Sunday, 7 February 2016

Victorian Animal Welfare: Don't Leave Your Cats to Starve

In this series of blog posts about attitudes to cats in the 19th century, this week we look at cat welfare...but all is not as it seems .
The ideal pet cat was passive and well-behaved,
just like their female owner
Victorian (male-dominated) society regarded cats as the embodiment of femininity – and this wasn’t meant as a compliment. Cats were seen as promiscuous, innately sexual, and too independent for their own good and only made good pets if they were less…well…cat-like.

In the 19th century men expected their wives to be obedient, chaste, and biddable. The message was clear: women needed firmly keeping in line,  or much like any untrustworthy creature their morals might degenerate to those of an alley cat.

By the end of the 19th century it was estimated most households owned at least one cat, but these were working animals. They lived outdoors, and allowed in during the day to catch mice and keep vermin down. However, there were a significant number of middle class women who kept a pet cat. This was acceptable if the pet was well behaved, because it exemplified the triumph of civilization over baser nature; woman over cat, man over woman.

The problem then arose as to what happened to that pet cat when the household went on holiday. Frequently the answer was to turn the cat out onto the street for the duration of the time the owner was away. However, by the 1880s there was a ground swell of opinion, given voice by the newspapers and pet-keeping manuals, against this practice.
“Don’t leave your cats to starve while you go for an enjoyable holiday.”

On the face of it, this would seem to be the birth pangs of animal welfare concerns for our feline friends. But when you delve deeper it seems the appeal was not made for the reason you might suppose (i.e. the poor animal suffering through lack of food)

The motivation behind this appeal was that a cat forced onto the streets, without the civilizing influence of man, would revert to their bestial habits. This wasn’t a case of chastising owners for abandoning their pets, but shining a light on the weak moral nature of cats, as proven when they reverted to natural behavior.

Stray cats were regarded as the equivalent of prostitutes, while a pet cat was equivalent to a good housewife. To turn one (the wife) into the other (a prostitute) was what the protests objected to – not because they were worried about cat welfare, but because of the example it to women.
Female cat owners were often stereotyped
A cat left to fend for themselves, was “corrupted by their own impulses” (presumably to eat and reproduce) and the degraded animal was no longer a suitable companion for a gentlewoman.

So there we have it: “Don’t leave your cat to starve”…but because 19th century men feared it might corrupt their wives.


Next week: The Suffragettes and Cats. As a taster, what do you make of the imagery in the postcard show below? Do share your thoughts and leave a comment. 


Sunday, 31 January 2016

Victorian Snobbery about Cats as Pets

Last week I asked if you own an iPhone. This week my question is: Do you drive a Skoda or a Ferrari?

The reason is to illustrate how the Victorian’s could be very sniffy about cat-ownership. If we think of this snobbery in terms of cars (rather than cats – See what I did there), those people who own and drive a luxury brand such as Ferrari or Porsche, wouldn’t be seen dead anyway near a humble Skoda. Likewise, you may form a very different mental picture of a stranger based on the vehicle they drive. Thus was also the case for pet ownership in the 19th century.

The Victorian’s jumped to a lot of conclusion about your status and importance, based on the pets you kept. When it comes to our feline friends the very attributes that made them ideal pets in the middle ages made them less acceptable in the 19th century. Quite simply, the idea that cats caught mice gave them the mantle of a “poor man’s pet”.
A lot of responsibility was placed on the furry (or feathered) shoulders of a Victorian pet. For a start, an animal that was welcomed into the home was expected to ditch their “beastly” attributes and become civilized. Indeed, the pet’s behavior reflected on the morals of the owner, so the independent nature of cats, plus their propensity to roam and find boyfriends, made them far too base and lascivious for Victorian tastes.
Louis Wain's "The Bachelor Party" - Cats behaving badly

Indeed, dogs were thought to show masculine qualities (and were therefore superior) such as heroism and loyalty, whereas cats exhibited inferior female tendencies such as perfidy and sexual inconsistency. In fact, in the early 20th century militant suffragettes sought to dissociate the link between women and cats in order to get men to take them more seriously.
Anyhow, I digress. Most pet cats were expected to catch mice, and to encourage this cats were often kept hungry.
“…the cruel mistake of supposing that a cat will be a keener and better mouser if not sufficiently fed.”

However, there were some people who kept cats and were proud of it. But if they decided to sell the cat, for whatever reason, they tended to stress their practical qualities.
“Angora cats. Several very handsome ones, splendid mousers.”

So whilst the Angora was a rare and expensive breed, it was still thought best to point out their hunting prowess. Indeed, the breeding of pedigree cats was considered second rate compared to that of dogs, and ranked alongside breeding rabbits, guinea pigs and other pets of the working man.

It took the founding of the National Cat Club in 1887 for the social status of cats to see an upward swing. However, in part this was done by arranging working men’s cats to be exhibited in a separate class, as if to emphasize the difference between cats belonging to the less affluent and those of the middle or upper classes! Evidently this was a sort of social segregation for cats, or a feline apartite, the like of which would hopefully never see the light of day in the modern age. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Importance of Pets to the Victorians

Do you have an iPhone 6?
If so, why did you choose it: Did you buy into the latest trend or was it because of the functionality (or a bit of both)? In the 19th century consumerism was in full swing, and pets were every bit as important to advertise your disposable income as an iPhone 6 is in the 21st century.
Control and discipline of pets
was a must
Indeed, the 18th and 19th centuries there was a huge upsurge in pet keeping and activities such as visiting the zoo. By 1851 over half the population of England lived in cities, and yet this was a time when people were still strongly connected to animals. You only have to think of the horse troughs in High Streets to realize how different life was back then.
But the role of animals was changing from being beasts of burden or livestock, to something altogether more social. The new phenomenum of keeping animals as pets was catching on. Indeed, visiting zoos became hugely popular, where the exhibits were regarded as public pets and objects of scientific interest.
The idea of the hidden beast within man led to some confusing ideas

However, keeping pets was more complicated than having a cozy companion to snuggle on your lap. The Victorians, being Victorians, believed that an animal’s behavior was a reflection of their owner. Therefore the lapdog, caged parrot, or house cat became a symbol for the morals of their owner. Indeed, the human – animal bond became an expression of many of the inequalities of Victorian society such as social hierarchy and class, and your gender or ethnic origins.
Good behavior reflected well on the owner
This belief system intensified with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859). This stimulated debate (amongst other things) about how man’s genetic kinship to animals and amplified anxieties about the hidden beast lurking within man.
It became doubly important to have control over your pets, because well-behaved animals were an indicator of a harmonious household run by a civilized master. Hence there was a strong emphasis on discipline when it came to dog training – and the beginnings of the misplaced “wolf-model” of dog behavior are evident, with it being crucial to dominate your dog in order to prove man’s superior status.

At the same time, another side of pet-keeping was growing – that of “Animal Fancies” or breeding animals to enhance beauty. In the latter part of the Victorian era this saw the rise of dog and cat shows, as well as exhibitions to display the latest in pet-keeping accoutrements such as cages, collars, and luxury beds.

The singular relationship of Victorians to animals was recognized by foreign nations, who frequently gifted exotic animals to the crown or her government in order to curry favor. But this gives just a hint of the complex flavor of the Victorian’s attitude to pets… to be explored in future posts. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

What is a Pet? A Historical Perspective

Pets are important to me and I can’t imagine life without them. Fortunately, in the modern day pet keeping is accepted and thought of as normal – but this wasn’t always the case.
In medieval times it was the strongly held Christian belief that God created animals for the use of man. Animals had the status of slaves, there to serve, with man as their superior. It was held that a deep affection for a pet was a sin.


Times were tough so you can understand this functional outlook on life. After all if you were a regular man or woman struggling to feed your family, then it could easily be argued it was a sin to put food into the mouth of an animal that didn’t have a use or purpose.
Although people did keep pets in the dark and middle ages, this was largely the preserve of the wealthy. Any self-respecting Lord and his lady kept pets because they had the money to do so and wanted to advertise the fact as a sign of their status and power. Indeed, these pets were often overweight as they were overfed to make it obvious that their owner wanted for nothing.

In medieval times people expected animals to live outdoors and to be functional, so the idea of indoor animals that existed purely for companionship or amusement seemed alien and extravagant.
It took a shift in attitude in the 18th century, for pet-keeping to become more widely accepted. This change took place because of a philosophical argument that taking good care of animals articulated what it was to be a human or “humane”. Keeping a pet was looked on as a sign of moral-care rather than profligacy.
In the 18th century saw the birth of consumerism. More people were living in towns and cities, and so more people were spending more time indoors. The idea of “indoor animals” or pets was truly born. As the British Empire expanded and travelers returned with exotic animals, this coincided perfectly regular people having a modicum of disposable cash and their interest in keeping pets.

But what of the word “pet” itself?
The first reference to a “pet” comes from 1539 and refers to a lamb hand-reared in the house. These two characteristics, being tame and living in the house, formed the basis for the definition of pet but fails to hint at the favoritism with which pets are held.
A modern definition is: “A domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.”
And finally, historian Prof Keith Thomas proposed three defining features of a medieval pet:
·         It’s kept in the house
·         It’s given a name
·         It’s never eaten…

Can’t say fairer than that! 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Van Amburgh: Animal Trainer or Bully?

Many things interest me- from animal behavior to history. So it was with interest that I came across a reference in a Victorian book to training cats.  The author (Henry Ross) was talking in general terms about the independent nature of cats.

“It must not be inferred, however, that they [cats] are untamable, for every creature is capable…of being trained by man, provided it [the animal] receives due attention.”
This sounds promising – and I went on to read:

“We have sufficient evidence in the feats performed by the lions and tigers of Mr. Carter and Van Amburgh that felines are by no means destitute of intelligent docility.”

Keen to know more, I researched Isaac Van Amburgh, but was horrified by what I read. 

Van Amburgh’s Legend
Born in 1811, Van Amburgh started out from humble origins working as a cage cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York. He became fascinated by the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den and the idea of dominating big cats. Indeed, as he went about his work cleaning out the lions and tigers, his employer noticed the commanding control he had over them.

An animal dealer, Titus, with links to the Zoological Institute saw the potential for a novel act, where a man “tamed” wild animals. In his own words:
“Novelty plus publicity meant money.”
Van Amburgh in his early costume of a Roman toga

Titus’ instincts were correct, and the act that made Van Amburgh a rich man, went from strength to strength. He entered a cage containing a lion, lioness, panther, leopard, leopardess, and a black-maned lion. The animals shrank away from him, such was his commanding presence. Then he reclined and commanded each animal to approach him, one by one, and lick his feet in deference.

“The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder .... 

Indeed, Van Amburgh was a sensation not just in America, but in England where he performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He refined his act, adding in such spectacular feats as putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Victoria, filled with admiration, even commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer to paint Van Amburgh’s portrait. 

Van Amburgh’s Methods
Van Amburgh was a mega-star in his time and his act made him a wealthy man. However his methods were not without controversy, even during his life time, and looking back it has to be said that his training methods were shameful. However, his immoral methods paid off, he earnt a fortune and died a wealthy man safe in his bed.

He regularly beat the animals with an iron bar, and his “training” method was to intimidate the big cats using pain, fear, and hunger. Van Amburgh’s publicity agent  even admitted the lions were starved for days prior to a royal performance, as if this was something to be proud of.
Landseer's portrait of Van Amburgh

In fairness, right-minded Victorians were horrified, but Van Amburgh’s defended his methods by quoting the bible, and Genesis 1:26 saying that God had given man dominion over the animals.

Van Amburgh appears to have been an early proponent of an extreme form of dominance method of training,  so popular in dog obedience circles until it’s debunking in recent years. The physical and mental abuse of animals for human entertainment completely immoral, and beating animals into submission is wholly unacceptable.

Let us hope against hopes that if in the modern age a similar misuse of animals took place for our entertainment, we would not be taken in and object in the strongest terms.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

Some Old Sayings about Cats

Some expressions concerning cats are well known, such as “Not enough room to swing a cat”, or “Let the cat out of the bag”, but what of some of the more unusual sayings. 

There were actually a surprising number, although few if any are still in wide parlance, which is a shame judging from the few that I’ve listed below.

“Fain would the Cat fish eat, but she is loth to wet her feet”
In more modern language:
“The cat would eat fish, but will not wet her feet”.
The saying is about wanting the result but not being prepared to put the effort in – a fancy way of saying “No pain, no gain.”
The first written record of this saying goes back to 1380 and Chaucer’s “House of Fame.” The expression seems to have been in wide usage and is mentioned by numerous other authors in the middle ages, and then by Shakespeare

“How can the cat help it if the maid be a fool?”
This is asking a basic question of morality: How can it be stealing if temptation is left in one’s path. So that fish that’s left on the table is asking to be eaten by the cat (without getting her paws wet!) This is an old American saying dating from around 1810, and implies a certain abrogation of personal responsibility.

“A cat always falls on its feet.”
Dating from the early 18th century, this is a marker of good luck.
 “[He] had a cat’s luck, always landing on his feet.” Church History. 1713
Or there’s this optimistic way of saying that truth will out in the end.
Truth is like a cat and always comes down on its feet; jerk it as high as you please.” Cooper’s Letters. 1831.

Of course the last part of this statement is not technically correct, as there is an optimum height for cats to fall from, in order to rotate fully and land with all four paws on the ground.  Also “High rise syndrome” refers to cats that fall from above two floors high, and hit the ground so hard they break their jaws and pelvis – so not even landing on all fours is enough to protect you from injury in some circumstances.

“The cat in gloves catches no mice.”
Another American saying dating from around 1754. I rather like the allusion, a cross between having the right tools for the job and not handicapping yourself. In fact, it would make rather a good personal motto.




Monday, 14 December 2015

Gib, Gyb, or Gibbe: An Old Word for Cat

Gib or Gibbe is an old term for a cat, which was familiar to many medieval people and those in the following centuries, including Shakespeare.

“I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.” Shakespeare: 1 Henry IV., i. 2.

The name Gib is a contraction of the name “Gilbert” and used in a similar way that Tom cat is today. This name isn’t just restricted to the UK, but used in a slightly different form in France. The French equivalent was Tilbert or Tybalt, with the name ‘Tibbs’ being the equivalent of Gib. Indeed, Chaucer mentions both words for a cat in his Romance of the Rose.

A Digression
Interestingly, Tibby and Tibbles are sometimes still used as cat names, and this isn’t a million miles from Tiddles (could it be as a result of mishearing Tibbles?). However, a quick internet search reveals that Tiddles seems to be a derivative of an old English word ‘Tid’. This word has two meaning, of which one is a small piece, and from this we also get the word tid-bit, meaning a morsel. The other meaning is to fondle or indulge, which I guess in the context of cats makes a lot more sense.


Tiddles and Lord Nelson
There is also an urban myth attached to Lord Horatio Nelson and a cat called Tiddles. There is a lovely story that Lord Nelson went into the Battle of Trafalgar accompanied by a brave companion called Tiddles. This tale gained wide and popular credence, only to be debunked in 2005 when the widow of the perpetrator came forward with the truth about her late husband's deception.

Her husband, Guy Evans, a National Trust employee, started the myth around 1990 when he falsified footnotes to a historic document and then wrote about his discovery in the Nelson Society Journal. She came forward in 2005 to expose the fraud, after the story was mentioned by Stephen Fry on the BBC’s QI program.  

Back to Gib or Gibbe Cats
Tom cats are still widely talked about, but the term Gib has largely fallen into disuse, however this wasn’t always the case. Dr. Johnson (a great cat lover himself) remarks that “Gibbe means an old cat – I know not why.” This is interesting as a Tom cat is generally an entire (not castrated) male, whereas Gib implies old age – so perhaps we just don’t feel the need for a word describing older animals.

However, another doctor, this time Dr. Percy reports that in Northamptonshire the term means a he-cat (or male cat) which is also referred to as a ram-cat (implying they are not desexed) or in Shropshire a tup-cat (similar meaning.) However, numerous dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster give the definition of Gib as meaning neutered or castrated, which is all very confusing.

Phillip Sparrow
Another mention of Gib the cat comes in the 15th century poem, The Book of Phillip Sparrow by John Skelton.
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne.

Gib, I saye, our cat,
Worrowyd her on that
Which I loved best:

This poem tells the story of the loss of a pet sparrow, murdered by a cat.. called Gib.

So is the name Gib or Gilbert creeping up the list of names to call your next cat…or perhaps Tiddles?