“Wild” animals, and “pets”
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.”
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.