On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Remembering Our Four-Legged Veterans

Animals in War Memorial, London.

Animals in War Memorial, London.

Animals have always been tied into human affairs, and war is no exception. Humans have used animals in war since the beginning of time. Many epic battles are depicted being fought on horseback, from Ancient Rome to WWI. However, animals have been used in many areas of the military.

Horses are, of course, the classic image of the cavalry, used primarily for transportation and mobility in and to the battle, as well as for hauling loads. Elephants have also served a transportation function since ancient times. Hannibal infamously used elephants in the Second Punic War to great effect, but they were used as late as WWII for hauling loads smaller animals could not handle. Camels, mules, and oxen have served similar functions throughout the world.

Other animals have served as weapons or attackers in battle. Mastiffs were trained by conquistadors to attack in war, and many of today’s conception of “fierce” breeds of dogs come from their former use in war. Additionally, in more modern warfare, animals such as dogs, rats, and pigeons are used as unfortunate living bombs.

Speaking of pigeons, their function in warfare is nearly as ancient as that of horses. Homing pigeons have been a major component of warfare, delivering and concealing messages as late as WWII.

Since the advent of increasing technology and transportation, animals have fallen out of use in many areas of the military, but they still serve a function in military service today. In the Vietnam war, dogs in service rescued thousands by alerting soldiers to booby traps and pulling the wounded to safety. Dogs are currently the largest animal group currently used by the US military.  An estimated 30,000 dogs have been used in military service since WWII. Generally, their primary function is as search-and-rescue dogs rather than as offense. As of 2005, some 2,300 dogs are currently in military use as guard dogs, bomb detection, and in search-and-rescue work.

In addition to dogs, the Marines currently use trained sea lions and dolphins to detect bombs underwater. They are trained in such a way as to put themselves in no danger near bombs, but to inform their handlers.

While war is an ugly business, and is almost certainly nothing to do with animals, who are content to not wage it on a global scale, the influence of animals in warfare both today and historically is exceptional. They may not be driven by a sense of honor, bravery, and patriotism that makes our human heroes so admirable, but they are motivated by loyalty to their trainers and dedication to their training, qualities that make them just as worthy of our respect and recognition.

You can learn more about animals in wartime, as well as the Animals in War Memorial dedicated to them in London, at the website of the Animals in War Memorial Fund.

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The Origins of Animal Worship

Decorated Indian elephant.

Decorated Indian elephant.

Throughout history, people of various cultures have practiced animal worship (or zoolatry). There are many theories as to why certain cultures find certain animals to be sacred.

In Greco-Roman myths, the gods would often disguise themselves as various creatures. Zeus, for example, famously seduced women in the guises of both a swan and a cow. Thus, in these cultures, the respect and elevation of animals came from the belief that animals were of use to a god, or that an animal could in fact be a god in disguise.

In religions with the belief in incarnation, the idea of treating animals fairly comes from the belief that anyone could be an animal in the next life, or had been one in the past.

In classical Egyptian myth, animals were often intermediates to the gods, and many deities had animals sacred to them which they had special communion with. Cats were especially sacred to ancient Egyptian culture, which in turn actually influenced their perception of the goddess Bastet, who transformed from a lioness to a cat goddess during her worship.

The cultural question becomes, why were certain animals viewed as sacred to certain people? While cats were significant to the Egyptians, they had little to do with the ancient Indians, who were more concerned with, say, elephants. Sociologically, it makes sense why different animals were fixated on in different cultures. In Egypt, cats were acknowledged and esteemed for their ability to catch vermin. In India, elephants were mysterious, gigantic beasts that could not be easily tamed or understood.

Due to the usefulness of a creature, or the mystery or danger of it, the perception of certain animals differed from culture to culture. While a cat’s use was not much known to other cultures at the time, it was well known to the Egyptians, who are among the first people to keep cats as pets, and thus, among the first to understand their function as vermin hunters. Outside of India, an elephant was not much known, and so could not be regarded as mysterious or awe-inspiring, a quality that the Indians were well aware of. These are but a few examples.

Animal deities and reverence are found in every area of the world, from Japan, where the owl is an omen, to North America, where ravens were thought to embody departed human souls.

While some religions, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in particular, did not worship animals, animal imagery is still heavy in their holy books, with their God being compared to various creatures such as lions, lambs and doves, and other animals, such as ants and eagles, used to emphasize moral lessons.

Even today, the awe and respect one feels before certain magnificent animals is not diminished. The sense that certain animals embody certain human traits has also not lessened: we still perceive foxes as clever, cats as aloof, dogs as loyal. The truth is, humans sense both the differences and similarities between themselves and animals and seek to close that gap. In ancient cultures, this took the form of holy reverence. Today, it takes the form of friendship.

The Dark History of Black Cats

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

During the Halloween season, we are bombarded with images of black cats on the heels of wart-nosed witches. Not only are black cats an essential part of Halloween decor and costuming, but they are present in almost all popular depictions of Halloween in film and television.

In many parts of the world, the black cat is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, but not so in the Anglo-American world.

As far back as the fourteenth century, the cat became closely associated with the Devil, in part due to its more-than-keen senses, silent walking, glowing eyes, and mysterious nature, all of which were seen as otherworldly. For a time, cats in general suffered at the hands of superstition, and thousands of cats were burned to death in England for allegedly being demons or witches’ familiars. This resulted in an increased rat population, which in turn led to the spread of the bubonic plague. After the plague tore through England, the role of cats as rodent control was acknowledged, and their reputation was mostly restored.

But for black cats, the association has lingered far into modern times. The black cat’s reputation has remained forever tarnished, probably because of its sleek shiny coat and the association of the color black with evil and demonic practices. The early American settlers took to accusing owners of black cats of witchcraft and sorcery, and black cats themselves were viewed as witch’s companions or spells conjured up to do ill deeds. This has led to the more modern superstition that black cats bring about general bad luck.

According to some myths, Halloween is the day of the year when the boundaries thin between our world and the next. Black cats, with their mystical association, become highly visible. Traditionally, the black cat was sought after as a semi-magical entity in order to aid in Halloween rituals — sometimes with cruel and unfortunate results.

While most modern Americans perpetuate the bad luck association for tradition’s sake and nothing more, some take the enigma surrounding the black cat very seriously. Many cat shelters refuse to adopt out black cats during the Halloween season. Cat owners are also often advised to keep their cats indoors for similar reasons.

While these rituals are few and far between, the fact remains that black cats are a misunderstood creature, especially as one of Halloween’s most visible representatives. And even where superstition is not a problem, it is a good idea, in general, to protect one’s cats by keeping them indoors and locked away. Cats are easily stressed by strangers and change, and hundreds of children roaming the night, asking for candy, dressed as ghouls and witches, certainly spells bad luck for them!

Adopt A Shelter Dog

October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month! Approximately 6 million animals enter into a shelter every year, and 60% of dogs in shelters are euthanized due to being unable to find good homes. This month, consider the joy you can bring to man’s best friend by becoming his new best friend. These dogs have not done anything wrong, they are animals who have been abandoned by their former families or never given a chance. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), 25% of these dogs are purebred, and nearly half of them were once companions.

Now is a great time to think about adding to your family. Dogs are a wonderful addition, being loyal, protective, and providing both a natural alarm system (useful for those who live in cities) and unending friendship. There are dogs of all personalities available in the local shelter. A quick search on the ASPCA website tells me of over 2000 available dogs within 25 miles of my hometown.

Poochini Jozette Joey

Consider Poochini, a poodle and bichon frise mix who was brought into the Sparky and the Gang animal shelter with an injured leg. Who could resist that adorable face? He’s a child friendly and cat friendly, a little dog good for families.

Or maybe Jozette from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue suits your home best. Ending up in the shelter as a stray, Jozee learned how to use the doggy door on her first day in foster care. She’s good on a leash, in the car, and even loves to swim! This beautiful dog- and cat-friendly girl is looking for a home where she will get the love and attention she deserves.

Or perhaps open your heart to Joey at Dharma Rescue for Cats and Dogs. He is a good-natured terrier mix who was paralyzed by a terrible car accident, but is now equipped with a doggy wheelchair. A pet with special needs is a big commitment of course, but no less deserving of love. Who couldn’t adore this sweet mutt?

These are just a few examples from local shelters. On the ASPCA website you can find them and thousands of others in your area by searching your zip code.

Adopting a dog is a truly rewarding experience that will benefit both you and your new pooch. This October, consider making the commitment. It will be worth it for both of you!

On Search and Rescue Canines

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Dogs are among some of the most beneficial animals to humans. They have long been appreciated for their loyalty to humans above most other animals, and valued for their heightened senses. Their sense of smell in particular is extraordinary, which makes them an invaluable aid to humans in an investigative capacity. Dogs are internationally used in police and security outfits as drug detectors for this reason, and more impressively, as search and rescue (SAR) dogs.

One of the earliest uses of dogs in the search and rescue position was during World War I. Dogs were used by the Red Cross across Europe to search for the wounded on the battlefield. The French Army also employed the animals as “ambulance dogs” for a similar purpose. Today there are several national services, including the Red Cross, the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) and FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, who raise and train dogs for this purpose. Red Cross, ARDA, and FEMA have been present at many of the major disasters in the last decade, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent Japan earthquake. At the World Trade Center after 9/11, an estimated 300 SAR dogs were present.

There are two types of SAR dogs: airscent dogs, who are trained to sniff the air for and detect a scent and alert their handler to the location of the scent; and tracking dogs, who nose the ground to track a scent given them ahead of time, allowing them to track a person through their steps. The most common dogs trained for airscenting are Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Due to their sturdy build and playful nature, they are generally not stressed by the work of a SAR dog, and their naturally docile temperament makes them easy to work with and extremely loyal to their handlers. It also raises their protective instincts towards humans. Collies and Shepherd breeds are also common due to their strong herding instincts. Most dog breeds can be trained for tracking, however the most common are hounds, who are renowned particularly for their ability to follow a scent.

Handling a SAR dog is a constant task, with training beginning usually in early life, puppyhood preferably. The dogs must be trained in basic obedience in order to maintain their own safety. They are also trained in agility and, of course, scenting. The most essential training for a SAR dog, however, is bonding with their handler. The handler must not only be a trainer to the dog, but also a friend. The reason, after all, that dogs make such effective creatures for this line of work stems from their natural inclination to serve, protect, and obey their human pack.

While the training can be difficult, and dogs are sometimes put in dangerous situations in order to protect human life in the line of SAR work, the dogs lead, on the whole, good and happy lives. They are necessarily well-cared for by their trainers, praised for their work, and kept in constant exercise and diversion in the course of the task. Most importantly, the dogs serve an essential function that humans who have been found by them will forever be grateful for, and humans who train them will always respect.

The Animal World of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a prolific writer throughout the the 1940s and ’50s. Not to be confined to one field, he wrote on and in every genre imaginable. As a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, his area of specialty was medieval studies. But he worked with linguistics, and later, heavily with philosophy and theology after a dramatic conversion from atheism to Christianity. Today he is noted in academic circles as being an insightful literary critic. To most of us, he is probably most famous for penning the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, which was the bestselling children’s series until Harry Potter and effectively paved the way for the fantasy genre as it is today. In the midst of his sea of writings concerning many other areas, particularly in the midst of post-war trauma, Lewis is very rarely considered an animal welfare activist.

However, Lewis was incredibly passionate about the cause of animals, and during his time was very vocal about animal welfare. It is obvious to anyone who picks up a work of Lewis’ fiction that he loved animals. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, deal with a world populated mostly by talking, sentient animals, with the most significant and most central character being a wise lion named Aslan. Animals are also featured heavily in his Space Trilogy, which features lush visions of life on Mars and Venus, where animals live in harmony with the inhabitants. However, Lewis’ real “activism” is most evident in the final books in both these series respectively.

In The Last Battle (1956), the final book in the Narnia series, the sentient animals who had so long lived as equals with their human counterparts are enslaved by the humans and treated like real-world work animals. This appalls all of the protagonists and the reader, and is clearly meant to inspire shock and horror. Throughout the series, Lewis had made readers think of his animal characters as empathetic, well-rounded characters; to see them treated as real-world animals is intentionally jarring and disturbing.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

In the final book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), there are two distinct factions, one obviously good, and one very clearly evil. The good faction has many animals about their headquarters, who behave charmingly despite their ferocious nature — a wild bear is kept as a house pet, among others. The bad faction, by contrast, has no respect for animal life and uses them in hideous and vicious experiments, including vivisection (the practice of dissecting still-living animals) from which one can constantly hear them shrieking in pain. Here, as in other places in Lewis’ writing, vivisection is characterized as one of the cruelest and most senseless acts humans are capable of doing. This disregard for the feeling of animals is one way in which the antagonists  are distinguished as irredeemably evil. Furthermore, one of the most redeeming moments occurs when the animals are allowed to exact revenge against their tormentors, and there is never any question of which side the reader is meant to be on.

Lewis did not only acknowledge the subject of animal welfare in his fiction, however. In his theological text The Problem of Pain (1940), Lewis dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of animals, where he refers to animal suffering as “appalling.” The book is a discussion of what theological purpose pain has, and while Lewis found in his faith suitable justification for the pain one feels as a human, he admits, in this chapter, to wrestling with the idea of animal pain. It was very obvious to Lewis that animals suffered physical and even emotional pain.

It’s important to look at Lewis’ views in perspective. At the time, most Western religions did not place any emphasis on animal welfare or fair treatment. Scientific practices were increasingly utilitarian, with animals subjected to cruel experimentation with little justification other than that humans were “more evolved.”  Lewis was one of the only people during this period to really address the topic of animal suffering in light of both religion and science, and given his wide audience his influence in the many subjects he wrote upon is monumental. Lewis believed that taking a stance for animal welfare was not only kind, but the proper thing to do — as a Christian as well as a thinking, feeling human being.

No Animals Were Harmed?

Movie poster, 1925. Image via Wikipedia.

Movie poster, 1925. Image via Wikipedia.

Think of an epic film. There’s a good chance your mind wandered to something along the lines of Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. There’s also a good chance you immediately pictured one of the vast battle sequences where our heroes clash magnificently against their foes on horseback. Well, what about the horses? They fall under arrow-fire, get hewn down by sword and axe, and trample each other. There is a lot of authenticity to these scenes, as real epic warfare featured many painful and hideous casualties for soldier and warhorse alike; but to what extent do films try to capture this verisimilitude?

Prior to 1940, there was no regulation in the treatment of animals in film. In such classics as Ben Hur (1925), animals were killed through accidents or negligence on-set, or, more horrifically, intentionally for dramatic purposes. This all changed after the 1939 film Jesse James, where a horse was driven off a cliff to its death, sparking public outrage. The American Humane Association (AHA), a group dedicated to the welfare of animals and children, began to police Hollywood with their Film and Television Unit, famous for their “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer.

Still, films as late as the 1990s continued inhumane practices on their animal actors, particularly in epic battle sequences. Where a charge of horses was required, the common practice was to use trip-wires on the unsuspecting animals, which caused them to fall down violently, and sometimes resulted in injuries such as cuts or, in the worst cases, broken legs. This procedure has fallen out of favor largely due to the policing of the AHA, but also because of economic concerns. Quite simply, it costs more to hurt the animals and have to replace them.

Over the last few decades, and due to ever-enhancing technology, there are now many work-arounds that accomplish the realistic drama of warfare without harming the animals involved. There are trainers who specialize in raising stunt horses for use in films. These horses are trained to perform a simple forward fall by turning their heads and buckling their knees, in return for some reward. The work of the animals on-set is heavily monitored by the AHA. While these real animals add life to a scene technology cannot perfectly imitate, the safest methods are implemented by using as few real animals as possible. For the climactic battle in Braveheart (1995), a combination of trained real horses and realistic mechanical stunt doubles were used. In more recent epic films — the Lord of the Rings trilogy being one of the most notable — horses were used for riding, but were almost completely absent from the large-scale battle sequences; instead the director opted to save both effort and money with digitally-inserted horses. They still lend the dramatic weight when the heroes charge into battle, and they still look every inch as majestic. But these horses can come to no harm, and I’d say that’s the most humane film-making method Hollywood has.

See also The Fifth Estate’s Cruelty on Film timeline, a list of notable films by year where animals were either injured or killed during filming.

Breaking the Mold: The Eugenics of Dog Breeding

The children of Charles I of England with their dogs, 1637.

The children of Charles I of England with their dogs, 1637.

There is something fascinating about looking at portraits from centuries ago of people with their prized pets and seeing what sort of animal suited a particular person. Oftentimes you see royalty posing with their hunting hounds or lapdogs, their animals every bit the status symbols as the modern starlet’s. However, there is distinctly less variety in the animals seen in such portraits than is seen today. Usually there is a spaniel or two, perhaps a greyhound or wolfhound. Why, when there are thousands of dog breeds to choose from today, was there such a lack of variety then?

The answer is both unexpected and startling. According to the National Geographic documentary The Science of Dogs, just 100 short years ago, 88% of the current breeds of dog available today did not exist. Today, there are over 500 breeds of dog in existence, with new hybrids and designer pooches available every few years. Why the boom? Certainly dogs did not suddenly expand their mating horizons on their own.

During the Victorian era, humanity became obsessed with creating the perfectly functioning society, hence the industrial revolution and the sharply realized class system during that time. In this quest for perfection, man began exploring an idea called eugenics, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the science of improving [a population] by breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.” Eugenics was a question of whether, in creating the most efficient society, man could also create the most efficient man by breeding out “undesirable” traits. While the study of eugenics on humans after the horrific ethnic cleansings of the last century (most notably the Holocaust) has fallen out of public favor, it is an idea that has remained alive and well for dogs.

While cats and other domesticated pets have also seen a boom in breed variety, there is a greater variety in dogs than in any other mammal. This is because dogs possess uniquely malleable DNA that allows specific genetic traits such as size, temperament, snout shape, tail length, etc. to be easily altered by selective breeding. In just a few short generations and breeding cycles, humans are now able to breed the perfect dog to suit their needs. But what is the effect on dogs as a whole?

A documentary produced by the BBC entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed explores some of the downsides of human meddling in animal affairs in this arena. The film illustrates that, while humans are selectively mating dogs for specific traits, this has the unintended side effect of also breeding dogs for any negative traits that may come along with those genes. And as the breeding for the desired trait continues and becomes more focused, the harmful trait also becomes more focused. In creating the custom-made pooch, humans may also be creating genetically unhealthy animals.

This creates an interesting dilemma: humans have created an infinitely customizable pet, and yet, in our increasingly self-centered modern world of personalized technology and instant gratification, where will the customization all end? When does the welfare of the animal become more important than the aesthetic desires of his master?

Margaret Cavendish’s “The Hunting of the Hare”

Here at the Museum, we’re interested both in how animals have changed our human society, as well as the effect humans have had on animal society. Today, our newest education intern Karly Abreu offers us a look at Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), a poet and early advocate for animal welfare.

Margaret Cavendish. Image via Wikipedia.

Margaret Cavendish. Image via Wikipedia.

In her day, Margaret Cavendish was an unusual woman. She was a member of the English aristocracy, known popularly as the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was an accomplished writer in a variety of genres, being a pioneer of science fiction but also well known for prolific philosophy and poetry. Highly logical, she was also a scientist. She was, most notably, one of the earliest supporters of animal welfare.

During Cavendish’s lifetime, the late 1600s and early 1700s, animal welfare was considered a trivial subject. English society generally agreed upon the idea that man had dominion over beast, and left it at that. Cavendish, as a scientific mind, believed that animals had intelligence and wisdom that was beyond the human ability. She rejected the idea that God’s gift of the soul was only given to man.

While her ideas on animal nobility are prevalent in her 1666 novel The Blazing World, which features a world of human-animal hybrids, her ideas are most on display in her compelling poem “The Hunting of the Hare.”

Published in 1653, this poem is told from the point of view of a hare named Wat, and describes in detail the horror and helplessness Wat feels while being hunted. The poem both humanizes the hare by giving him palpable emotions and an identifiable name, and dehumanizes those hunting him by making them seem foreign and dangerous. In this way the poem builds much sympathy for the hare, and ends with an admonishment to consider God’s gift of animal life and the needless waste in sport hunting. It ends with a damning line that accuses men of a God complex and the sin of Pride:

[Man is] so Proud, that he only thinks to Live, / That God a God-like Nature him did give, / And that all Creatures for his Sake alone / Were made, for him to Tyrannize upon.

The poem was shocking at the time both for villainizing a common aristocratic sport and for calling attention to the livelihood of animals. This is a trend which Cavendish would carry through most of her writing, as in her similar poems “The Hunting of the Stag” and “Dialogue with an Oake,” as she continually criticized the faults of man against the nobility of nature. Perhaps too aristocratic to be considered merely an eccentric, Cavendish made waves in her social circles. Her connections and unique opinions even allowed her an audience with the Royal Society, a social circle known for their scientific experiments, many of which were done on animals.

While Cavendish did not change the laws, she was noble and respected enough to garner attention in her society and gain an audience with those most responsible for influencing said laws. In a time and place where neither women nor animals were taken very seriously, Margaret Cavendish accomplished much.