08 June 2007

The Lion on the Settee, Or, Fur Conquers All

Pets have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since my husband and I took the plunge and decided to get a new cat. We already have a cat, a 12-year-old male who has been the exclusive cat for his entire life with us. When we introduced him to his new best friend, a 2-year-old-male, well...let's just say that it hasn't been particularly peaceful in our home. But we’re willing to stick it out and hope that some day, we'll come home and find the two of them curled up together, purring and adorable. I'm not placing any bets, though.

But getting back to the subject, I would say it's a safe bet that most readers of romance novels have pets. What's better than curling up with a book while your beloved cat snoozes on your lap? Or, perhaps instead of a cat, you have a dog, bird, fish (hard to cuddle), pocket pet, rabbit, amphibian or lizard. We love our animal companions and spend billions on them every year.

One of the earliest pets was the dog. They have almost always been working animals, guarding homes and herding livestock. They accompanied hunters seeking food for their families. And, of course, they are untiring in their loyalty, a byproduct of being pack animals. But it still feels pretty wonderful when your dog looks at you with the kind of devotion we only wish we could inspire in people. The bond between human and canine is strong and deeply rooted.

Even so, dogs came to the United States primarily to work. They pulled small carts in the cities, and, at home and in shops, dogs powered treadmills. These treadmills were attached to washing machines, butter churns and turning spits for roasting meat. On the right is an example of an American dog treadmill from 1884. Doesn't look like fun. On the other hand, maybe Chihuahuas could power hair dryers. (I kid!)

Keeping songbirds was a common practice in Europe, and the tradition was brought to North America. Birds were popular as pets, because native birds could be purchased at markets or even trapped, making them more affordable than other animals. The canary first arrived in America in the 1820s and then were raised for sale. By the 1870s, they were the most popular pet bird. The Migratory Birds Treaty Act, passed by Congress in 1918, protected American songbirds from the international pet trade. Sadly, no Tweetie Bird protection acts were ever passed.

Early nineteenth century families kept goldfish as parlor ornaments. As interest in the natural world became more and more widespread, aquariums were introduced in the 1850s. Tropical fish were imported during the 1910s, but pet stores began to sell them in the 1920s. Now everyone could observe the hidden world of underwater life in their own homes without the bother of putting on flippers.

Cats, as many know, originally lived in Egyptian temples, and gradually were integrated into homes and businesses as rodent hunters. But cats, as even more know, work when they want to, and soon they became the pampered companions of humans. Cat shows made their first appearance in the 1870s and people became more invested in the glamorous world of purebred cat breeding. (Where's the cat equivalent of "Best In Show?") Keeping one's cat permanently indoors became possible after 1945, when "cat litter" was marketed to a grateful public.

Rabbits and chickens were common farm animals raised for food, but gradually rabbits transitioned into the envied status of pet. (Surely the chicken community of the world is deeply resentful of the distinction.) Rabbits, mice, rats and guinea pigs were often children's pets in the 1860s. While many people today still keep these animals as pets, squirrels eventually lost that distinction and are now mainly observed in parks and tormenting indoor cats from the other side of screen doors. Hamsters became the new small pet rage in the 1950s, and lately hedgehogs and ferrets have been making inroads as well. Some states don't permit the ownership of ferrets and hedgies, but the Internet now makes it possible to view these cuties without interference from Johnny Law.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive history of pet owning, but, as I listen to the gentle sounds of cats rocketing through my apartment, hissing and growling, it surely helps to know that I am not the first to fall victim to this loveable madness.

(Incidentally, much of the information in this post can be found at the excellent Pets In America online exhibit, including the pictures.)