More on Skinning Cats….

I am sad to report that I now know more about the nineteenth-century practice of skinning cats alive (the practice that I presume to be the source of the common phrase, “more than one way to skin a cat”). What follow are minutes of evidence from the English House of Commons, published on Aug. 1, 1831, reporting on their meeting on the 1832 anti-cruelty legislation they were deliberating. Apparently, these poor animals were skinned so their hides could be sold to furriers—so again I ask, why wouldn’t they be stunned or killed first? For what convenience were they skinned alive, crying out in horror?


The witness also reports that dogs were likewise treated, most of these animals presumably stolen from their owners. 

Reading this is not for the faint of heart. It makes me angry.

Yes, you can haz LOLZcats from 1911!

I’ve been swamped with revising my dissertation into a book, but I just had to share this. Possibly the best thing ever: LOLZcats from 1911. (I know it’s one of many examples of the trend of taking funny animal pictures with captions, already existing since the late 19th, but these particular pictures I think I’ve never seen.) Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Kittens and Cats: A Book of Tales is full of good images, but here are my personal favorites. Enjoy!

Illustration of a street-seller of meat for dogs.

More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

I ran across this little bit on skinning cats—as with most of the little sayings we throw around now, this is based on a material reality of skinning cats alive. Why, I cannot tell; if they were selling the pelt and/or meat, there was no reason for the cat to be alive. The article clearly alludes to it being a “profession”—and a lucrative one at that—but aside from the production of pain, I can’t see why the cat had to be alive. Even if sensibilities were so blunted to animal suffering that the cries of pain did not incite any sympathy, why wouldn’t it be simply an option of convenience to kill, stun the poor animal first?

This is not for the faint at heart:

“Cat-Skinning is said to be a lucrative profession with many people in London. A late English paper says these vile wretches are mostly women; and adds, that in a respectable neighbourhood in London, a short time since, the inhabitants were alarmed by the continued and melancholy moaning of some cats; and on one of them going down stairs, he found three fine large cats completely skinned, and skewered down to the ground. It appears that the fiends who pursue these iniquitous practices, as soon as they skin the lower extremities, transfix the poor animal to the earth, then tear off the remainder with great rapidity, leaving the cat in the most horrible torture….” 


Source: TS David. Every Body’s Album: A Humorous Collection. Philadelphia: Charles Alexander, 1836.

Capital Punishment and Love

Dr. Edward Willard Watson wrote a brief complaint about the lack of people who “specializ[e] in humanity”:

“A dog not long ago killed its owner’s wife. It chewed her neck and arms (see newspapers), and her husband is said to have declined to kill it. He loved it, he said. It was of good pedigree; he knew its sire and grandsire…. This story illustrates well the virtues and vices of the true dog lover. Certain people are ‘doggy’ people; they fill their homes with dogs. The dogs annoy and bite their friends, and they only laugh: ‘He won’t bite you,’ or ‘He won’t hurt you.’ Animal lovers are seldom lovers of humanity itself. Those who weep over the woes of animals are, as a rule, callous to the suffering of fellow beings. We specialize in sensitiveness. There are bird lovers and horse lovers and cat lovers, who see no cruelty so long as their favorite animal does not suffer. Even in human suffering we specialize; the man or woman interested in the Cruelty to Children Society cares little how much father and mother endure…. In short, the heart seems unable to entertain a general kindness to all, animals and men. There are probably even those who only love ‘suffering snakes,’ and weep crocodile tears over the woes of alligators!”

While I question the impulses behind his writing, there’s some truth in what he says. Not, of course, the part about animal lovers being unable to love people, too, but his argument about specialization. At the very least, it’s fascinating that we believe this.

After the death of my beloved dog, I started keeping cats, which many friends interpreted as me “making a switch”—the assumption being, one can either love dogs or cats, but not both. (I am exploring this in an article I’m drafting.) Or, when I tell people how much I love my cats, I am politely told that I’m speaking with “a dog person” (suggesting that, therefore, there can be no sympathy in how I’m extolling my cats). These statements evince a belief that human affections must be specialized: a sort of anti-Communism of affect. 

And to return to the good doctor’s brief article, it sounds like he disapproves of the man for not putting his dog to death—as if his failure to do so shows he cares more for the dog than the killed wife, the fellow human. Would the dog’s death really prove he loves his wife/a fellow human more than a mere dog? That would be like saying capital punishment is the only way to express one’s love for the victim. In this ghastly equation, acts of death towards members of Category A become acts of love towards members of Category B.