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“Wild” animals, and “pets”

October 22, 2009

Gayle J. Fritz notes in Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands:

Before reviewing the evidence, we should note several prejudices that may interfere with archaeologists’ evaluation of indigenous eastern North American crops. One might be labeled “Real Men Don’t Eat Pigweed.” All of us have culturally ingrained ideas about what foods are fit to eat, and even our broad, eclectic American diets exclude the pigweeds (chenopods [such as quinoa] and amaranths), sumpweeds, and knotweeds. Despite anthropological training archaeologists seem to have difficulty respecting the virtues of plants whose closest living relatives they know only as sidewalk weeds.

I would add that we have culturally ingrained ideas about how crops should be planted and cultivated, as well. To a lot of Westerners, if it’s not marching in straight lines in a dedicated field–preferably one worked with steel implements–it must be “wild”. As Rita Laws points out, “Many of the ‘wild’ foods Anglo explorers encountered on their journeys were actually carefully cultivated by Indians.”

Similar biases apply to keeping animals around, both for food and as companions, as I touched on in a couple of earlier posts. Food was more relevant to those lines of thought.

I couldn’t help but think of this in the context of our upcoming move. In California, not only is it illegal to keep certain non-native animals, native wild animals are lumped in with exotic animals. The way Orange County phrases it is interesting: ““No person shall have, keep, or maintain any wild, exotic, dangerous or non-domestic animal without first applying to and receiving a license…. The keeping and maintenance of such animals shall also conform to the zoning regulations of Orange County” (OCCO 4-1-94)” Non-domestic animals are specifically mentioned.

“Real Men Don’t Live With Raccoons” either, I suppose.

Rabies is the usual explanation for this legal approach in the US, not to mention the “wild” vs. “domesticated” dichotomy. If skunks and all the rest were considered proper companion animals in the first place, vaccines would have been developed the same as for cats and dogs. It still amazes me how cats and dogs are considered the only two acceptable choices, of all the animals in the world (or even the Americas). Rabbits, ferrets, etc. are kept as pets a lot, but are considered to be in a different, borderline category. Housecats are introduced animals which surely cause as much ecological damage in California as ferrets do–as is recognized in Australia–but nobody thought they could ban cats. Ferrets are not “domesticated” in the same way. It’s illegal to keep a native bobcat, much less a mountain lion.

You can’t keep foxes around now, though they’re having to admit now that the (small, docile) Channel Island foxes probably got onto the islands as Chumash pets. Even better, as one author put it, “They were also kept as pets or were semi-domesticated”. Researchers are still shying away from suggesting that they might be a separate species which is housecat-sized and particularly tame-acting, because they are to “regular” grey foxes as dogs are to wolves. Again the distinction, very much like with Carolina and similar “pariah” dogs*, which were “kept by Native Americans to aid in hunting and guarding their homes.” Not as real companion animals, then, and definitely in the past tense. My grandmother would have been surprised to find this out.

See also Domestic vs. Wild Rabbits: The Difference Between Cottontails and Pet Bunnies: “Cottontails are wild animals, and do not belong as pets…It is illegal to keep cottontails as pets, and, unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, you should not try to raise orphaned cottontail babies.” I have raised an orphan, and it was not afraid of humans. It was also not suited to living in the wild, but was still illegal for me to keep safe in Virginia. I think you get the drift by now.

I do not think it’s a coincidence that all native North American animals are still considered too “wild” to invite into your home. It fits too neatly within the enduring false dichotomy:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the “Wild West” began.

Chief Luther Standing Bear – Oglala Sioux

In North America, we used to keep a wide variety of animals as “pets”:

It could be a baby animal that had been rescued or taken or an animal, which has been enticed with food offerings into hanging around with the Indian person or family. Either way, wild animals proved to be just as irresistible as companions and housemates to the Eastern Woodland Indians. . .

Size did not seem to be a problem when it came to what was considered desirable in a wildlife pet. The wild pet could be a large or tiny mammal or even a bird. Some of the wild animals that the Canadian Indian would bring to their home to live with or nearby them, were bears, owls, crows, robins, foxes, chipmunks and raccoons.

Some people still do, even though dogs are the only traditional pet one can legally keep without jumping through licensing hoops (not even then, a lot of places). It’s hard not to take abandoned or injured animals home and care for them, even if you are risking a huge fine and seizure/killing of the then-“tame” animals by doing so. I have rehabbed injured feral pigeons (winged “sidewalk weeds”) and wood pigeons here, though it is not illegal to do so in the UK. Both tend to be docile in a “semi-domesticated” way, too.

A lot of animals want to hang around human dwellings, for food and affection. Several generations of skunks who nested in a cave opening on the bank behind our house followed my stepdad around; they started doing so to scavenge spilled rabbit pellets, and must have decided they liked the company. Even when he wasn’t feeding the rabbits, they would rub up against his legs in the back yard, like cats. As I mentioned earlier, my grandmother got more than one “wild” dog that way; some of them want to live in the house, some act only “semi-domesticated” and prefer to hang around outside, with a bed and feeding dishes on the porch. Both categories choose to come out of the woods and live with humans.

Remember Ellie Mae Clampett and her amazing assortment of pets? I just thought that was really cool when I was a kid watching syndicated reruns of that tripe; it didn’t occur to me that this was being presented as strange and savage. (It also didn’t occur to me that the parade of sterotypes might be intended to have anything to do with me.) That is one stereotype that is grounded in truth, and is apparently supposed to attract ridicule. I still don’t see what’s so condescendingly funny.

But, looking for some confirmation of the variety of animals we kept further south, I ran across a statement that gave me pause: “It was against cultural norms, religious beliefs (per se) to ‘keep a pet.’ Natives did have companion animals, but they were not pets in any traditional sense.”

I was initially inclined to dismiss that answer as fluffy and New Agey (tons of crap to sort though!), but then it struck me that this articulates precisely the distinction in my own mind. I was not impressed by PETA’s attempts to push the term “companion animal”, but this version highlights a major philosophical difference–or set thereof. Adding to Jack Forbes’ expression of “religious” ideas, if we own a dog in the same manner as a chair or a slave, that’s our religion.

Writing this, I have struggled with English terminology. “Keeping” animals does not sound right, much more than being a “pet owner” does.

The big distinction? Whether you honestly feel like you own an animal, and how much respect you accord it on its own terms.

I was appalled when I moved to the UK, and had to buy kittens. More recently, we paid £100 for a 10-year-old Staffie whose “owners” were apparently more interested in a younger one–so, yeah, basically a rescue. I still feel slightly sleazy, like I chose to purchase a little dog slave. A couple of years ago, I conformed to local custom and accepted payment for kittens, too–on the grounds that a lot of people really are working on the premise that they’re worth more if you make even a token payment for them! I’m still uncomfortable about that choice. Selling your friend’s babies is just not right. More recently, some stranger admiring Max on the street suggested that I should offer him for stud, and I could make a nice profit too. I was gobsmacked by the idea of pimping out the dog as a cottage industry, even though he’d probably enjoy it. That’s not the point.

My Papaw raised and trained bird dogs, a particular line of deep-chested Llewellin setters. He occasionally planned for a litter, and vetted prospective adopters more carefully than most agencies do with human children. No money changed hands. He’d have been horribly offended if anyone suggested that he should breed up a bunch of dogs and make a profit or even cover expenses by selling them. That’s more the kind of attitude I grew up with.

Compare to the attitudes expressed in this book review/news piece I ran across earlier:

“The title of the book is a little bit of a shock tactic, I think, but though we are not advocating eating anyone’s pet cat or dog there is certainly some truth in the fact that if we have edible pets like chickens for their eggs and meat, and rabbits and pigs, we will be compensating for the impact of other things on our environment.”

That illustrates the “pet” vs. “companion” distinction quite well. Besides making me queasy. Note that none of the animals mentioned are native to New Zealand.

* Ah, Beringia! You’ll find gratuitous references in articles on contemporary Native artists, even. Repeating the hypothesis ad nauseam won’t produce any more evidence that it really happened. To quote an endnote to a recent post:
“This idea is what got the whole Beringia ball rolling. Really. The Lost Tribes reverted to a state so “primitive” that they forgot how to build boats. It’s still politically convenient, even if the Lost Tribes have mostly turned into Central Asians.”

Yeah, it’s hard to let that one slide by now, even when they’re trotting it out in reference to dogs. Especially given the apparent prevalence of red wolf ancestry** among dogs in the Southeastern US. Red wolves, coyotes, and dogs have interbred a lot, anyway.

** Responding to some of the information in that link, dogs were also buried in mounds with the humans elsewhere in the Southeast, dating back 10,000 years. So, yeah, we had dogs before Britain thawed out enough to let humans live here, not to mention by the time the Spanish showed up.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2009 3:47 pm

    This post reminds me that my grandfather used to “keep” crows.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 26, 2009 1:17 pm

      I haven’t spent much time around crows, but wouldn’t mind getting to know one. 🙂 They’re supposed to be very friendly and intelligent. Another animal that frequently starts hanging around on its own.

  2. arkadyrose permalink
    October 22, 2009 5:34 pm

    The rules and regulations on animal companions (I preferred this term long before I’d ever heard of the nutters at PETA) in the US have always boggled me. I mean, sure, legislate for the more dangerous animals such as the big cats, bears and so forth; and personally I feel dog owners should be licensed just so there can be some way of screening out the idiots who have no business anywhere near a dog (in the UK as well as the US) – but otherwise, it just seems so ridiculous.

    Have you ever come across Daily Coyote? Shreve Stockton lives in Wyoming with her cat, her dog, her cow – and Charlie the coyote. I’ve no doubt it’s technically illegal, but the attitudes of her neighbours seems to be “Live and let live”, and just shows how ass-like the law can be. The legislation is pointless, rarely enforced, and frequently flouted.

    Technically you’re not supposed to keep “wild” animals as pets here in the UK either, but it’s funny just how many supposedly “wild” animals are now accepted as pets here in the UK – such as black rats(Rattus rattus) and hedgehogs; and from time to time you hear of people taking in orphaned fox cubs, crows and ravens. I’ve never heard of anyone being prosecuted for it either.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 26, 2009 1:30 pm

      Even with preventing the spread of rabies as an excuse, it makes no sense. I can see licensing for large, potentially dangerous animals, if nothing else for easy tracking down in case somebody does get hurt. Dog licensing might fit into that category too. They’re mostly screening out people who can’t afford the licensing fees, as things work now, but I don’t know that I’d want to give the authorities power to decide who is fit to take care of a dog–doubt they’d show better judgment in that sort of thing. (Similar to the “screen out people who really shouldn’t be responsible for human children” proposals; I don’t know that the ones given the power to do that would be any more fit themselves!)

      Thanks for the pointer. The blog looks interesting. Some common attitudes toward coyotes have always struck me as particularly odd. Good point about the legislation; unless someone decides to be an interfering ass or the animal actually hurts someone, it’s rarely enforced. Especially in rural areas. Various people still shouldn’t have that to hang over people in disagreements.

      Thanks for the clarification on legal status in the UK. I was going largely by the lack of “besides, it’s illegal” comments thrown in what discussion I’ve seen of foxes and the like as pets.

      • arkadyrose permalink
        October 26, 2009 1:42 pm

        No problem; I’ve looked after more than my fair share of orphaned hedgehogs, fledglings and the odd fox cub or two over the years to be fairly familiar with UK wildlife and what you can and can’t get away with. 🙂

  3. Ingvar permalink
    October 23, 2009 9:19 am

    Where I’m from, the general superstition about paying for cats is that it is bad luck, for the humans and the cat, to not have payment associated with the handing over. It should also be a “round” number, a whole number of kronas (either 1 or a multiple of 5) for each leg and the tail.

    But it’s not “selling”, it’s a token payment to ward off bad luck. Usually to the tune of 5, 25, 50 or 100 SEK.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 26, 2009 1:32 pm

      Yeah, from what you’ve said before about it, that didn’t sound like it had the same dodgy motivations behind it.

  4. October 24, 2009 5:24 am

    I’ve been thinking about stuff along these lines a lot lately, having recently adopted two “feral-born” (for lack of a better word) kittens. The word “pets” just seems wrong somehow. I sometimes use “companion animals”, but as far as how I think of the cats? They’re housemates, or family members, or something in that general neighborhood. Moreover, when I first brought them in they were as “wild” as any raccoon or squirrel you might find, and I didn’t blame them one bit for being wary of humans. They’ve gotten to trust me and my SO to some extent (tonight there was even purring and snuggling!) but throughout the 3 weeks I’ve had them in the house one thing I have tried to do is make as much of everything on their terms as possible. Like, provide them with opportunities and try and communicate to them that I am not a threat, but with no intent of making them “submit” to me. And also I have been reading about people who live with “wild” cats and other animals, and frankly I think a lot of the legislation against that does more harm than good. It discourages rescue of animals who need medical help, and also when “unlicensed” animals are taken away from the humans they’ve shared a home with up until that point they don’t generally go to GOOD places. I totally know what you mean about the “false dichotomy” when it comes to North American animals, and it makes no sense to me.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 26, 2009 1:56 pm

      I’ve been interested to read about your experiences dealing with the feral cats. I’m sure the little kittens will continue to get more used to living with humans. Interacting with them mainly on their terms does sound like the best approach. One of our cats actually born here acted very much like a feral one when she was a kitten, unsure that she wanted much to do with humans at all. (Feline neurodiversity is the best explanation we could come up with.) I worked with her, using some rewards, until she decided that she did want to seek out attention and affection from the household humans. She’s still fairly strange and easily startled, but affectionate in her own way, a lot like some previously-feral cats I’ve known who were adopted a bit older than your kittens.

      15+ years ago, I tried to rescue a probably 6-month-old feral cat who was hanging around our yard and was friendly with our kitten about the same age, and that didn’t turn out as well. After trapping him and taking him in for vaccinations and the like, I set him loose in the house. 😐 He hid up in the bathroom windowsill for three days, and finally made a run for the door. We never saw him again. I would handle it differently now, more on his terms and with a better understanding of what’s likely to frighten him.

      It discourages rescue of animals who need medical help, and also when “unlicensed” animals are taken away from the humans they’ve shared a home with up until that point they don’t generally go to GOOD places.

      Exactly. If they’re deemed wild yet have no idea how to fend for themselves, they are frequently put down. At least in VA, the wildlife rehab places are technically supposed to put down animals who can’t be returned to “The Wild”–AFAICT, the people working there try really hard to get around that one! It’s just not a good legal setup for anyone involved.


  1. “Wild” animals, and “pets” « Urocyon's Meanderings

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