Animal Actors: The “Trained” Savage

A 1901 article I found on animals in the circus is on the training of wild animals. As opposed to the “easier” animals like dogs and cats that I previously blogged about, “wild beast training” was a daring feat of (human) mind over (animal) brawn:

“That man is the lord of creation is generally understood, but comparatively a few of us know how to assert our sovereignty in the presence of a savage animal.

“Physically, man is but poorly equipped when it comes to a struggle. His muscular power is as nothing when compared with that of a lion, an elephant, or even a stubborn horse….

“If this were all, man would be the puppet rather than the lord of creation. But there is another factor…. mind is incomparably stronger than matter….. Brute force is of small avail when matched with the powers of resource and calculation and the quick wit that man has at his control. This is the secret of the mastery which the trainer has over his savage performers.”


The sheer human arrogance is unabashedly on display here: I am lord! The opening of this article moves from a shameful litany of human weakness (“A tiger can worry him as a cat would a mouse. A single blow with a lion’s paw or an elephant’s trunk will put an end to his existence…. man would be the puppet”) to our glorious redemption via practices of animal training. While “taming” is easy (it is, the article says, mere “docility”—as of animals considered tamed, such as dogs), “training” requires the “habit of obedience” from a “savage nature” that “is never really eradicated.”

“This makes the trainer’s mastery over his animals all the more wonderful. Every performance is a genuine victory. It is the triumph of the trainer’s will over that of the animal.”


             In effect, the practices of training are not as important as the public performance of human mastery. “Every performance is a genuine victory…. the triumph” which we must reenact again and again.

This idea of performance is a self-problematizing one: the article refers to these animals as “performers,” as “actors,” and this language is slippery. Yes, we can get wild animals to “act” against their natures, well-done-us! blah-blah. And yet, is it not the actor—rather than the actor’s coach—the one to be applauded for its feat of convincing dissemblance?


Source: F.Z.S. “Animal Actors: The Wonders of Wild Beast Training.” Harmsworth Magazine 6 (Feb.-July 1901). London: Harmsworth Bros.

For more information on wild animal training, see Eric Ames’ Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments and Hagenbeck’s own book (Hagenbeck was a celebrated wild animal trainer, who is profiled in the 1901 article I cite). Also see Peta Tait’s Wild Animals and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus.

Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Automata

Today I had the great pleasure of returning to the Morris Museum (Morristown, NJ, about an hour’s drive from NYC) where the generous Murtogh D. Guinness (yes, of stout beer fame) deposited his great collection of automata—mechanical animals, human figures, and an amazing array of music players. No photos are allowed, but this link here takes you to some of the highlights of the collection. 

They have a “walking” elephant, crocodile, peacock…. and various “monkey” aristocrats in decadent human clothing doing silly human things.

My favorite is the piece where a 2’ long figure of a repined Cleopatra dies by poison snake—over and over, bosom heaving. It really makes you think: who wants to see that over and over again? Cleopatra’s not-so-petite morte, over and over? (The automatons are not rigged to “go,” but they are still functional and have been DVD’d in action.)

If you’re in the area, it’s absolutely worth going! 

Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Automata

Beautiful Joe’s mystery old lady

Who is the mysterious “very sweet-faced,” “fine-looking” “old lady” with “snowy white” hair and a “deeply wrinkled face,” “tall and stately,” mentioned in Chapter 15 (“Our Journey to Riverdale”) of Margaret Marshall Saunders’ 1893 Beautiful Joe? There’s reason to believe this character is a famous animal rights activist making a “cameo” appearance. The novel reads:

“If you are ever in Washington, come to see me.” She gave him some name, and he lifted his hat and looked as if he was astonished to find out who she was. 

Speaking later, the “old lady” says, 

[W]hen I became a woman… I agitated the matter among my friends, and…was able to assist in the formation of several societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals….

Could it be Caroline Earle White, founder of the WSPCA, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, and the first dog shelter in the U.S.? (See wonderful information about this early animal rights activist at the National Museum of Animals in Society page and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania page.) 

It sure looks like it could be. But then, the novel describes the old lady as being age 75 (“I have lived in this wicked world for seventy-five years”), and White would have been only 60 in 1893 when the novel was published (and 59 when the novel was written). 

Frances Power Cobbe, the Irish anti-vivisectionist, would have been only 71, but her face really fits the description, as Saunders repeatedly emphasizes the “old lady” has a “pleasant-looking” face. It seems unlikely, however, that Saunders would have used her for the “cameo” in book she was trying to pitch to an American audience, famous though Cobbe was. Besides, “as a little girl,” the “old lady” walked the streets of Boston.

Who might this mystery woman have been? 

Carp: It’s what’s for dinner.

I was reading about the “Asian Carp Invasion”, and got curious about carps in the nineteenth-century. As Yi-Fu Tuan and discusses in great detail in Dominance and Affection (1984) (and I believe Kathleen Kete does as well, in The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris [1994]), aquariums were one of the most popular forms of pet-keeping during this period. Tuan (as the title of his book suggests) focuses on dominance in the selection and breeding of goldfish, and Kete cites aquariums as part of her argument that the bourgeois kept pets in an expression of a desire to dreamscape the private sphere.  

Here are some great images from Mark Samuel’s The Amateur Aquarist (New York: Baker Taylor, 1894) [thanks, googlebooks!]:

Unlike goldfish and the now highly-prized Japanese koi, “ugly” carp seem to have been more generally treated as dinner. (A search in turned up almost no carp recipes, but Tex Wasabi has a recipe that mimics the look of koi in a taco.)

(From The Cook’s Dictionary [London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830]).

(From French Domestic Cookery [London: Bogue, 1846]).

Soldier Dogs

In a previous post on Cat WMDs, I wrote about centuries-old designs to strap stink-emitting cannons onto cats as weapons of war. In my ongoing research on pet-keeping culture, I have found similar plans for wartime uses of dogs as soldiers. An 1856 article in Boy’s and Girl’s Illustrated Olio, a New York publication, discusses plans found from “hundreds of years ago.”

One was, a lone tower sentinel used a dog to pull a bell that would signal the presence of a guard on duty, so that the sentinel could leave his post.

According to this story, as told to young children, the sentinel’s partner had died, and he faced starvation before coming up with this idea: “If he could make his dog ring that bell while he was gone, the enemy would not suspect his absence. So he tied one end of the rope to the bell and the other to the collar of the dog, and then put down his last piece of bread, just out of the animal’s reach, so that the poor thing would keep trying to get it without being able. This, of course, would pull the rope and ring the bell. So the poor sentinel got a chance to run and let his fellow-soldiers know of his destitute condition.”

The other was the outfitting of a “fierce mastiff” to “frighten the horses”; he was equipped to wear leather armor, a vase filled with “something that will burn fiercely,” and a bayonet, in addition to his own natural weapons. 

“In this way a few of these dogs, well trained, will put to flight a large number of high-spirited horses, and perhaps secure the victory.” 

It is not clear if these plans were actually put into effect: the former sounds like a legend, and the latter seems highly impractical. We have, of course, come up with many practical uses of soldier dogs, as Maria Goodavage writes about in her book.

Source: “Dog Soldiers.” Boy’s and Girl’s Illustrated Olio. New York: S.S. Union, 1856. Google Book Search.

How Cats and Dogs Lived in London in Olden Times

These telling images accompany Frances Simpson’s article describing cats and dogs in London in the nineteenth century. The images alone describe the extent to which cats’ and dogs’ lives (and deaths) became of deep interest to bourgeois Londoners.

Homeless cat shelter.

Lost dog shelter (the famous Battersea facility).

Street seller of pet food (likely made of horse meat), attracting the local clientele. Where do these cats keep their moneys?

In the late 19th and early 20th, dogs and other live animals were still usually sold out on the street, not in fancy-schmancy pet stores like we have now.

Dog cemetery in Hyde Park.

Source: Simpson, Frances. “Cat and Dog London.” Living London. Ed. George R. Sims. London, Paris, New York & Melbourne: Cassell & Co., 1902. 

Cat & Dog Circus

Excerpted from a March 6th, 1897 Scientific American Supplement, a description of Leonidas Arniotis’ exhibition of trained cats and dogs (his little circus) at the Berlin Winter Garden:

“A comic scene which follows is a triumph in animal training. “Cerberus” is chained at the left side of the stage. “Pippina” takes her place on a chair at the right, and Mr. Arniotis is seated at a well covered table in the center, ready to eat his supper. He has nothing to drink, and, as there is no one to wait on him, he is obliged to go for it himself. After he has left the stage “Cerberus” slips his collar off, climbs up on the table and eats the entire meal. As he is swallowing the last mouthful a thought comes to him of the punishment that must follow, and he looks to his friend to help him out of his difficulty. “Pippina” is then taken by the collar and set on the table, where she remains looking sad, while “Cerberus” resumes his collar. Mr. Arniotis returns, is suspicious of the unhappy victim sitting among the empty dishes, and is about to punish her, when she climbs on her master and whispers in his ear that “Cerberus” is the real culprit. “Pippina’s” innocence is established, and the audience thanks the performers with a round of applause.”

I’m increasingly interested in how much humor can be derived from the trope of the “disobedient dog.” There’s some line when mild disobedience is utterly charming (that is, in the face of otherwise total obedience), and then another line where disobedience mean the dog can be killed).  What is this line? How is it set?

The Laughing Cat

Apologies for the break! I have been knee-deep in Canadian archives for one of my projects.

A colleague brought my attention to this “genealogy” of LOLcats, and The Laughing Cat caught my eye.

I’ve unearthed the following information about this expressive feline:

At some point in 1925, a photographer named Russell Hamm was visiting a woman’s home on behest of his newspaper to photograph a mother cat with an astoundingly large litter (15 kittens!). During this visit, the woman called his attention to the cat she had been “training” to make facial expressions. This photograph was taken as the cat performed this contrived “laugh.”

This photo earned $13,000 (and we’re talking early twentieth-century dollars) in the course of 15 years, yet the name of the photographer (who went on to become staff photographer for the Chicago Daily News) fell into obscurity. 

You can have your own….