Wednesday, December 31, 2008

dogs of tongli

A few random pictures of dogs we encountered in Tongli, an old canal town outside Suzhou that's been turned into a "living museum" type tourist site. A large banner at the entrance to the city announces itself as one of Ten Most Glamorous (有魅力) Places in China - a rather weird bit of over-exertion that doesn't really jive with the groggy, half-heartedly kitschy feel of the town.

Here's a stray hanging out in front of a tourist shop:

This dog belongs to a shopkeeper who sells cakes and sweets:

A portly little guy on his late morning stroll, keeping clear of us:

Friday, December 19, 2008

sounds of shanghai

Circa 4:00 am, dogs snarling near Nanjing Dong Lu.* Reminds me of my crazy dogs back in the states, safely - but may be not too happily - sheltered in the kennel.

* Link added Dec 31, 2008: serendipitous flickr find, not my pics!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

goat, monkey, dog

A happy find from a google image search loosely inspired by the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn's 2007 essay "How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Nature and the Politics of Interspecies Engagement":

Kohn's elegant and brilliant article is about conceptions of animal sentience among the Runa people of Ecuadorian Amazon, especially Runa beliefs in the profound, intricately textured awareness that different non-human species - for example, dogs and pumas, dogs and agoutis - have of each other. The article abstract is here. I think I searched for "dog" and "Ecuadorian Amazon" and this photo came up.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

dogs & chains

I have wanted for some time to learn more about the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, a local animal welfare non-profit that I still only know through their website and this Independent Weekly article.* In their own words, the group has a "three-tiered mission":
1. Raise money and build fences for chained dogs in the community

2. Provide support to and educate the community as to why chaining is cruel and dangerous and raise awareness of the physical, mental and emotional needs of dogs

3. Advocate for the passing of laws that disallow or severely restrict the chaining of dogs
Not unlike earlier humane movements in US and British history, the organization targets a practice that's disproportionately associated with working class people - which, here in Durham, also means people of color. What's interesting about the Coalition's approach is its emphasis on community outreach/support along with advocacy and education. Watching the YouTube testimonial below - and others like it on the group's website - I was struck by how clearly dog-chaining is presented as an economic issue, not just a moral or, worse, "cultural" one. As the dog owner in this video tells the interviewer (and us, the audience), people don't chain up their dogs because they are indifferent to animal well-being, but often because they can't afford to fence in their yard or provide other kinds of outdoor activities.

It's interesting to contrast this mini-documentary with the Animal Cops reality show franchise on Animal Planet. Hydra-headed in the manner of CSI, the show has set up "precincts" in seven US cities: I've seen Animal Cops: Detroit, Animal Cops: Houston, and Animal Cops: Miami, but evidently there are shows based in New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Francisco as well. Having watched around 12-15 episodes in the series, my impression is that the you get a lot of graphic scenes of neglect and cruelty in urban neighborhoods, with very little context. The cop's-eye-view approach means that the pet owners who make it on screen are either criminal or abject or very often both. To me the Coalition's work - in the community as well as on the web - strikes a really heartening counterpoint.

* I have a very personal interest in the issue of chaining. About ten years ago we found one of our dogs Marley - the yellow one in these pictures - roaming the streets, bone thin, dragging a chain and combo lock. In a fit of Victoriana, Gary named him after Jacob Marley, whose ghost lumbers to a visitation with his old business partner Ebenezer Scrooge with a heavy iron chain "clasped about his middle... wound around him like a tail." (So no, despite his part-yellow lab phenotype, he's not named after that Marley.) To this day our Marley has fear aggression issues that may (or may not) be related to being tethered at some crucial developmental stage.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

the zodiac according to sarah palin

December 25 - February 28
: This holiday season: dress to kill!

February 29
: Don't forget the lipstick!

March 1 - April 1
: Put your best foot forward.

April 2 - October 30
: Your dazzling personality will melt their hearts.

October 31 - November 26
: See PIG - and WOLF, too

November 27 - December 25
: All is forgiven!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

first dog material?

President-elect Obama, I submit for your consideration, two mutts from the newly blue state of North Carolina:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

puppies for obama (or, a puppy for the obamas)

For some reason I had pictured the Obamas as cat people. But according to our President-elect's speech in Chicago last night, the first kids will be moving into the White House with a puppy.

I hope they choose a pit bull. It would be a nice bit of poetic justice!

Another thought: Without the lipstick, please.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

sunday renee french

Not sure if this is a dog or, maybe, a mouse? See more images here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

uncanny monkeys

Chalk this up as yet another entry in the prolific "bizarro Japan" genre of western reportage (this story comes from the British network ITN). If a small-town pub somewhere in England had "employed" a couple monkey waiters, it would probably be seen as a mark of the proprietor's eccentricity (endearing or creepy, depending). But this being Japan, it becomes yet more "proof" of the irreducible weirdness of Japanese people in general.

I have to say these macaques walking around in people's clothes, fetching people beer for edamame, are cute at first sight - but then the whole thing starts to feel a little funny, and not necessarily in a haha way... It reminds me of the concept of "uncanny valley," which the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined to describe the sense of unease - of "negative famliarity" - that humans feel towards robots as they become more and more human-like, maybe too human-like.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

race, class, & dogs

As part of my research on human-animal relationship in the social world of American slaves, I've read way more accounts of "slave hunts" - of dogs tracking down, treeing, sometimes attacking and mutilating human beings - than is good for my psychic health as an anti-racist dog person. But the most disturbing of all the versions I've encountered so far is actually a "comic" one written, no less, by someone with keen interest in animals.

Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815-1878) is best known today for his "Old Southwest" humor writings, particularly "The Big Bear of Arkansas," a minor masterpiece of backwoods myth-making that gets included in quite a few American Literature anthologies. In 1854, he published a purportedly "reformist" novel about slavery under the pen name Logan (selected chapters are supposed to be available here - though the site doesn't seem to be working). The fact that this response to Uncle Tom's Cabin is called The Master's House should tell you quite a bit. The "master" in Thorpe's title is Graham Mildmay, a Northern-educated and, as his ridiculous surname telegraphs, politically moderate Louisiana planter with a cute New England wife, "happy slaves," adoring animals, etc. Mildmay is not much of a protagonist, and much of the novel is taken up with subplots involving the lower class whites in his orbit - slave traders, slave catchers, overseers, backwater colonels, riffraff with names like "Toadvine." The basic premise of the novel is that unpropertied whites have made slavery unsustainable. Their lazy, vicious, and corrupt life style offends the sensibility of their genteel neighbors and, more importantly, endangers these neighbors' property, i.e. their slaves. Appropriately, the pivotal event in the book is the accidental killing of a slave by an inept, drunken overseer, who is later acquitted by a jury of his socio-economic peers, over the impotent objection of Mildmay and his planter friends.

In the "funny slave hunt" episode, the slave-catcher Stubbs, on the prowl for a local runaway, crosses path with a young aspirant in the business. The older man launches into an extended meta-tale of Duckeye and Blass, two slave-hunters and their respective dog packs, who also run smack into each other while trailing an escaped slave. The dogs got to the fugitive at about the same time:
The row was tremendous, and they would have sent the [slave] to kingdom cum, if the dogs, being strangers, had not got to fighting among themselves... While the dogs was going it among themselves, and the [runaway] was crying and yelling, old Duckeye and Blass got to quarrelling about who [made the catch]... so they got to swearing and scrimmaging, and tucking into each other their bowies, and yelling and cursing, the dogs fell on 'em both, and such a row ensued as never was afore.
In the commotion, the fugitive slipped away. Blass was stabbed and killed. In a turn that anticipates the trial in the novel's main frame, Duckeye got away with murder, since "it was agin the law to use the dogs and the [blacks] to swar again a white man in court." Again, typical of the novel's ideological sleight-of-hand, Thorpe takes an iconic image of racial sadism and turns it into an occasion to ridicule lower-class whites. The runaway avoids getting caught here, but he is also divested of any substance and humanity.

A couple other things worth noting here: unlike the dog in the illustration above, trotting neatly by its master's side, Duckeye and Blass's hounds are undisciplined loose cannons. Just like their fractious owners, they lose focus on their human quarry as soon as other dogs come into the picture. Belief in the social and moral isomorphism of dogs and their humans - e.g. that dogs of poor people also lack "class," etc. - is quite typical of planter class worldview, as the hunting scholar/historian Stuart Marks has shown. The mark of an antebellum gentleman hunter is a well-bred pointer or setter, a dog who moves - and stays still - with choreographic precision.

If they don't fit Thorpe's idea of a proper dog, Blass and Duckeye's packs are also rather different from the terrifying bloodhounds in abolitionist literature. Those dogs, too, carry out their master's command with perfect obedience, almost mechanistic accuracy. There is much more to say about how abolitionists imagine/represent dogs and the slave system. But for now, here's an incomplete thought: planter class advocates/apologists think that dogs ought to be perfect servants. Abolitionists think that dogs - at least the only dogs that matter in their understanding of slavery - are perfect servants, though dedicated to the wrong masters. This tells me that unpredictable, "doggy" dogs might pose a problem for the political ethology of both groups.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

the difference between sarah palin and michael vick

It seems cruel to pile on Sarah Palin now, post-Couric interview and what not. But Chris Rock does a good bit here (about 3:16 into the clip) on Sarah Palin's moose-killing vs. and Michael Vick's dog-killing:

He doesn't bring up the pit bull with lipstick line, but it's pretty clearly in the subtext/context. He does a similar bit in his interview with Larry King (1:46 in), in which he plays off King's racial cluelessness to pretty hilarious effects.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

cuteness relief

Custom wool "portraitures" from AmeliaMakesArt. More where this came from on the blog Cute Overload! [Original exclamation!]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

slaves as animals, animals as animals

It might seem counter-intuitive to ask how African Americans related to non-human animals in slavery times. To some this question might sound trivial, perversely obtuse even, given everything else slaves, as well as free people of color, had to contend with. Then there's the pervasive, persistent animalization of blacks in Western racial discourse and practice. The literary and cultural critic Jennifer Mason, who has written a really interesting book on the cultural and literary effects of the US animal welfare movement, sums up the problem this way:
... arguments about blacks’ affinities with or status as animals were used to justify their enslavement before the Civil War as well as the denial of their civil and political rights after it. Consequently nineteenth- century black writers necessarily took up the task of opposing Western civilization’s long history of categorizing people of African descent as subhuman animals – a task that would seem... to entail distancing African Americans from the animal world in order to establish their status as full members of the human race.
The ideological deck does seem to be stacked that way in antebellum anti-slavery literature, by black and white writers alike. Mason quotes a famous example from Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography:
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination.
Mason rightly points out that the language and logic of this passage are steeped through and through in the ideology of "Great Chain of Being." It derives its moral force from the belief that human beings are superior to mere "brute creation." The post-humanist in me twinges a bit when I read a passage like this: not so much because it assumes human superiority, actually, but because the animals here are so... clean. So disembodied. Following Donna Haraway's dictum that animals are "not here just to think with," but "here to live with" - you would have to say that Douglass's horses, sheep, and swine are decidedly of the first, "just to think with" species.

One thing I've started to notice in my recent readings are the rhetorical animals that have clearly consorted with creatures who were "there to live with." Consider these examples:
From Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man (1837), after an escape attempt by Ball was foiled by slave-catchers: "They then bound me with cords, and dragged me by the feet back to the house, and threw me into the kitchen, like a dead dog."

From an 1840 account of the experience of James Curry, born a slave in North Carolina, published in the Liberator, describing the vicious and fatal whipping of a slave on a neighboring plantation: "His flesh, at length, would draw and quiver all over his body, like newly killed beef, and finally it appeared as though it was dead. The poor creature was all the time shrieking, and begging, and pleading for mercy; but it had no more effect upon them than would the squealing of a hog they had been killing."

From an 1852 interview with the escaped slave James Smith in the Voice of the Fugitive, conducted by the well-known fugitive-turned-abolitionist Henry Bibb, again after Smith had been beaten after an unsuccessful attempt to run away: “The next morning about 9 o'clock when he awoke from this half dead state, bathed in blood, he found himself bound with strong cords, lying in a horse cart (like a slaughtered hog)”**
Like a dead dog, like a slaughtered hog, like newly killed beef: these are raw, pungent figures that don't point to some rarefied universal order or neatly graduated "scales" of being. Rather they give us glimpses into a world in which slaves lived alongside - and died with - animals under the most unsentimental circumstances possible. What's striking, too, is that these analogies don't just show us how humans are treated as animals in slavery, but also how animals are themselves treated like animals. How they are made killable, disposable, their carcasses thrown with impunity into the death pits of history. (Hat tips, as they say in blogospherese, to Haraway again, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben.)

** I first learned of Ball and Smith's narratives from the historian John Campbell, whom I've cited a couple times in this blog and whose two articles (that I know of) on dogs and slavery have been indispensable sources. Both Ball and Smith had dogs who figured prominently in their life under and away from slavery, which I hope to blog about soon. Smith's story has apparently been turned into a children's book.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

two cat skins and a whipping

For the last few months, I have been working on and off on a new research project on humans and non-humans in the social world of antebellum American slavery. Specifically, I'm interested in how enslaved people lived with, thought of, felt about animals. Now as in slavery times, it's common sense that slaves were treated like animals. But I'm interested in pushing that common sense a bit, and asking how such a thing happened in a world filled with actual non-human animals - cows and sheep that the enslaved tended as part of their daily labor, hogs and chickens that their masters sometimes let them raise, horses and oxen they drove, dogs they hunted with, dogs that hunted them.

So I've been collecting bits and pieces of this vast but largely overlooked realm of historical experience. The first ever post on this blog - which has since strayed off in various directions - was actually about a South Carolina slave and his dog, a mysterious and poignant episode unearthed by the historian John Campbell.

Last week I tried my unpracticed hand at some archival research, and turned up this odd fragment from the papers of a Georgia tannery owner named Elbert Baynes. Some context first: it seems that Baynes's customers generally procured their own animal skins and sent them to him for tanning and shoe-making. His papers included a number of paper scraps from customers, detailing what types of hides they sent, how many, what was to be done with them. This one was dated October 3, 1863,* from a certain Mr. William Roby:
All well, I send you by the boy Reuben one beef hide and 4 goat skins and 2 cat skins. Send Reuben back rite away whip him if dont start Tell Mr. Cofer to be sure to mark and book thes hids to recollect I have lost 2 hid by carelessness. (One big sic for original spelling errors)
Here we have a glimpse of a cat-skinning slave-owner who also appeared to have been a dickering, if not bullying, customer (Baynes's records showed that he owed Roby money). But then there is the faint but strangely luminous figure of "the boy" Reuben: skins in hand, himself threatened with whipping, likely by cowhide. How was he like or not like the "2 hid lost by carelessness" to his master - in this claustrophobic economy of hides, human and non-human?

What were these skins to him - and the animals they were before? Perhaps he also tended this cow and these goats. Perhaps there was no love lost between him and the cats. My very modest point here is that, whatever his feelings, they were a meaningful part of his existence, of his experience of being human on the edge of humanity.

* Quick follow-up (9/25/09): The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. By law, Reuben should have been free at this point - though in practice, this clearly was not the case.

when pigs and pit bulls write political speeches

In his preface to Frederick Douglass's watershed 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously begins:

You remember the old fable of "The Man and the Lion," where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented "when the lions wrote history."

I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history."
Let's give Phillips's animal metaphor a literal twist, and apply it to our own historical moment: what might pigs and pitbulls say about lipsticked humans who use animals as political trophies if they made campaign speeches?

Friday, September 5, 2008

the difference between sarah palin and pit bulls

What is it with Sarah Palin and animals?

For the sake of my blood pressure, I skipped Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night (yeah, I know, so "me first, country second"). When I came across a reference the following morning to that line about hockey moms, pit bulls, and lipstick, I thought for sure that it was something out of the Colbert Report. It had to be... right???

My incredulity was partly a reaction to the odious gender posturing (I guess she's both more butch and more femme than the rest of us). But part of it was plain cognitive dissonance. The last time I checked the American cultural imagination, the pit bull is the quintessential "gangsta" dog - i.e. violent, criminal, underclass, hypermasculine, and, above all, black. When the story of former NFL star Michael Vick's dog-fighting arrest broke in 2007, the media was awash in breathless insta-reports on pit bulls and black subcultures, as well as lots of poorly framed, zero-sum discussions of racism "versus" animal cruelty, civil rights "versus" animal rights. The feminist and animal ethics scholar Kathy Rudy has a good op-ed piece that addresses the problems with these facile dichotomies.

The dogs in the Vick case were very lucky in that they were seen as traumatized victims from the outset and ultimately granted a reprieve from group execution. (Coincidentally, Palin's pit bull quip comes just as Michael Vick's dogs are on national TV again, in not one but two specials about their rescue and rehabilitation.) But this efflorescence of public sympathy happened against a backdrop of persistent pit-phobia which imagines the breed as congenital killing machines unfit for human society. Pit bulls (and sometimes other bully and mastiff type dogs) are subject to breed-specific bans and disproportionate rates of euthanasia in public shelters. Sometimes the cyno-eugenics cavorts openly with human racism and classism, as this story about a recent breed ban in a Colorado suburb shows.

So how is it that, all of a sudden, we have a conservative white politician - the GOP's newly coronated spokesperson of "small town America" no less - claiming this hated urban beast as a mascot for "hockey moms"? In this Daily Show clip (about 3:10 in), Jon Stewart cuts to the quick: "one is unfairly maligned in spite of evidence that it is no worse than any other dog, and one is an artificial demographic that is no better or worse than any other mom." (Stewart, I just learned, is a pit bull person.)

I know this is just one soundbite, one small thing in a big election. But it does seem fitting that Palin would jokingly identify herself with an animal that's popularly imagined to be killers of other animals - and be more or less tone deaf to the reality of its systematic persecution by humans. After all, here's someone whose "executive experience" in human-canid relations includes support for aerial wolf gunning.

Friday, August 29, 2008

friday bizarro blogging

John McCain's VP pick Sarah Palin communes with Alaska's charismatic megafauna...

Courtesy of my favorite animal-named feminist blog, Pandagon.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

smart animals

From the BBC, my favorite source for critter news, two 21st-century entries in the venerable "sagacious animals" genre**:

1. "Wild" Australian dolphins develop "tail-walking culture"!
It seems weird to call a dolphin that lived close enough to humans to get trapped in a marina lock, rescued into a dolphinarium, then subsequently released to be closely observed by a team of scientists "wild." We humans sure have strange cognitive needs, don't we?

I never got around to seeing Happy Feet, but I can see this story being captured by Hollywood and genetically modified into a break-dancing cetacean flick. Or an even more anthropocentric version of Ratatouille, in which animals don't just want to become human, but aspire to be the funhouse version of themselves that humans want them to be.

2. Magpies can recognize mirror reflections of themselves!
And apparently they don't mind having random stickers stuck on their bodies as long as they can't see them.

** I'm using the term "sagacious animal" pretty loosely here, to refer to the kind of sometimes scientific, sometimes sentimental, sometimes a bit of both stories about smart animals and their funny ways that you'd find in the news and other popular sources. Harriet Ritvo, author of the wonderfully learned Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in Victorian England, gives a much more rigorous account of the concept of "animal sagacity" in the history of science:
... well into the last part of the nineteenth century "sagacity" was the standard term for intelligence demonstrated by animals. An individual animal or species might be described as "intelligent," but the term "intelligence" itself was generally reserved for strictly human capacities. (Conversely, if "sagacity" was attributed to human beings, it often had an ironic or less than flattering connotation.) The phrase "animal sagacity" in the title of a book or article often signaled an abstract discussion of instinct or intellect, the kind of discussion that might conclude by appreciating the intelligence of apes. But in the more common usage of naturalists, sagacity indicated not the ability to manipulate mechanical contraptions or solve logical problems, but a more diffuse kind of mental power: the ability to adapt to human surroundings and to please people. A somewhat circular calculation made the most sagacious animals the best servants. So dogs might not only rival apes in the mental competition, but surpass them - closest to their masters in mind as well as in domicile.
"The ability to adapt to human surroundings and to please people" - that may not be the official measure of animal cognitive capacities in 21st-century science, but it certainly still seems to be a potent force in the popular/pop-scientific imagination.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

conquest of dogs, conquest of everything

I took advantage of a transcontinental flight to finish about half of Kathleen Kete's The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris, which I've been meaning to read all summer. The book is sadly out of print, but available used. It's chock full of fascinating and often amusing historical details, from popular, highly embellished stories of animal virtue in the press (Grieving dog kills herself after master's death! Dog rescues abusive master! Etc.) to the fumbling attempts of Parisian authorities to enumerate, classify, and tax pet dogs. (My first post on this blog is actually about dog tax, too - though in the much different social world of plantation South Carolina.)

Call me a killjoy, but my antennas are always twitching for connections between dog-keeping and institutions of human-on-human dominance, especially racism and colonialism. So I was struck by these pronouncements from French naturalists that Kete cites:
From the novelist and journalist Aurélien Scholl, quoting the comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, infamous autopsist of the so-called Hottentot Venus: "[the domestication of dogs was] the most useful and most remarkable of conquests, 'perhaps essential to the establishment of society.'"

A more florid version from Oscar Honoré, author of the 1863 Le Coeur des bêtes: "The dog is probably the first conquest of man, and it is thanks to him that man has conquered some tens of other species of animals without which there would be today neither city, nor road, nor nation, nor maybe mankind itself on the earth."

(For a few more examples, see Kete, pp. 50-51)
So, as a kind of "gateway" objects of conquest, dogs also enable humans - by which these guys probably meant "Europeans" - to vanquish just about everything else in the world. These passages don't refer to the conquest of other humans as such, but it's strongly implied in Honoré's reference to nation-building (and perhaps also in Cuvier's "establishment of society"). It's easy to see the ideological potency in this trope of humans and dogs in league against the rest of the world - of humans turning nature against nature, of nature willingly serving "Man" against nature.

The subtitle of Mark Derr's A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent is a contemporary American variation on this theme, with a more cano-centric twist. The frontier thesis triumphalism here strikes me as oddly tone-teaf, given that the book actually includes a substantial, well-researched section on the horrifying use of war dogs in the Spanish Conquest of the Americas that - how can it be otherwise? - is anything but celebratory. But perhaps the title is the marketer's handiwork.

Monday, July 14, 2008

dogs in early 20th-century china

The Special Collections Library at Duke recently launched a digital collection of the photographs of the early 2oth-century sociologist and China scholar Sidney G. Gamble. I have barely skimmed the surface of the collection, but did turn up these two striking images of dogs and children:

The bibliographic records for the photos are here and here.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

murmuration of starlings

An addendum to my last post about the comic artist Kevin Huizenga's re-takes of Audubon and the genre of natural history. I compared Huizenga's squirrels to Audubon's pigeons, but didn't mention Kevin H's own wonderful swarming birds story, "The Curse," which is part of a 3-part cycle on the mysteries and miseries of suburban life. Salon ran a great review of these and other works in the collection Curses back in 2006.

In "The Curse," the bird in question is the starling, an imported "old world" species that has thrived in North America, not unlike the highly invasive human suburbanites they now torment, with their ceaseless chirpings and - true to the spirit of the departed passenger pigeons, perhaps - voluminous droppings.

Here's a post from Huizenga's own blog about the latest in starlings (well, latest as of April 2007) .

squirrels & pigeons

A very funny page from the mini-comic Or Else #4, by one of my favorite comic artists Kevin Huizenga (image from Beguiling, the on-line comic art store):These fictional squirrel marauders of yore have always reminded me of John James Audubon's description of the now extinct passenger pigeon:
In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.
The last bit is probably the most charmingly gross passage in the annals of American letters.

Friday, July 4, 2008

friday monkey blogging

I don't really blog regularly enough for this "friday [insert your favored species here] blogging" to make sense, but here it is anyway.

From the Guardian's "The Week in Wildlife" series: "A golden langur – one of the world's most endangered species, found only in a few pockets in western Assam and adjoining Bhutan – and a Hanuman monkey in playful mood at the zoological park." Looks like monkey fight to me!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


I noodled around with two earlier posts about the "turnspit" dog. Apparently I'm kind of obsessed with it!

Friday, June 20, 2008

friday interspecies blogging

From BBC: tiger cub born in captivity gets adopted by mama dog. Video here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"hoop, hoop!" / more on the turnspit dog

I posted last week about the turnspit, a variety of now-"extinct" small English working dogs used to turn meat on spits and perform other tasks involving repetitive circular motion. When I learned about these dogs, the following scene from Frank Norris' classic - or, as I prefer to categorize it, crazy - naturalist novel McTeague immediately came to mind:
The Sieppes lived in a little box of a house... In the backyard was a contrivance for pumping water from the cistern that interested McTeague at once. It was a dog-wheel, a huge revolving box in which the unhappy black greyhound spent most of his waking hours. It was his kennel; he slept in it. From time to time during the day Mrs. Sieppe appeared on the back doorstep, crying shrilly, "Hoop, hoop!" She threw lumps of coal at him, waking him to his work.
In this early scene, the titled character is visiting his girlfriend Trina at her family home - both blissfully unaware that her greed and his supposedly "crude, primitive nature" are about to converge in a horrifying spiral of death and destruction. Elsewhere in the book, McTeague's BFF/worst enemy Marcus has an odd job escorting rich people's dogs to and from an animal hospital. Against the backdrop of this emerging veterinary and pet-pampering modernity, the Sieppes' turnspit marks them as decidedly "backwards" people.

(Revised June 30, 2008)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

the turnspit

Wikipedia find of the day: the turnspit, a type of working dog that, the entry tells us, went "extinct" after industrialization. The turnspit - or "turnespete," to use the 16th-century spelling - is one of 17 varieties described by Johannus Caius' 1570 treatise Of Englishe Dogges (Google has helpfully digitized the 1880 reprint of the English translation). It's not a "breed" as we understand the term now, but a functional category that basically describes small dogs trained to run in a wheel and perform various menial tasks involving circular motion - butter-churning, flour-milling, and as its name suggests and this sad-funny illustration confirms, turning meat on a spit. Now I'm going to think of my dog Timmy every time I see a gyro machine...

The wiki entry links to this photo with the irresistible caption, "Whisky, the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed" on a Welsh cultural history site:

I'm not sure it makes much sense to talk about the turnspit as "extinct" - presumably dogs like Whisky continued to exist in Great Britain, people just stopped using them as rotisserie motors. What does seem to have died out, at least from the post-industrial United States, is the idea that dogs could be rigged to up to a machine like in this way. Kind of steam punk - or something...

(Revised June 27, 2008)

Friday, May 23, 2008

dogs & the economy

An interesting story from BBC about pet dogs and hard times in Yorkshire.

: A video report on a similar trend in Cumbria of people giving up their animals - in this case goats and other livestock - because of rising food cost and worsening economic conditions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

facts in dog history

In 1859, the South Carolina General Assembly, after years of vigorous lobbying by sheep farmers, instituted a fine on any dog owner whose canine charge kills or injures a sheep. While they were at it, the legislators also imposed an annual $1 tax on "every dog kept by a slave," and $2 for one belonging to a free person of color. Whites could own their dogs for free.

The "slave dog" tax was actually levied on the slaveowner. In this fascinating article, the historian John Campbell tells the story of a slave named Henry whose owner refused to pay the tax ($1 in 1859 is equivalent to roughly $25 today), but (magnanimously) did not object to his slaves keeping their dogs if they covered the fees themselves. According to the owner's ledgers, Henry turned over $1 from his personal earnings for his dog. But then, for reasons now lost to us, Henry changed his mind. He was "credited" $1 in his master's books. His dog was killed.

It's a strangely haunting story of the petty, everyday cruelties of slavery.