On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Through the looking glass

Orang Utan, Schloß Schönbrunn Zoo, Vienna, Austria

Image via Wikipedia

I just finished reading the young adult photo-essay One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals by Deborah Noyes.  The book covers, however briefly, our historical interactions with the animal world, but takes time in the latter half to reflect upon the concept of self in juxtaposition with animals, with a significant chapter dedicated to zoos.

Zoos have been a central animal component in society since the founding of the Vienna Zoo, also known as Tiergarten Schönbrunn, in 1752 with animals from the imperial menagerie. The 1789 French Revolution would herald in the second oldest public zoo, as the people – in a symbolic and actual gesture – made the animals from the royal collection available to society. Prior to this, maintaining menageries was a pastime only the wealthy or royal could afford with little or no access for the public.

Noyes synthesizes her feelings on visits to and experiences within a zoo so eloquently. I wonder if our ancestors who spent time with royal menageries or early incarnations of zoos felt the same. Do you feel the same as Noyes?

“…zoos are a paradox. Even as children, many of us feel there – together with our interest and curiosity – a muffled unease. People do have meaningful encounters in zoos, or they wouldn’t flock to them in record numbers. I’ve had my share, usually late in the day when the crowds have thinned or gone…and I’m willing to sit alone – blank and patient and outside myself – and sit some more. But more often my experience has been representative.

If the animals are visible at all – not off exhibit or obscured the by the very greenery installed to protect their privacy (and who would begrudge them?) – we watch through wire or glass aching for a connection that rarely comes. Some children (adults, too) rap on the window or otherwise urge the animals on with funny faces and undignified attempts at cross-species communication. Do something, we think, and they do precisely what they will or won’t. Natural antics – monkeys grooming or swinging in play – delight us, but familiar zoo behaviors like pacing, swaying, regurgitating food, or flinging feces evoke a vague embarrassment, as of some unwelcome intimacy. We may half-halfheartedly read the sign stationed to inform us of the captive’s natural habitat and behaviors, but by now its unnatural fate may well have disheartened us. We seek solace in interaction, buttons to push and levers to pull, or we fix on some other distraction: tired toddlers wailing for ice cream, the heat, a blaring boombox.

…Perhaps we’re uneasy because the animals withhold from us the one thing we would have: their consent. It would ease my spirit (prepare for some shameless anthropomorphism here), to be sure, if the wolf suddenly ceased its pacing, looked up, met my eye, and said, “Welcome, friend, and thanks for being here today. You see me, and it has changed you. I now see the worth of my sacrifice.” But he will not pause. He does not look. I am unforgiven.”

What do you make of Noyes’ sentiments? Are they representative of your own views and zoo visits?


Nat’l Animal Cruelty/Human Violence Awareness Week

Sarah Trimmer, by Henry Howard (died 1847). Sa...

Image of Sarah Trimmer via Wikipedia

Continuing National Animal Cruelty/Human Violence Awareness Week, we’re remembering those who connected the dots centuries ago, before there were formal studies and programs to address the cycle of abuse. These individuals were on to something. Consider that:

  • 100% of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of cruelty towards animals.
  • 70% of all animal abusers have committed at least one other criminal offense and almost 40% have committed violent crimes against people.
  • 63.3% of men who had committed crimes of aggression admitted to cruelty to animals.
  • 48% of rapists and 30% of child molesters reported committing animal abuse during childhood or adolescence.
  • 36% of assaultive women reported cruelty to animals while 0% of non-assaultive women did.
  • 25% of violent, incarcerated men reported higher rates of “substantial cruelty to animals” in childhood than a comparison group of non-incarcerated men (0%).
  • Men who abused animals were five times more likely to have been arrested for violence towards humans, four times more likely to have committed property crimes, and three times more likely to have records for drug and disorderly conduct offenses.*

Children’s author Sarah Trimmer (1741 – 1810) advocated nurturing in children kindheartedness to animals which she believed and hoped would develop into “universal benevolence” in their adulthood. Her most popular book, Fabulous Histories  (later known as The Story of the Robins), addressed this same topic. Published in 1786, it tells the story of two families, that of a robin family and a human family, who learn to harmoniously coexist. At the heart of its lesson, the human children (Harriet and Frederick) and baby robins (Robin, Dicky, Flapsy and Pecksy) learn the importance of embracing virtue and avoiding vices, echoing Trimmer’s Christian beliefs.

Sarah Trimmer was one of the most successful children’s writers of the day. The Story of the Robins was reprinted for 133+ years, well after the First World War, and greatly affected and influenced generations of readers and authors. She was one of the first in a line of humane texts for children. Lydia R. Bailey’s Julia and the Pet Lamb: Or Good Temper and Compassion Rewarded (1866) is a classic example of how humane literature continued on well into the next century. Humane literature of course exists today, but much of it is less religious in nature.

*Statistics provided by Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center.

Connecting the Dots

Four stages of cruelty - First stage of cruelt...

Image via Wikipedia

This week is National Animal Cruelty/Human Violence Awareness Week.

There is a sizeable body of research now showing that people who commit acts of cruelty towards animals rarely stop there and, in fact, have higher chances of inflicting violence on children, the elderly, spouses, and the community at large. The cycle of violence is a self-perpetuating one whereby partakers and bystanders become desensitized to the abuse and possibly even comfortable with its continuation.

Social workers and animal shelter employees haven’t been the only ones to recognize that there is a connection between animal cruelty and human violence. Individuals have been connecting the dots for centuries.

One of the most staggering works depicting this cycle of violence belongs to English artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764). In a four-paneled series entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty, Hogarth engraved the life of fictional protagonist Tom Nero and his escalation of violence, from torturing a dog (Panel 1) to severely beating a horse (Panel 2) and  engaging in robbery and murder (Panel 3). The final panel shows Nero’s body undergoing public dissection after having hung at the gallows.  Hogarth packed a big punch in each print. Take a close look at all that transpires around Tom Nero.

For example, in this First Stage, boys use a hot needle to burn the eyes out of a bird, throw a chicken, and tie a bone to a dog’s tail. Cats are hung by their tails and taunted, a dog is set upon a cat, and another cat is thrown from a building’s upper story.

As an engraving, The Four Stages of Cruelty reached a broad audience through massive printing on low-cost paper. Disseminated throughout the streets of London, the series made it into the hands of the lower class, Hogarth’s intended audience. A century later, many of the cruelties addressed by Hogarth would be outlawed through legislation.

See the series in its entirety on-line through Tate Britain’s exhibition archive.

Frogs Make Great Suitors


Image via Wikipedia

For reasons we can only suppose, frogs are quite the popular substitute for human suitors in the folktale genre. Across the globe we find these amphibians wooing and smooching their human counterparts. More often than not, these tales involve the transformation of the frog into a human, reflecting a frog or toad’s own transformation from an egg to a tadpole and finally to his or her four-legged embodiment. Another moral facet is that of masked beauty and the leap of faith needed in order to realize or actualize the beauty.

Here’s one shining example of a frog-inspired fairy tale from China.

The Frog Who Became an Emperor

A poor woman gave birth to a frog-son while her husband was away. Frog-son knew the day his father would return, much to his parents’ surprise. When asked to be taken to the imperial castle to help fight the nation’s invaders, his father hesitated, stating the boy had no horses or weapons. Frog-son claimed he did not need these and later persuaded the emperor to let him fight alone. For three days and nights, frog-son swallowed a large pile of embers. He requested that the city’s gates be opened, much to the emperor’s chagrin. The request, however, was granted. As the enemies stormed in, frog-son dropped fire on them, winning the war.

Although the emperor had originally promised to award the hand of his daughter to the man who defeated the invaders, he vowed not to allow frog the pleasure. A casting call of sorts was held and men from far and wide came to try their luck at catching an Embroidered Ball. The first to catch it was frog, but that was an unacceptable option in the emperor’s opinion. With the second casting of a ball, a young, stalwart fellow caught it and wed the princess. This fellow turned out to be frog, of course, who during the day was clad in his frog cloak and at night shed his skin. The princess told her father of this secret. He then asked his son-in-law why he chose to remain a frog.

“Ah, Sire,” replied the frog, “this outer garment is priceless. When I wear it in winter, I am warm and cozy; and in summer, cool and fresh. It is proof against wind and rain. Not even the fiercest flame can set it alight. And as long as I wear it, I can live for thousands of years.”

The emperor asked to borrow the garment and once worn he could not get it off. Frog son put on the emperor’s robes and from then on was emperor.


Read more frog fairy tales here.

April is National Frog Month

A Australian Green Tree Frog

Image via Wikipedia

Frogs are pretty remarkable. For starters, their ancestors are as old as dinosaurs, living nearly 370 million years ago and looking very much like four-legged fish. The reason for their survival  has to do with their extraordinary adaptability. With a webbed foot in the water and another on land, frogs straddle two worlds and get the best of both: food and refuge from predators. They can live in desert, arctic and tropical landscapes and on every continent minus Antarctica. And some, like the Australian water-holding frog, can go without water for up to 7 years, burrowing underground and encasing himself within a skin shed!

April is National Frog Month and a perfect time to catch the springtime mating sounds frogs emanate and check out the state of the neighborhood’s leaping residents. Frogs can serve as an important environmental indicator. In some habitats, nearly 60% of them are deformed from pesticide use, harmful UV-B rays from a weakened ozone layer or cyst-causing flatworm parasites.

We’ll be presenting frog-related entries all week in recognition of the month-long celebration. Here are a few ideas to get the party started:

  • Play Leap Frog! Always a classic, this game involves taking turns to jump over one another, while the other person is squatted in front.
  • Build a pond at home or school for your frog friends.  Find a large plant saucer or other suitable container to nestle in the ground. Fill it with water, add rocks (enough so that frogs can rest on them) and perhaps some water plants.
  • Become a naturalist for a day. Investigate ponds, lakes and streams for bellowing frogs, jelly-like clumps of their eggs in the water, and swimming tadpoles. Re-visit these spots to see how the young frogs are progressing. This is a great way to learn about a frog’s life cycle.
  • Hold a jumping contest. The farthest jumping frog was Santje of South Africa who leapt an astounding 33 feet and 5 ½ inches!
  • Opt for computer, video or plastic models when faced with school-led frog dissections. It’s not only more humane, but environmentally-friendly and just as effective in conveying the same knowledge.

Keep posted tomorrow for frog folklore!