or not.

Far more entertaining and more relishing to us, though perhaps I ought to be ashamed to confess it, were the conversations of two bachelor uncles, and of one especially, who seemed to be constituted in a remarkable manner for observing the habits, and diving into the nature and feelings of animals, without the enlightenment of a single spark of science. He was a man strangely set apart from human fellowship, with a shut heart, but keen perceptions, and a strong but partially cultivated understanding. I think, as children, we used to try to creep into that shut heart of his with more avidity than into many open ones. And the animal creation seemed to be affected in a similar manner; for, without putting himself the least out of his way to indulge them, he could draw them around him, attach them to his person, and make them understand and obey him in the most remarkable manner. It is true he also could understand them as they must be little accustomed to being understood; and no small portion of the rare and racy amusement which his company often afforded was derived from his incomparable mimicry of all sorts of animals, and the indescribable drollery of look and manner with which he could translate into human speech the sentiments or opinions by which he believed his dumb associates to be actuated.

Leading an isolated life in the country, my uncle had many opportunities of making observations upon animal nature; and thus his rich store of information and anecdote was added to the general fund from whence we derived perpetual entertainment. It seemed to us always as if the animals with which he had to do developed more than others; and the tricks he could play without offending them, evinced something very peculiar in the intercourse they held together. One of his dogs, I remember, had an amusing partiality for riding in a wheelbarrow, or whatever conveyance was at hand; and I have often seen him take a running leap into an empty clothes basket which the women were carrying to a distant hedge, as if even that opportunity was too good to be lost. The opinions and sentiments of this dog my uncle was very apt at translating. But there was no setting bounds to his genius in this way. I have heard him tell what an old hen said to her chickens when she placed herself for the night upon the bough of an apple-tree, where they could not possibly follow her, accompanied with action and tones that would have won applause upon the stage. He gave, too, with great effect, the history of a lady pigeon, who persuaded her husband to sit while she flew off from the nest to take her pleasure amongst the inmates of a neighbouring dove-cot. There was nothing like this in all that Spence and Kirby ever wrote, excellent as it is; and my uncle was to us a higher oracle than Cuvier himself.

It would seem strange to some families that ours could sit down to talk over the affairs of animal economy with untiring interest; perhaps still more strange that we could listen with intense enjoyment to the recital of some strange exploit, or some new development of animal character; but for a happy life in the country, for amusement in one’s walks and rides, for cheerful and intelligent communion with Nature, unrestrained by artificial usages, it is indispensable that we seek in this companionship more than is wanted for the mere satisfaction of a coaxing propensity; yes, and more than is often dreamed of in our philosophy.

In my father’s case, the tendency in his children to make themselves acquainted with animal existence, under all its various forms, was made the groundwork of many a grave discourse, in which he tried to lift our hearts “from nature up to nature’s God.” He was a man who believed devoutly that nothing had been made in vain; that the smallest insect, as well as the vilest reptile, had its use in the great creation; and that all, as the works of God, were not only excellent in themselves, but entitled to kindness and consideration from man. His careful investigation of facts, tending to establish this his favourite theory, often pressed into his service so many members of the family, that a general interest was excited in obtaining an amount of useful knowledge, which he devoted to the cause of science. I remember, especially, his habitual leaning in favour of rooks, of which we had a swarming colony around the house. My father maintained that these birds were of great service to the farmers in clearing their land, not only of worms, but of a more destructive kind of grub very detrimental in the corn-fields. The amount of these which a rook would carry home to its young ones in a single day was the point to be ascertained, and a man was stationed to begin his watch with the first light of morning. He directed his attention to one particular nest, counted the number of flights made by the two parent birds, and on the following day one of them was shot on its way home, for the purpose of ascertaining the number of grubs conveyed to the nest at one flight. The result was enormous, exceeding my father’s expectations. I have forgotten the exact amount, but I know that from that time his zeal was redoubled in publishing and making known amongst his friends and neighbours the debt of gratitude which they owed to their friends of the rook species.