It has become apparent that animal protectionists were initially mainly preoccupied with the mistreatment of cattle, horses, and other draught animals. however, the movement developed in a new direction, as a result of the place now given to dogs, and later cats, by the upper classes. Previously, humans had used domesticated dogs to carry out a variety of tasks: finding game, pulling carts, turning roasting spits, and, above all, guarding the property against intruders. In those earlier days, the treatment of dogs – and indeed the treatment of men – depended on the attitudes of their powerful masters, which varied greatly. Hunting dogs, whose skills were highly valued by their aristocratic masters, were often better fed and more comfortably lodged than the servants. From the late Middle Ages onward, another category of domesticated dogs enjoyed special status, namely the small dogs that noble ladies kept as pets. Indeed the terms “pet” or “household pet” date from this time, and are applied to an animal having no other function than to be decorative, and to keep its master or mistress company, thus distinguishing it from both wild animals and domesticated creatures who are assigned useful tasks. Originally, this kind of animal, the “Lady’s favorite,” was especially close to its mistress, and was used in games of seduction developed within a civilizing process that exalted sweetness, a sense of propriety, and tactfulness. “Sweet smiles, affectionate glances, “innocent caresses,” and “lively games […], these compassionate feminine gestures are all messages directed at men. The animal is thus given a new role in domestic space: it mediates a propaedeutic of sentiment” Nevertheless, once again, the importance of these new relations with a companion animal must be understood in the context of the modifications these relations go through as they are adopted by more and more people.
Very quickly, the rising social classes, eager to resemble the aristocracy, also kept animals which they treated with care, thus distinguishing themselves from the common people, who tended to be violent toward animals. The decorative dog, and then the lapdog, fulfilled a display function: individuals used ownership of such animals to enable their owners to “define themselves as being extremely respectable.” This explains the importance attached to being able to identify different breeds of dog, as well as the prestige of dog shows reserved for animals of the finest pedigree: people with taste cannot pretend to appreciate mongrel dogs. Furthermore, attachment to dogs became more widespread, thanks to the increasing popularity of stories praising the extraordinary loyalty of canine companions.
Nevertheless, the role of companion dogs was certainly not simply to be an ostentatious marker of social status. As they became more commonly welcomed into middle-class homes, pet dogs took on new and determinant meanings in the historical evolution of animal welfare. As is well known the middle classes, unlike the aristocracy, tend to favor a clear separation between public and private spaces, and between the world of work and the family unit. From this perspective, the family home – “Home sweet home” – is the most private of places, where one can spend time with, and show affection to one’s children.
The social existence of respectable women is strictly confined to roles – mistress of the house, wife, and mother – which have close links to the matrimonial home. Women were tasked with supervising harmony in the home and lavishing care on all family members, cats and dogs included. Men, on the other hand, while benefiting from the pleasant environment at home, also had the option of visiting brothels or seeing women, less virtuous than their wives, who could offer them sexual and sensual pleasure. In other words, limiting women’s roles to that of homemakers entailed unprecedented restrictions on women’s sexuality. In this context, relations between women and their pets assumed complex and ambivalent meanings. Caring for a puppy or a kitten, by awakening the “maternal instinct,” was perceived as being one of the best ways of preparing little girls for their future role as housewives. Nevertheless, we could equally present the hypothesis that showing tenderness to animals could be a convenient way of evading the group of representations according to which sexual relations with men can only have two outcomes: childbirth or debauchery. Far from constituting a language of seduction addressed – in a euphemistic form – to the male suitor, the tenderness lavished on an animal could have been the best way to elude the frightening sexuality of men.
We should not forget that Victorian prudery, in order to preserve the innocence of young girls, excluded from their education any information which would have prepared them for the sexual relations that marriage held in store for them. In fact, from the testimony of the activist journalist – whom we will come back to presently – the events of their wedding nights were often a shocking and traumatic experience for young brides.
Thus, the relationships that women of that time had with their pets resulted from conditions that offered them few options. They could either resign themselves to having the social existence of a procreating spouse confined to the matrimonial home, or escape – by choice or force of circumstances – from being subordinate to a husband, and live in cruel social isolation. Thus for women whose social condition provided them little feeling of self-worth, animal welfare – and in particular the care offered in cities to stray dogs and cats – took on a special significance. In actual fact, the help given to animals in distress contributed to the dualist posture which the early feminists used to exploit as best they could the bourgeois polarization of masculine and feminine functions: they demanded the right to intervene in the public sphere, “in order to highlight the power of the private sphere, as well as subvert its boundaries by introducing so-called private questions into the public sphere”. This accreditation strategy – relying on supposedly typically feminine qualities – is used to good effect when applied to those practices which consist of transforming the domestic responsibility for household pets into a more general concern for the way animals are treated outside the context of the family.
At the end of the 19th century, it was women who pioneered the initiatives which still constitute the main activities of many animal protection organizations: caring for abandoned dogs, feeding the homeless neighborhood cats, and putting down newborn young “to [better] protect individuals and to avoid an increase in the number of abandoned animals.” Sometimes in the evening, by waste ground, gardens, and public buildings, we can see in the west, the silhouette of a woman, a basket over her arm, standing in the shadows, quietly calling to invisible creatures. To this call, which they know so well, a host of cats, appearing from everywhere, rush up to the mysterious stranger, who hands out a portion of food – served on a piece of paper – to each one of these famished creatures […]. Without having discussed this among themselves, women and girls, young and old, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, are all prompted by a spontaneous feeling. These abandoned creatures provoke the same maternal instinct, this sacred instinct, innate to the hearts of women, that makes them join in compassion, and lean down lovingly toward all that suffers and all that call out for help.
For the speaker, these “sisters of charity,” these “humble and holy women,” these “devoted servants of the cause of pity,” are the “messages of the true morality,” the pioneers of a world where men “open their hearts to the same emotions, and do not believe that their manly dignity will be threatened if they show kindness to creatures who are crushed and tortured by life, even when those creatures are animals.” Apart from the foundation of animal protection societies, the most significant development in the history of animal protection was undoubtedly the institutionalization of refuges to shelter and care for abandoned dogs. The fact that it was referred to as a “Dog’s home” attests to the influence of those representations which incite women to denounce a public scandal in terms of roles that are allocated to them within the private sphere. Here, the aim is to come to the aid of animals in need of a family by finding them a suitable new home, after their former owners have abandoned them.
For the older members, such initiatives were simply aimed at continuing to apply measures on the basis of a well-established emotional economy. Indeed, the Women’s SPCA in Philadelphia was campaigning to put an end to the sight of offensive acts of violence committed by municipal pound employees, who often behaved as badly as the worst coachmen: “the capture and killing of stray unmuzzled urban dogs, by city employees, was carried out in a revoltingly cruel way.” The ladies’ recommendations – that lassos be replaced with nets, and that the killing the dogs, by asphyxiation, be carried out in a more humane way – aimed to “decrease the suffering of an animal which is, after man, one of God’s most noble creations.” But they did not in any way question the thinking behind one of the most long-standing concerns of the SPA: to campaign against the multitude of dogs in cities that uselessly consume food, offend people with their unsavory appearance, and generate fear about the spreading of rabies and other harmful miasmas. It is clear, however, that newer recruits to the movement, influenced by the increasingly close relationships people enjoyed with pets in a domestic context, saw the collection of abandoned dogs in a very different light. This new perspective among activists is apparent in the following touching account, which describes in detail the feelings that a visit to the animal pound.
Perhaps in the way they look, full of curiosity, at the visitor, one can discern a vague expression of hope. These dogs remember an absent person who they belonged to, someone they loved. Who can be sure that they do not think every day of the master they have lost, or who lost them in order to have one less mouth to feed, one less burden on their meager household budget? Each one of them has a story – perhaps poignant, perhaps wonderful – but which unfortunately will never be written. In any case, the hearts of those dogs, heavy with all the suffering they have experienced, will be quick to love those who will give them back, as well as their liberty, the joy of having a home. Just as the use of phrases celebrating the loving qualities of dogs became more widespread, sensitizing devices of this kind paved the way for an emotional economy quite different from the anti-sentimentalism which the founders of the first protection societies claimed adhered to. The imagination grasping the distress experienced by the abandoned animal; the care that the benefactors offered to comfort him; the spectacle of his immediate and immense gratitude, as well as the promise of the development of a growing joy shared in his new home, now allowed emotions to be shown which fall within a register of pity.
If one was willing to take the trouble to go back and consult the past papers, and the newspapers, even when they were critical, they clearly show not only that the society is not playing its proper role when it ostensibly and officially involves itself in a question of sentiment; but in fact, if you study the matter, it is clear that the society promised not to become a women’s club, namely, as everyone knows, a purely sentimental society, and only recruited serious members on the understanding that this would not be the case. [If it becomes a women’s society] it also means that there will never be men who are good enough to mix with these women […]. Look at the large majority of women on the refuge committee […]. Who are the people who are so vigorously demanding the creation of a refuge, which is a wholly sentimental initiative? It would be difficult to find any public utility in it, as there is a pound which already takes care of such problems. These are people who may have little knowledge of administrative matters, indeed the ladies themselves willingly admit as much, and yet [this initiative] will cause nothing but problems, administratively speaking! There are also the new arrivals in our society, who have been members for two or three years at the most, and who are not concerned that there are many other outstanding questions, all of the utmost utility, concerning the animals we are protecting, but as they know nothing about these questions yet, they cannot appreciate them.
All other matters are made to wait, while we decide about the future well-being of the cats and dogs! And if we gave in, Ladies and Gentlemen, if we no longer formed a majority, believe us that another overwhelming and dangerous majority would soon materialize, a majority which would be new and consequently ignorant of the intrigues in our society; in this case, any question which appeals to sentiment will be well received, and it will be a matter of who does the most, of who is the most extreme. After a refuge has been built they will ask for a building fit for these dear animals, then kennels decorated with golden fringes, and silver-gilt drinking bowls […]. The doctors have already withdrawn [from our society], and the veterinarians are no longer shown respect in the “sentimental assembly.”