Tag Archives: Animals

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and Black Beauty

Rather than a collection of books, here’s a pair of books that enrich each other if read together!

Content Warning: contains depictions of animal abuse. (Yes, especially for Black Beauty. Wait, you don’t remember that? Read the unabridged version, they probably cut all the really harrowing bits to make it more palatable for kids.)

Let’s talk about the changing place of animals in society!

Cover art for Some We Love Some We Hate Some We Eat by Hal Herzog. Bright yellow and aqua.
This 2010 treatment of how cultural factors influence our relationship with animals provides a good overview, and makes for some thought-provoking and informative reading.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog is built on the premise that animals that live in close association with humanity are framed by human cultures in terms of three broad categories: pets, vermin, and livestock. Different cultures might construct the categories along different lines, or even apply them to individuals rather than entire species, but the book nevertheless seeks to apply this theoretical framework to all of them in order to better understand the place of animals in the human world. Interesting topic, and the first of two books to bookend this discussion.

Complications and Guinea Pigs

While Herzog’s book is certainly valuable, there’s a lot of nuance in current and historical cultures that complicate things, and for that, let’s talk about the very strange ride guinea pigs have had. Today, in the continental USA, we see them as pets, a popular choice for the classroom, or children. Alternatively, they’re the proverbial lab animals, which isn’t quite the same as a pet or livestock, but isn’t vermin, despite the fact that the other major lab animal, rats, are definitely thought of as pests before pets outside an experimental setting. Guinea pigs as a species already occupy a complex place in our society, and it used to be even weirder.

Historically, and currently, in the cultures of the Andes which created the domestic guinea pig, the animal is a highly regarded food source, called cuy in Peru (cuyes, plural). Okay, so I might have to have to ease you into this if you didn’t know already. You know how there’s the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to promoting the use of beef in American kitchens? It’s what’s for dinner. They’ve got beef recipes, and information, and function as a means for beef producers to communicate about the state of the industry, as well as make beef look as good as possible to the public. There’s a similar industry and promotional board in Peru, for guinea pigs, and they have a website, too: Cuy Peru. More than worth a click if you can read Spanish, and even if you can’t. Just brace yourself for whole roasted guinea pig, like we do chicken here. (Scroll almost to the bottom for recipes.) So, pet in one culture and livestock in another, simple, right? No. The guinea pig had a long breakout career in Europe as a status symbol, more akin to a fancy watch, designer purse, or car than a pet or even a purse dog.

At the time the Spanish brought guinea pigs back, European cultures had a very different relationship with animals than we do today, mostly because the framework of morality in general was very different. In this context, it didn’t matter whether animals could think and feel, because morality was about sin, and the God-given order. This is how there were pig trials in the middle ages – a killer pig was acting out of this order, and it was up to human ecclesiastical court systems to put it to rights. (If you’re wondering why a pig would kill someone, the answer is that they’re seriously omnivorous, and are absolutely capable of killing and eating people, especially if the person is unconscious or can’t get up under their own power at the time. That’s why it’s such a big deal in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls in the pig pen. At the time, I guess people would have known this. Modern audiences probably don’t have enough experience with farm animals to recognize the danger. Anyway, just go to your search engine of choice and look for “killed and eaten by pigs” for a nicely horrifying roundup of the recent cases.) Animals, in this framework, were there to be used by humanity as we saw fit. This led to a huge amount of horrible animal abuse, society-wide and often formalized. I’m not talking about bullfighting alone, either, more like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting, anything-baiting, organized fights between basically any animal that will fight, goose pulling, cock throwing, and fox tossing, just to list a few.

Old engraving of fox tossing in Dresden.
Fox tossing. Foxes were released in a closed area and popped in the air when they ran across a blanket until they died. Note guys lining up the dead animals on the right. Looks like piglets were also killed at this particular event.

I chose the fox tossing example above, because this is the time period that saw the rise of the guinea pig in European culture. Arriving from South America with the silver galleons, guinea pigs acquired an association with this trade, and the power and wealth that came from it. Guinea pigs featured in portraits to underline elite status, and guinea pigs also played a starring role in still life paintings, whose purpose was often a visual treatise on the dominance of the expanding European trade empires. Here’s some weird European guinea pig art.

Three frilly English children from the Elizabethan age, with guinea pig and nearly dead songbird.
This image nicely encapsulates the attitude toward animals in European society at the time. The guinea pig is front and center, and held gently because it’s expensive, but the songbird is casually getting crushed in the hand of the child on the right, because it’s not seen as a pet, it’s a toy. Images like this complicate the pet/pest/livestock framework. This image is possibly the earliest portrait with a guinea pig in it.

Britain and Horses

Eventually, though, there was a major shift in the calculus of European morality, a key part of which was an equally major re-evaluation of the way in which animals were treated. Beginning in the late 1600’s, and concluding in the mid 1800’s, new measures of morals emerged, focusing on the idea of avoiding doing harm and being compassionate. It was believed that compassion shown to animals mirrored a person’s capacity for compassion to their fellow human beings, and so kindness became a new standard of behavior. The series of prints by Hogarth, The Stages of Cruelty, presents a moral along these new lines, just as the idea began to get popular traction, and here’s a link to the Tate Museum’s online exhibit on the print series so you can examine it in further detail. In a nutshell, the inevitable end result of animal cruelty is that it becomes cruelty to humans, which ends in the murderer’s corpse getting dissected by surgeons in public, as was the practice at the time.

Protip: if you have to propagandize about morals, they’re new and need to be taught.

Although modern ideas of the right way to treat animals come from the Enlightenment and Victorian Sentimentalism, a much more similar place than the earlier medieval framework, there are some key differences. Emerging nationalism also played a vital role, and in the case of Britain, the way in which people should treat horses in particular became a defining cultural touchpoint that persists to this day. In case you were curious, here’s a retrospective on the Great Horsemeat Contamination Scandal of 2013. The book that in large part forged this identity was Black Beauty.

Fancy embroidery cover art for Black Beauty.
You might have read it as a child, but come back to it as an adult, knowing how it changed English speaking society. It’s well worth it. Get an unabridged version for grownups, like this one.

Black Beauty follows the life of the eponymous horse through a series of thoughtless and cruel masters, highlighting the way in which horses were used and abused, and advocating for better treatment by tugging at the readers’ heartstrings rather than laying out a rational argument, in contrast to Hogarth.

Ultimately, filtering down to us from Hogarth’s time, and Anna Sewell‘s, our own cultural sorting scheme for animals settles into the categories outlined by Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. It has only been two and a half centuries, yet we take this understanding for granted.

Available in book, downloadable ebook and audiobook formats.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

By the Numbers

What did you do on your first day — the day you were born?

Steve Jenkins and Robin Page answer this question in their children’s book My First Day by describing what happens to animals after they are born. Readers will see that the beginning of animal life is dramatically varied among the twenty-two types highlighted and lovingly illustrated here using paper collage techniques.

  • A one ounce baby wood duck falls from high up in a tree following its mother and siblings to water. But it’s not the only animal to take a great fall. A giraffe tucks its head and falls about five feet to the ground at birth. But don’t worry, neither are injured.
  • Some animals are more sedentary like the two pound Siberian Tiger cub, which like human babies do little more than sleep and nurse their first few days.
  • Darwin’s frog hops from a pouch inside its father’s mouth having undergone the transformation from egg to tadpole to frog safe from predators.
  • Unlike humans, animal parents don’t have the opportunity to go out and buy a Baby Bjorn so they have different ways of carrying their babies and keeping them protected. Another way baby animals stay safe is to hitch a ride on its mama’s back. The sifaka, a type of lemur and the golden snub-nosed monkey both cling to their mother’s fur when they are on the go.

Another 2013 work of high-interest nonfiction that features animals is Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M. Schaefer. The author makes estimates based on the average adult life span of animals & insects in the wild. Selected facts are stand-alone conversation starters so illustrator Christopher Silas Neal’s mix of drawing, painting, print making and digital art make this a memorable read.

Lifetime is packed with interesting tidbits. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • An alligator will build 22 nest and lay 550 eggs.
  • A male seahorse will carry and birth 1,000 baby seahorses.
  • A caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.

-Natalie-