“Happy Families of Animals”

Victorian “happy families” of animals consisted of a cage of animals that in their “natural” state would likely be in violent relationships, but in human captivity, co-resided peacefully. Individual animals were trained (by “great kindness,” according to an 1844 article) to ignore that their unchosen and unnatural co-residents were not only of different species but also very likely a frightful threat or a tempting morsel. In spite of their presumed inclinations, this caged motley crew successfully “appear[ed]” “to dwell together” in “good temper and happiness” (“Happy Families of Animals” 148).

The journalist Henry Mayhew records the story of one of the oldest keepers of “happy families” in London Labor and the London Poor (1861). This particular “happy family” contained “3 cats, 2 dogs (a terrier and a spaniel), 2 monkeys, 2 magpies, 2 jackdaws, 2 jays, 10 starlings (some of them talk), 6 pigeons, 2 hawks, 2 barn fowls, 1 screech owl, 5 common-sewer rats, 5 white rats (a novelty), 8 guinea-pigs, 2 rabbits (1 wild and 1 tame), 1 hedgehog, and 1 tortoise” (qtd. in Mayhew 214-5).

Such “happy families” were also represented in art and literature. For example, Margaret Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe (1893; the first animal viewpoint novel published in the U.S.) describes the Morris family’s domestic menagerie as follows: “[t]wo dogs, a cat, fifteen or twenty rabbits, a rat, about a dozen canaries, and two dozen goldfish, I don’t know how many pigeons, a few bantams, [and] a guinea-pig.”  

For contemporary narratives in this vein, see “Animal Friendship Pics” (from which the above picture was borrowed, though its real source is probably apocryphal at this point) and “Let’s Be Friends.”

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Cited:

“Happy Families of Animals.” Chambers’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts. London; Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1844. Google Book Search. Web.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol. 3. London: Griffin, Bohn, & Co., 1861. 214-9. Google Book Search. Web. 

Saunders, Margaret Marshall. Beautiful Joe. —-: Phoenix, 1893. Print. 

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