Glenn Uminowicz - January 2008

Its Not a Home Without a Puppy!


Glenn Uminowicz

Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County

   The puppies pictured (here) have just emerged from a sack in which they were abandoned on a road near Trappe. Apparently their owner desired to get rid of his unwanted wards and hoped that by dumping them on a country road they would somehow find a new home. Similar incidents occur every week. In practice, the puppies, cats, or other abandoned animals seldom find homes and usually die miserably. Talbot County does not have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and there is therefore no place where unwanted animals can be left to be placed in new homes or mercifully destroyed. This does not excuse the heartless abandonment of animals on our country roads. Every countian should be interested in seeing this practice halted.

From the Easton Star-Democrat (November 1948)

   In 1948, the local Easton newspaper published a compelling photograph entitled “PUPPIES WITHOUT HOMES.” The caption alerted readers to the practice of abandoning unwanted animals along country roads. The work of the county animal welfare organization had been interrupted during World War II. In part spurred by interest sparked by this photograph, the Talbot County Humane Society resumed animal welfare work in 1948.
    This story about abandoned puppies evoked in readers what historian Katherine C. Grier labels the “domestic ethic of kindness” toward animals. In Pets in America (2006), Grier argues that this ethic developed in Victorian middle-class households. In part, it was designed to train children to be good citizens by recognizing their responsibilities to care for dependent beings. By the end of the 19th century, the ethic of kindness had translated into the creation of numerous animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society.
    There can be no doubt that the United States is a nation of pet keepers. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) conducts an annual National Pet Owners Survey. In 2007, the APPMA reported that pet ownership now stands at its highest level ever with 71.1 million U.S. households owning at least one pet (63% of all households). Americans live with 74.8 million dogs, 88.3 million cats, 142 million freshwater fish, 9.6 million saltwater fish, 16 million birds, 24.3 million small animals, 13.4 million reptiles and 13.8 million horses.
    Katherine C. Grier explores how pet keeping in America changed over time. Pet keeping as we know it arrived with the first European settlers in America. By the mid-1700s, some households included birds, squirrels and small dogs. Mockingbirds, Goldfinches, and Cardinals proved particularly well adapted to cage living indoors. By the early 1800s, squirrels stood as the number one wild animal pet. Captured while young, they became quite tame. In about 1810, for example, the James Neall family kept a pet squirrel in their brick townhouse in Easton.
    By the mid-19th century, the list of American pets closely approximated that compiled in the most recent APPMA survey. People lived with caged birds, dogs and cats. Guinea pigs and white mice were considered particularly good pets for children. Aquariums permitted Victorians to create a miniature world and indulge their fascination for natural history. Youngsters often kept “pet stock” in the form of chickens, pigeons and rabbits bred for their looks.
    The care of “pet stock” highlights that pet keeping developed at a time when most Americans experienced regular human-animal interactions associated with farming and horse-drawn transportation. Today, pets represent the most one-on-one interaction with animals that the majority of Americans experience. In rural areas like the Eastern Shore, however, youngsters could graduate from keeping “pet stock” to caring for larger animals displayed at county fairs. They learned the distinction between a pet chicken given an individual name and birds raised for egg production and eventually the dinner table.
    Inside the home, pets needed training to restrain their natural proclivities. They needed to be “civilized.” Puppies required house training. Songbirds often lived in cages that mimicked house architecture. Thus was the wild creature domesticated.
    The pet most susceptible to training was the dog. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), social critic Thorstein Veblen counted dog ownership among his examples of “conspicuous consumption,” pointing to this pet’s general “uselessness” and “special gifts of temperament.” Regarding the dog, Veblen concluded, “He is the filthiest of domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits. For this he makes up in a servile, fawning attitude toward his master.” By contrast, the cat might serve a useful function (e.g., a mouser). In addition, in terms of temperament, Veblen noted, “She lives with man on terms of equality.” Feline egalitarianism hardly served as an example of her owner’s “pecuniary strength.”
    Veblen reserved special contempt for purebred dogs that had been “bred into grotesque deformity by the dog-fancier.” He asserted, “The commercial value of canine monstrosities, such as the prevailing style of pet dogs both for men’s and women’s use, rests on their high costs of production, and their value to their owners lies chiefly in their utility as items of conspicuous consumption.”
    Prior to the late 19th century, most American dogs were not purebreds. Until the founding of the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1884, there were few written breed standards. Some breeds, including the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, already had established themselves in the United States. Some of today’s most popular breeds, however, like the Golden Retriever, did not arrive in the U.S. until the 1920s.
    Veblen was correct to point out that many of the new breeds suffered from physical “instability” requiring increased veterinary care. In fact, it was dog breeders who pressured veterinary schools to provide training in small animal practice. This benefited all pet owners. Until after the Great Depression, most owners served as their own small-animal vets, relying on the help of pet shop proprietors or their own doctors.
    Veblen’s point that some breeds had become “useless” also held some merit. The Standard Poodle serves as an example. In The Hunting Dogs of America (1964), Jeff Griffin observed, “The Standard Poodle is a strong rugged dog full of life and bounce and intelligence too. Because he has been a stylish bauble in milady’s world, he has been classified as one of the do-nothing breeds—which he definitely is not.”
    In the 1950s, Mrs. Gordon Fisher, Jr. of Wye Town Farm joined with a Baltimore poodle club to revive the ancient custom of training poodles to retrieve. In 1957, the first poodle field trial was held on her property. Today, breeders are crossing poodles with Labrador Retrievers. The tradition of the eminently useful Eastern Shore poodle retriever now lives on in the form of the Labradoodle that combines the best characteristics of the poodle and the lab.
    Breeders point out that Labradoodles are sociable and non-aggressive. Their intelligence and high trainability make them well suited for guide dogs and therapy dogs. Katherine C. Grier observes that, like the Victorians, we view pets today as a force for good in the world. We have done our 19th-century predecessors one better, however, by including animals like Labradoodles in therapeutic endeavors.
    In addition to the belief that pets contribute to our emotional well-being, Grier attributes the recent rise in pet ownership to changing demographics. More people now live alone. This accounts for the increase in the number of cats, which can tolerate irregular work hours and live indoors. Pets remain identified with the joys of childhood and nostalgia-tinged Baby Boomers may acquire new pets remembering the companionship they enjoyed as youngsters. Americans have more disposable income to lavish on their pets and to provide veterinary care. The “continuing human desire for novelty” is also a factor in pet keeping. Our animals provide pleasure in our daily lives and keep us from being bored.
    Finally, Grier concludes, “Pet keeping in America today is marked by a deep, and I suggest unprecedented, tension between the apparent desire of American pet owners to experience animalness through contact with pets and an equally apparent trend toward increasing control of our pets lives, precisely because we want to bind them so closely to us.” Citing its latest Pet Owner Survey, APPMA president Bob Vetere observed, “people consider pets part of the family and treat them accordingly.” In short, instead of puppies without homes, most Americans believe it’s not a home without a puppy, a kitten or other animal companion.
    To learn more about pet history, visit the exhibit Talbot Tails: Pet Keeping on the Eastern Shore at the Historical Society of Talbot County at 25 South Washington Street in Easton. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 410-822-0773.