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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Pets
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

That enterprising savage who first domesticated the pig has a good deal to answer for. I do not say that the moral training of the pig was a distinct evil, for it undoubtedly saved many aged and respectable persons from serious inconvenience. The more practical members of the primitive tribes were wont to club the patriarchs whom they regarded as having lived long enough; and an exaggerated spirit of economy led the sons of the forest to eat their venerable relatives. The domestication of the noble animal which is the symbol of Irish prosperity caused a remarkable change in primitive public opinion. The gratified savage, conscious of possessing pigs, no longer cast the anxious eye of the epicure upon his grandmother. Thus a disagreeable habit and a disagreeable tradition were abolished, and one more step was made in the direction of universal kindliness. But, while we are in some measure grateful to the first pig-tamer, we do not feel quite so sure about the first person who inveigled the cat into captivity. Mark that I do not speak of the "slavery" of the cat--for who ever knew a cat to do anything against its will? If you whistle for a dog, he comes with servile gestures, and almost overdoes his obedience; but, if a cat has got into a comfortable place, you may whistle for that cat until you are spent, and it will go on regarding you with a lordly blink of independence. No; decidedly the cat is not a slave. Of course I must be logical, and therefore I allow, under reasonable reservations, that a boot-jack, used as a projectile, will make a cat stir; and I have known a large garden-syringe cause a most picturesque exodus in the case of some eloquent and thoughtful cats that were holding a conference in a garden at midnight. Still I must carefully point out the fact that the boot-jack will not induce the cat to travel in any given direction for your convenience; you throw the missile, and you must wait in suspense until you know whether your cat will vanish with a wild plunge through the roof of your conservatory or bound with unwonted smartness into your favourite William pear tree. The syringe is scarcely more trustworthy in its action than the boot-jack; the parting remarks of six drenched cats are spirited and harmonious; but the animals depart to different quarters of the universe, and your hydraulic measure, so far from bringing order out of chaos, merely evokes a wailing chaos out of comparative order. These discursive observations aim at showing that a cat has a haughty spirit of independence which centuries of partial submission to the suzerainty of man have not eradicated. I do not want to censure the ancient personage who made friends with the creature which is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever to many estimable people--I reserve my judgment. Some otherwise calm and moral men regard the cat in such a light that they would go and jump on the tomb of the primeval tamer; others would erect monuments to him; so perhaps it is better that we do not know whose memory we should revere--or anathematise--the processes are reversible, according to our dispositions. Man is the paragon of animals; the cat is the paradox of animals. You cannot reason about the creature; you can only make sure that it has every quality likely to secure success in the struggle for existence; and it is well to be careful how you state your opinions in promiscuous company, for the fanatic cat-lover is only a little less wildly ferocious than the fanatical cat-hater.

Cats and pigs appear to have been the first creatures to earn the protective affection of man; but, ah, what a cohort of brutes and birds have followed! The dog is an excellent, noble, lovable animal; but the pet-dog! Alas! I seem to hear one vast sigh of genuine anguish as this Essay travels round the earth from China to Peru. I can understand the artfulness of that wily savage who first persuaded the wolf-like animal of the Asiatic plains to help him in the chase; I understand the statesmanship of the Thibetan shepherd who first made a wolf turn traitor to the lupine race. But who first invented the pet-dog? This impassioned question I ask with thoughts that are a very great deal too deep for tears. Consider what the existence of the pet-dog means. You visit an estimable lady, and you are greeted, almost in the hall, by a poodle, who waltzes around your legs and makes an oration like an obstructionist when the Irish Estimates are before the House. You feel that you are pale, but you summon up all your reserves of base hypocrisy and remark, "Poor fellow! Poo-poo-poo-ole fellow!" You really mean, "I should like to tomahawk you, and scalp you afterwards!"--but this sentiment you ignobly retain in your own bosom. You lift one leg in an apologetic way, and poodle instantly dashes at you with all the vehemence of a charge of his compatriots the Cuirassiers. You shut your eyes and wait for the shedding of blood; but the torturer has all the malignant subtlety of an Apache Indian, and he tantalizes you. Presently the lady of the house appears, and, finding that you are beleaguered by an ubiquitous foe, she says sweetly, "Pray do not mind Moumou; his fun gets the better of him. Go away, naughty Moumou! Did Mr. Blank frighten him then--the darling?" Fun! A pleasing sort of fun! If the rescuer had seen that dog's sanguinary rushes, she would not talk about fun. When you reach the drawing-room, there is a pug seated on an ottoman. He looks like a peculiarly truculent bull-dog that has been brought up on a lowering diet of gin-and-water, and you gain an exaggerated idea of his savagery as he uplifts his sooty muzzle. He barks with indignation, as if he thought you had come for his mistress's will, and intended to cut him off with a Spratt's biscuit. Of course he comes to smell round your ankles, and equally of course you put on a sickly smile, and take up an attitude as though you had sat down on the wrong side of a harrow. Your conversation is strained and feeble; you fail to demonstrate your affection; and, when a fussy King Charles comes up and fairly shrieks injurious remarks at you, the sense of humiliation and desertion is too severe, and you depart. Of course your hostess never attempts to control her satellites--they are quiet with her; and, even if one of them sampled the leg of a guest with a view to further business, she would be secretly pleased at such a proof of exclusive affection. We suppose that people must have something to be fond of; but why should any one be fond of a pug that is too unwieldy to move faster than a hedgehog? His face is, to say the least, not celestial--whatever his nose may be; he cannot catch a rat; he cannot swim; he cannot retrieve; he can do nothing, and his insolence to strangers eclipses the best performances of the finest and tallest Belgravian flunkeys. He is alive, and in his youth he may doubtless have been comic and engaging; but in his obese, waddling, ill-conditioned old age he is such an atrocity that one wishes a wandering Chinaman might pick him up and use him instantly after the sensible thrifty fashion of the great nation.

I love the St. Bernard; he is a noble creature, and his beautiful life-saving instinct is such that I have seen a huge member of the breed jump off a high bridge to save a puppy which he considered to be drowning. The St. Bernard will allow a little child to lead him and to smite him on the nose without his uttering so much as a whine by way of remonstrance. If another dog attacks him, he will not retaliate by biting--that would be undignified, and like a mere bull-dog; he lies down on his antagonist and waits a little; then that other dog gets up when it has recovered breath, and, after thinking the matter over, it concludes that it must have attacked a sort of hairy traction-engine. All these traits of the St. Bernard are very sweet and engaging, and I must, moreover, congratulate him on his scientific method of treating burglars; but I do object with all the pathos at my disposal to the St. Bernard considered as a pet. His master will bring him into rooms. Now, when he is bounding about on glaciers, or infringing the Licensing Act by giving travellers brandy without scrutinizing their return-tickets, or acting as pony for frozen little boys, or doing duty as special constable when burglars pay an evening call, he is admirable; but, when he enters a room, he has all the general effects of an earthquake without any picturesque accessories. His beauty is of course praised, and, like any other big lumbering male, he is flattered; his vast tail makes a sweep like the blade of a screw-propeller, and away goes a vase. A maid brings in tea, and the St. Bernard is pleased to approve the expression of Mary's countenance; with one colossal spring he places his paws on her shoulders, and she has visions of immediate execution. Not being equal to the part of an early martyr, she observes, "Ow!" The St. Bernard regards this brief statement as a compliment, and, in an ecstasy of self-approval, he sends poor Mary staggering. Of course, when he is sent out, after causing this little excitement, he proceeds to eat anything that happens to be handy; and, as the cook does not wish to be eaten herself, she bears her bitter wrong in silence, only hoping that the two pounds of butter which the animal took as dessert may make him excessively unwell.

Now I ask any man and brother, or lady and sister, is a St. Bernard a legitimate pet in the proper sense of the word? As to the bull-dog, I say little. He at least is a good water-dog, and, when he is taught, he will retrieve birds through the heaviest sea as long as his master cares to shoot. But his appearance is sardonic, to say the least of it; he puts me in mind of a prize-fighter coming up for the tenth round when he has got matters all his own way. Happily he is not often kept as a pet; he is usually taken out by fast young men in riverside places, for his company is believed to give an air of dash and fashion to his master; and he waddles along apparently engaged in thinking out some scheme of reform for sporting circles in general. In a drawing-room he looks unnatural, and his imperturbable good humour fails to secure him favour. Dr. Jessopp tells a story of a clergyman's wife who usually kept from fifteen to twenty brindled bull-dogs; but this lady was an original character, and her mode of using a red-hot iron bar when any of her pets had an argument was marked by punctuality and despatch.

The genuine collie is an ideal pet, but the cross-grained fleecy brutes bred for the show-bench are good neither for one thing nor another. The real, homely, ugly collie never snaps at friends; the mongrel brute with the cross of Gordon setter is not safe for an hour at a time. The real collie takes to sheep-driving by instinct; he will run three miles out and three miles in, and secure his master's property accurately after very little teaching; the present champion of all the collies would run away from a sheep as if he had seen a troop of lions. In any case, even when a collie is a genuine affectionate pet, his place is not in the house. Let him have all the open air possible, and he will remain healthy, delightful in his manners, and preternaturally intelligent. The dog of the day is the fox-terrier, and a charming little fellow he is. Unfortunately it happens that most smart youths who possess fox-terriers have an exalted idea of their friends' pugilistic powers, and hence the sweet little black, white, and tan beauty too often has life concerted into a battle and a march. Still no one who understands the fox-terrier can help respecting and admiring him. If I might hint a fault, it is that the fox-terrier lacks balance of character. The ejaculation "Cats!" causes him to behave in a way which is devoid of well-bred repose, and his conduct when in presence of rabbits is enough to make a meditative lurcher or retriever grieve. When a lurcher sees a rabbit in the daytime, he leers at him from his villainous oblique eye, and seems to say, "Shan't follow you just now--may have the pleasure of looking you up this evening." But the fox-terrier converts himself into a kind of hurricane in fur, and he gives tongue like a stump-orator in full cry. I may say that, when once the fox-terrier becomes a drawing-room pet, he loses all character--he might just as well be a pug at once. The Bedlington is perhaps the best of all terriers, but his disreputable aspect renders him rather out of place in a refined room. It is only when his deep sagacious eyes are seen that he looks attractive. He can run, swim, dive, catch rabbits, retrieve, or do anything. I grieve to say that he is a dog of an intriguing disposition; and no prudent lady would introduce him among dogs who have not learned mischief. The Bedlington seems to have the power of command, and he takes a fiendish delight in ordering young dogs to play pranks. He will whisper to a young collie, and in an instant you will see that collie chasing sheep or hens, or hunting among flower-beds, or baiting a cow, or something equally outrageous. Decidedly the Bedlington does not shine as a pet; and he should be kept only where there are plenty of things to be murdered daily--then he lives with placid joy, varied by sublime Berserker rage.

As to feathered pets, who has not suffered from parrots? You buy a grey one at the docks, and pay four pounds for him on account of his manifold accomplishments. When he is taken home and presented to a prim lady, he of course gives her samples of the language used by the sailors on the voyage home; and, even when his morals are cured and his language is purified by discipline, he is a terrible creature. The imp lurks in his eye, and his beak--his abominable beak--is like a malicious vice. But I allow that Polly, when well behaved, gives a charming appearance to a room, and her ways are very quaint. Lonely women have amused themselves for many and many a weary hour with the antics of the pretty tropical bird; and I shall say nothing against Poll for the world.

I started with the intention of merely skirting the subject; but I find I am involved in considerations deep as society--deep as the origins of the human race. In their proper place I like all pets, with the exception of snakes. The aggressive pug is bad enough, but the snake is a thousand times worse. When possible, all boys and girls should have pets, and they should be made to tend their charges without any adult help whatever. No indirect discipline has such a humanizing effect. The unregenerate boy deprived of pets will tie kettles to dogs' tails, he will shoot at cats with catapults, he is merciless to small birds, and no one can convince him that frogs or young nestlings can feel. When he has pets, his mental horizon is widened and his kindlier instincts awaken. A boy or girl without a pet is maimed in sympathy.

Let me plead for discrimination in choice of pets. A gentleman--like the celebrated Mary--had a little lamb which he loved; but the little lamb developed into a very big and vicious ram which the owner could not find heart to kill. When this gentleman's friends were holding sweet and improving converse with him, that sheep would draw up behind his master's companion; then he would shoot out like a stone from a sling, and you would see a disconcerted guest propelled through space in a manner destructive alike to dignity and trousers. That sheep comes and butts at the front-door if he thinks his master is making too long a call; it is of no use to go and apologize for he will not take any denial, and, moreover, he will as soon ram you with his granite skull as look at you. Let the door be shut again, and the sheep seems to say, "If I don't send a panel in, you may call me a low, common goat!" and then he butts away with an enthusiasm which arouses the street. A pet of that sort is quite embarrassing, and I must respectfully beg leave to draw the line at rams. A ram is too exciting a personage for the owner's friends.

Every sign that tells of the growing love for dumb animals is grateful to my mind; for any one who has a true, kindly love for pets cannot be wholly bad. While I gently ridicule the people who keep useless brutes to annoy their neighbours, I would rather see even the hideous, useless pug kept to wheeze and snarl in his old age than see no pets at all. Good luck to all good folk who love animals, and may the reign of kindness spread!

_March, 1888._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Pets