Maya Missani, an enquiring reader, recently asked the Wenches about when the concept of pets for pet’s sake began, when the first animals were loved apart from their chores. I immediately burbled back an answer to the Wenches, and they Wenches said I should blog on. And so I shall!
Cats had been worshipped for eons.
Dogs, adored for centuries.
Medieval noblemen rode their favorite horses and wept if they were wounded. Dogs of War came with the Romans and never left Europe, where they became Dogs of Status. Falcons and gyrfalcons and all sorts or murderous birdies with talons were highly prized, even loved.
I don’t know when the concept of pets for pet’s sake began, but I imagine it was when the first wolf to stay the night in a human’s cave (without devouring the humans in it) had a litter, and the first wolflet licked a human hand (not just to get the taste of it.) Still, all that faithfulness is a sometime thing – at least for humans. Pussycats, horses and puppies have all been used for food when a human population is starving, because it’s plainly suicidal for starving people to think of what’s on their dinner plate as a pet. Even if peasants took their pigs into their huts for warmth during the winter, you can bet those same cuddly piggies were the springtime’s blue-plate specials. Tender sensibilities are something only the rich can afford. Rich humans have always loved dogs and cats, and left them un-et.
In fact, Western art has rarely portrayed a great ruler without his faithful dog or horse. Knights and their ladies are carved in stone on their tombs, their faithful hounds watching out for them through eternity at their feet. Museums are stuffed with portraits of royalty with their pets: sporting dogs, mastiffs and magnificent horses for the men, lap dogs for the ladies, and the kiddies with pretty ponies and huge protective hounds standing by them. After all, it took money to acquire and maintain a fragile mini-dog. A dog that could clearly do nothing but look pretty, and cost a fortune, was a sure sign of superiority, at least in the purse area. And it took lots more spare cash to feed and maintain a hulking doggie, or a pack of sporty ones. And as for the price of acquiring and maintaining a trained pure blooded horse or an aviary full of violent birdies? That’s status!
Cats mostly didn’t make it into tomb or portrait art. Possibly because they could earn their own way, and were common amongst the slum dwellers, farm folk and general peasantry. (Also because if a portrait of a lady showed her with a cat, the symbolism might be taken the wrong way.)
Regency folk were nuts about animals. Not quite as insane for them as their descendants the Victorians were, but obsessed, nonetheless. Gentlemen and ladies paraded through the parks with their status on leashes. A famous Regency era duchess had dozens of dogs roaming in her house. It was considered an idiosyncrasy. Regency era society adored eccentricities. (And it kept her husband very nicely away.)
Queen Victoria was mad for her dogs and cats. She had them large and small, and cats, as well. But she doted on Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, and Landseers (named for her favorite artist, who painted them.) And even now, Queen Elizabeth loves her pack of corgis.
Maya also asked: “What about the slow horses, cowardly dogs, and short-sighted falcons? Did anyone keep them because of their sweet personalities?”
Yes, Maya, I feel certain that cross-eyed falcons, cringing dogs and pokey horses were loved too. I’ve loved my share of mute canaries, craven pooches, and murderous kitties. The only thing is that I don’t understand is why animals bother to love and trust us, when surely they must know that we can kiss and cosset a parakeet and then sit down to a chicken dinner. Or why dogs and cats can sit serenely at our feet when the kitchen reeks of roasting animal flesh. I’m only glad that they do. Because though I’m not royalty, not by a looooong shot, I wouldn’t eat a kitty cat or a doggie if I were starving (I think.) (I hope.) After all, I’m not a faithful hound; I’m only human.
(I had a dog as a character in one of my books… or at least, the dog was an important part of the plot. Name the book – get the book. Daisy will be blindfolded, and she’ll choose one of the correct answers, and I’ll send the book on to the memory-gifted reader. ******** BIG OLD HINT ADDED!!!! Because I posted it last night when I was tired, and this morning I realize how hard it is to remember. OK. The doggie in question is on the cover. In the background. A big doggie too. There, now I feel better.)