Amusing Vintage Pastimes that are So Wrong.


From an 1823 slang dictionary, thanks to GoogleBooks.

“You think you’re so strong? I bet a cat can pull you across the pond.”

“Shut the front door.”

“No, really. Tie this rope around your waist. Here’s the cat that will pull you across.”

“Yeah, cat. Bring. it.”

Sturdy fellows pull the fool into the pond.

“Ha ha ha ha! Stupidhead!”

I can’t quite understand how “cat whipping” (being “catted”!) would ever work more than once—that enough of a critical mass of people actually fell for this trick, such that it became an actual slang term.

How to Kill a Whale (or Not)


Yesterday I went to the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit on whales,Giants of the Deep. It was a worthwhile, albeit cramped, exhibit, where I learned about thewhale’s evolution from a land-based mammal into a full-time swimmer and smelled stinky ambergris. Yea, it was smelly.

The AMNH used to be my favorite NYC museum, hands-down, and I used to assume this was connected to my interest in animals (and science and history). I read and agreed with the critical review of the AMNH’s worship of Roosevelt as a conservationist, renewed in 2012, but my memories of exploring the AMNH remained untarnished. It had been a few years since I’d gone.

But my walk through the museum yesterday was complicated by my growing unease with natural history museums. I found that I had trouble looking at exhibitions of dead animals—of looking at these formerly living beings, now stuffed and mounted in disturbingly life-like positions, frozen in time and space for our use.

In this mood, I experienced the whale exhibit: the pictures and descriptions of nineteenth-century whaling ships taking down whales, the video clip of contemporary “scientific research” whale-hunting which has led us to the startling discovery that whales eat fish, the whale-tooth and whale-bone artifacts, the fossil record….

I’m not claiming some moral high ground, but it might be the case that I can no longer look at an animal exhibit without seeing the “real” animal suffering that went into the creation of these artifacts.

(Heartening news: Australia is challenging the loophole that Japan uses to continue whale hunting.)


EDIT: Here’s a Lanham’s piece on natural history museums which is further adding to my unease at what was once one of my favorite places.

Conference: “A Politics of Disability, Animal Liberation, and Queering”

At my alma mater! Looking good, puppy. Looking good.

The Eutopian

dis-abled dog running with the help of wheels

Dear vegans of today: Thank you for being awesome. This is so incredibly far beyond anything that was happening when I was an 18-year-old baby vegan. How far we’ve all come!

1st Annual Conference “Engaging with Eco-ability”
Binghamton University, New York
April 27 and 28, 2013

A Politics of Disability, Animal Liberation, and Queering

The 1st Annual Conference “Engaging with Eco-ability” will be hosted at Binghamton University April 27th & 28th, 2013. The conference will be organized and moderated by Anthony Nocella II and JL Schatz. The goal of this conference is to lay the groundwork for an edited book that’s part of the Critical Animal Studies series published by Lexington Books.

Sponsors include Binghamton University English Department, Binghamton University, Institute for Critical Animal Studies, and Students for Critical Animal Studies.

More info / RSVP on Facebook.

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Why Cats Rule the Internet

Yesterday’s Slate article comparing the prominence of dogs in publishing versus the prominence of cats on the Internet strikes a nerve.

If “[d]ogs are boys and cats are girls,” their victory in publishing—an avenue heavily policed by gatekeepers, quite unlike the open road of the World Wide Web—can hardly surprise.

Engber briefly, glibly, considers this possibility (“maybe it’s a gender thing”), then quickly discredits this direction of inquiry by noting that dog and cat writing are both “mostly female-written.” Yet the sex of the author doth not a feminist make.

When I think about literary dogs vs. LOLZcats, my gut’s first guess is that it relates to how dogs have been granted relatively individualized personalities as members of the home (hence novels may be believably written about them) while cats have largely been treated as an adjunct of the house: the mouse-hunting, necessary evil. What does one care to know about the concerns and interest of the household mousetrap?

There are also way more dog-care books than there are cat-care books on the shelves, suggesting that dogs need and deserve attentive human care while the working cat doesn’t. There are also more dog-breed books than cat-breed ones, so—if publishers know what they’re doing—knowledge about the dog must be more marketable than knowledge about the cat. The last time I went to Barnes & Noble, I saw 4-5 shelves on dog care and knowledge, and half a shelf on cat care and knowledge. (Never mind the fact that the books are generally recycled: same formula, updated packaging.)

Engber acknowledges our different treatment of cats and dogs, but justifies the difference with anecdotal generalizations about each species. That is, the boring cat likes “laze” about, to sit and lurk, while the interesting dog, well, we can’t even begin to sum up in a photograph that speaks a thousand words. Engber shrewdly doesn’t commit to this dogs > cats view, but he certainly concentrates on delivering this viewpoint. So “[w]e bond with [cats] in little spurts, like videos on YouTube. Dogs, meanwhile, demand a lasting interaction,” because that’s just what dogs want versus what cats want.

But how true is this? What do you say in the face of evidence that we’ve actively promulgated these kinds of polarized species-based human-animal interactions via centuries of dog (and male) worship and cat (and female) hate?

As I toil over the revision of a paper on the nineteenth century’s intense bifurcation of the cat and dog (for the VSAWC conference on “Victorian Humanity and its Others”), I feel like Engber’s piece is not so different than an 1885 article I’ve just cited.

Maybe in more recent decades (I wonder when it began) one could chart a trend of more and more people treating cats as they would a dog—that we also have “lasting interaction” with kitty. Still, since my dog of 17 years passed away a couple of years ago and I adopted three cats, I have had more people avidly ask after my dog (“What breed was it? I love Pomeranians, squee!”) and stare blankly when I share that I have cats. Mentioning my cats is generally an effective conversation-killer.

I’ve met with direct disbelief when I explain how I pretty much care for my cats as I did my dog. I’ve had to submit video evidence to an Uncle who insisted that cats don’t respond to their name. (The video showed my cat running over to sit and high-five in response to the cues we practiced. My Uncle’s response? “Bah! This isn’t real!”). Only my co-volunteers at the ASPCA have expressed equal interest in my new life with cats.

Dogs are for “companionship” and cats are for “observation,” Engber cites. To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, dogs are good to think and live with, while cats are (only) good to look at.

Unlike Engber, I don’t think this is merely coincidental to the incontrovertible fact that “dogs are boys” and “cats are girls.” The cat’s rule over the Internet may be as much a compliment as the fact that images of hot, sexy ladies “rule” over the porn industry (and the Internet as well).

And just like “no one” wants to see movies about women talking to women about something other than men, “no one” wants to read lengthy treatises about cats doing something that demands more than our greedy, observational consumption.

The Mute Hunting Dogs of the Tainos

While I was in Santo Domingo last week (though spring break feels an eon ago), I went to the Museum of the Dominican Man, and took these pictures of the little model Taino villages. (TheTainos are the indigenous people of Hispaniola who were nearly decimated by the work of Columbus and his crew.)

The dog figures were probably representing the Tainos’ mute hunting dogs, the now-extinct Alcos, used to hunt hutias—the Alco’s inability to bark being an obvious advantage. According to the Wikipedia page on Tainos, they also ate (other?) dogs.   

This interesting page records some traces of the Tainos’ reverence for dogs, including in the form of a half-man, half-dog spirit, Opiyel Guoriban

It’s not about the nineteenth century, I know. But who could resist? 

On the Undesirability of Rabbits

It may be a surprise to learn that Charles Kingsley hated rabbits. Just hated them.

From Kingsley’s The Boys’ and Girls’ Book of Science (London: Strahan and Co. Ltd., 1881, via Googlebooks):

            “Of course I wish to say nothing against the keeping of rabbits; it is a good thing to have animals about you, for it is good to think that there are creatures weaker, and yet, in their way, stronger than yourself. Yet as you get on in age, rabbits get more and more unsatisfactory. The eternal contemplation of utterly selfish noodles is not always pleasant, and you may rest assured that if you were to die to-morrow, your pet rabbit would never miss you, so long as he was fed, any more than your horse would.

“The habits of these animals are by no means agreeable in detail. A few hints may be necessary. Never, for instance, attempt to look at or tough the young ones until they begin to show for themselves. Give them mostly dry food, but always let them have water besides greenstuff. Take them up always behind the ears, and do not squeeze their bodies; see that they are continually fed, and judiciously; and lastly, when you are tired of them, sell them to some one who wants them, and spend the money on something more satisfactory.

“… when you have said the best about these animals as pets, what are they? Mere stupid crawling creatures. The meanest fowl or pigeon which ever strutted or flew about your house is worth fifty of such things. Dogs, cats, fowls, and pigeons are worth having; rabbits I hardly think are.”

To Kingsley, rabbits made for worthless pets because (1) they are utterly selfish (i.e., would not care if you died tomorrow) and (2) they are stupid. (I googled “are rabbits stupid.” Apparently this is a popular question. See  this page and this page for contemporary opinions on rabbit sagacity.)

I am not sure how commonly shared this sentiment was. Rabbits were fairly popular pets, and the same charge of selfishness was typically levied against the cat.

I was particularly struck with the following remark: “it is a good thing to have animals about you, for it is good to think that there are creatures weaker, and yet, in their way, stronger than yourself.” Is this some insight into the logic of how we used animals during this period? A foreshadowing of Carl Jung’s line, memorialized in NYC’s 42nd Street/6th Ave. subway station: “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose”?


UPDATE: Serendipitously, the wonderful National Museum of Animals & Society has posted a link to these beautiful pictures that illustrate the sagacity of a hare.