Pets and naturalists

I HAVE all my life been a lover of pets, and during my younger years these consisted of specimens most easily obtained, and most conveniently and surreptitiously kept in a bedroom or outhouse

My Strange Pets and Other Memories of Country Life (1905)

Collecting, science and pet-keeping have long been related. Menageries of exotic animals were a big part of the high-end pet-market from the eighteenth century, and the bears, lemurs and parrots bought from dealers like William Cross in Liverpool and Charles Jamrach in London were as much ‘curiosities’ or ‘specimens’ as ‘pets’.

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Richard Bell’s My Strange Pets and Other Memories of Country Life (1905)

This mixed status is exemplified in the light-hearted memoir of Richard Bell, My Strange Pets and Other Memories of Country Life (1905). On the one hand, Bell presented himself as something of a gentlemanly scientist. His menagerie, collected from zoos and dealers as well as the nearby countryside, was filled with rare and interesting creatures. He boasted, for instance, of breeding the first emus in Dumfries, in the hope of recouping his initial outlay of £20. His account includes a careful attempt at husbandry of these strange birds, as well as a whimsical account of their foibles. Often he would assign personalities to the animals. Emus had the same ‘cantankerous nature as human babies’, and Bell playfully recounted their ‘antics’:

They derived much amusement at my expense, and one of their tricks was repeated frequently. This consisted of snatching off my hat, and many a start I got by feeling my hat suddenly jerked off my head, when the practical jokers had approached me from behind so quietly that I did not perceive their presence. To give those who may never have seen these birds some idea of their stretch of neck, I may state that my height is 6 feet 2½ inches. [p. 22]

Much of the book is filled with similar comic scenes prepared by Bell, such as his tortoise ‘plodding along the floor, with the monkey riding on its back eating an apple’, or a monkey given a ‘glass of wine to freshen him up’. [p. 48, p. 44]

What is perhaps most interesting in the book is the ease with which animals moved from being curiosities to pets and back again. After making an albino rook ‘tame and familiar’, it reached a situation of ‘domestic happiness’ with the cat. It eventually met a ‘tragic’ end, however, when it got caught in some wiring in the garden: ‘The reason why I did not miss my bird sooner was that I had ceased for some time to give it food, as it had a plentiful supply in the garden and continued quite tame. Reluctant though I was to lose such a curiosity, I was obliged to put it out of its agony.’ [p.223] Feeding was not an act of affection so much as a way to bring the bird into his household. While encouraging new pets, Bell was evidently content to allow his animals some freedom to join his domestic life or not, and always had a large cast of other animals to shift his attention to.

Some of his animals became favourites, others did not. Partly this was determined at the species level. Mongooses, he said, ‘make very nice pets, as they have no disagreeable odour in themselves, and become very tame when kindly treated. Mine were very tame, and allowed me to handle them in any way I liked.’ [p. 95] By contrast although he kept several snakes in his menagerie, he did not regard them as pets. Dr Mann, to whom Bell wrote for advice on the matter, took a warmer view of snakes: ‘My present boa, which I have had about two years, invariably sleeps in my bed, round my feet. He is perfectly clean, lies still, and very seldom disturbs me; occasionally he crawls to my face to lick it.’ [p. 64] As this exchange suggests, Bell’s animal-keeping was a shared project, and he eagerly reported interesting anecdotes or tips on care with scientists across the country. He corresponded with authorities such as Frank Buckland and gave papers at the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. His animals were as much as material for anecdotes and a form of connoisseurship as a source of companionship.

Bell’s tone is one of ironic detachment. In describing the bonds and preferences of his animals, he betrayed no particular affections himself. Relating the apparent ability of the family cat to predict the arrival of his daughter from boarding school, the kind of incident that might elsewhere be the subject of sentimentality, Bell instead raised the question of how such a coincidence could occur: ‘The curious point was, that the cat invariably returned to the house on the morning of each day my daughter was expected.’ He observed a similar phenomenon between his own dog and his gardener: ‘When [the gardener] opened the door, Floe, as she was called, rushed to the house in a frantic state to welcome me. The explanation of this may be attributed to the dog’s acute sense of hearing.’ [p. 226] Again, Bell distanced himself from the named pet Floe (‘as she was called’) and focused on the demonstration of animal instinct.

He disputed that tameness was a reflection of genuine bonds between animals and people, at least as certain people understood them:

Monkeys are sometimes very treacherous; and it is difficult to understand what leads them to show spite to certain members of the human family who, in the opinion of their friends, do not deserve it, and again to be quite affectionate with others. The one just described was very tame generally, and most peaceably disposed to all visitors except two. One was a young lady with a most pleasing countenance – really a pretty girl, and a great lover of pets. Whenever she entered the room where the monkey was kept, the latter flew into a perfect paroxysm of rage, and dashed himself against the bars of the cage in the vain endeavour to reach her. He jabbered and sputtered in a most menacing manner, and it would have been a serious thing for the girl if he had managed to escape.[p. 45]

Bell observed others’ attachments to pets, while he positioned himself above such sentiments. On visiting Westminster Aquarium, a lemur was ‘being handed from one person to another, particularly by ladies and children, each one being anxious to have it in their arms to cuddle and kiss.’ Bell, finding the lemur ‘pretty and delightful’, pulled some strings to acquire it: ‘Next evening the crowd, including the little girl, were disappointed to find their pet gone. Its absence resulted from a little private conversation which the man and I had in a secluded corner of the shop the evening before. I was sorry to disappoint the visitors to the Aquarium, and especially the little girl, but I wanted the animal badly.’ [p. 53] The passage implies that Bell’s reasons for wanting the lemur are of a different nature to those of the women and children playing with it. His status as the owner of the imported animal placed him above the ordinary admirer.

However self-conscious his endeavour, he seems to have felt some fondness for his animals, or at least derive amusement from them. As the Observer’s reviewer put it: ‘There seems to be no creature so odd, so outlandish,  so – to the ordinary man – repulsive, that Mr. Bell has not a warm corner in his heart for it. That is the true naturalist spirit.’ [Observer, 1906] When attempting to wean the emu young, he noted that ‘it was a painful experience’. Whether by painful he meant that it appeared to be so for the emus, or that it was painful for him to see the birds’ pain, is hard to say, but some sympathy with the birds may be inferred as he ends the anecdote: ‘After this I never separated them, but allowed them to wean themselves’ [p. 32]. While the size and variety of his menagerie allowed him to witness the death of a favourite monkey or rook without mourning, he nevertheless played the attentive owner and recognised the public’s delight in the idea of them as ‘pets’.

Bell’s attitude to his animals positioned him as a gentleman scientist, curious and enthusiastic in his hobby, but more rational and discerning than the average pet-owner. It also attests to a wider current in British thought. If as Eric Korn suggests, ‘The Victorian public was unsettled by evidence of animal traits in humans but delighted by anecdotes of human traits in animals’, then Bell’s playful observations, both affirming and querying human-animal bonds, served as another telling of this comforting story.

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This blog was written by Dr. Luke Kelly.

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