Page Turners

Reviewed By Kate McCorkle

Personhood for animals is a controversial topic, but not perhaps so controversial or so modern as one might think. Even if you talk philosophy to your cat or throw birthday parties for your dogs, it may occur to you occasionally that pets have extraordinary rights and privileges these days. They have perhaps filled niches in people’s lives, roles of empathy, responsibility, and loyalty that many consider to have been abandoned by family and by society in general. In this very engaging and thorough coverage of pet status, journalist David Grimm maps the bumpy course of our enlightenment through the ages.

Cats and dogs have been with humans for centuries and some of those centuries have been happier for them than others. Grimm covers early evolution of the domestic canid and feline, but it soon becomes apparent that, as pet owners will attest, the pets are running the show. Cats became gods with the rise of Egyptian culture and dogs ruled as beloved hunting companions of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages. Far from their original respective roles in rodent control and garbage disposal, these cats and dogs had real status in society. Cats were worshiped, and sight hounds and other hunting dogs forbidden for the peasantry. Individual humans proved their emotional attachment, ordering that pets accompany them to the next world, and including them in portraits painted to showcase their wealth and status.

Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, thoughtful people began to recognize that cruelty, exploitation, and neglect were an increasingly common lot of the domestic animal. Books like Beautiful Joe and Black Beauty, written from the animal’s point of view, attempted to educate the populace, and even abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a treatise admonishing children not to abandon pets. Early protection societies formed, and concern for animals entered the legal realm in the form of anti-cruelty laws.

The 911 of animal rights, however, occurred in our own century; it was called Hurricane Katrina. The many things that went wrong in the handling of this disaster are legendary, but in the end, the tales of people forcibly separated from their animals had a lasting impact and resulted in landmark legislation covering emergency regulations in regard to animals.

Absurd or sacred, the human/animal bond continues to evolve, and this book is a fascinating journey through the history of that bond so far. As Mark Twain wrote in the opening of his own contribution to animal-narrated literature, A Dog’s Tale (1904), “My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. I was the same as a member of the family.” More true today than ever. Citizen Canine can be found on the recent arrivals shelf at La Biblioteca Pública.

 

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