About two weeks ago the level of activity in my household was added to significantly by the addition of a miniature pinscher, Electra. She’s 5 months old, incredibly friendly and relatively non-destructive. This photo taken at the pet shop makes her look the size of a shepherd, but in fact she’s not much bigger than the rats her breed was developed to hunt. So far, we’re very happy.
Dogs were probably domesticated about 15,000 years ago, in Neolithic Europe and have closely associated with us ever since. But we humans have catholic tastes around our choice of cohabitants. Around the time that Electra’s ancestors were beginning to populate German barns, Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales, was painted by Holbein posing with his pet, a common marmoset Callithrix jacchus. History doesn’t record where he obtained it or how we felt about the animal. Suffice to say that it was a New World monkey from the northeastern coast of Brazil, so however
it got to the prince, it traveled a very long way and was as much a symbol of wealth and power as it was a beloved companion. In Tudor England monkeys were already common as pets for the well-heeled. Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII as well as the King’s sister Margaret both had portraits painted holding monkeys, and Princess Elizabeth (later Queen) is said to have tried to teach her pet monkey to play tennis.
Birds have also been our longtime companions. In the Westminster Abbey collection is a life size wax effigy of Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox. She ordered that her wax effigy, dressed in her coronation robes, to be set up in the Abbey as her memorial upon her death, where it has remained since 1702.
Beside her effigy is displayed her pet African grey parrot Psittacus erithacus on a stand. It is said to have lived with her for 40 years and died soon after her. African grey parrots have been hugely popular as pets in the Developed World since the 17th century.
Very few mounted bird specimens survive from this period but x-rays show that the entire skeleton of the bird is intact including its skull. This was a very primitive technique – modern taxidermy removes the skull and body to replace it with form made of wire and padding. This beloved pet is probably the oldest taxidermy bird in existence.
Westminster Abbey speculates that the parrot has probably survived because the protection it’s received in its display case.
This desire for animals in the home represents the same sort of connection to nature that I mentioned around flowers in my last post. This special bond with a non-human creature connects us to something inexplicably outside ourselves that is both immensely satisfying and perhaps a little magical. Witness 2014 data in which Americans spend about $60 billion on pets annually, owning an estimated 95.6 million cats and 83.3 million dogs, 20.6 million birds, 8.3 million horses, 145 million freshwater fish, 13.6 million saltwater fish, 11.6 million reptiles and 18.1 million small animals. Globally, pet food alone is set to reach $78.4 billion by 2017.
Ironically, the love for our pets are sending some species to extinction. It’s not just because our cats mow through millions of birds every year worldwide, although this is important. But taking exotic species from the wild is destroying natural populations and habitats. For instance, the Wild Parrot Trust, says that between 1994 and 2003, over 359,000 African grey parrots were traded on the international market. Mortality among imported birds, like all wildlife, is extremely high. As a result of the extensive harvest of wild birds, adding to already catastrophic habitat loss, this species is believed to be undergoing a rapid decline in the wild and has therefore been rated as vulnerable by the IUCN. This story is repeated over many times not only with birds, but with small monkeys, lizards and snakes – essentially anything that will fit inside a cage or tank in somebody’s home. The pet trade may well help push many wild species to extinction.
And yet, the draw of keeping a little piece of the natural world within arm’s reach is undeniable. The other day while looking for toys with which to shower Electra, I noticed that the National Geographic, perhaps surprisingly, has created a line of pet toys. On the box they have an explanation as to why, which resonates with this point: National Geographic’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. We believe that responsible pet ownership is a great way to experience some of the wonders of our world while developing a greater love and compassion for it.
That philosophy overlaps with fundamental missions of zoos, natural history museums and wildlife parks. I’m not sure that Electra, wearing her new fluorescent orange parka, looks much like a wonder of the natural world. But at least it’s a reminder to me. And it keeps the snow off her.