Pussycats and the Owl

The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age

by Harriet Ritvo
Harvard University Press, 347 pp., $25.00

One Man’s Owl

by Bernd Heinrich
Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $19.50

In a letter to Engels, Karl Marx noted an uncanny similarity between natural selection and Victorian economic realities:

It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, “invention,” and the Malthusian “struggle for existence.” It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all].

Although the specific links surely merited Marx’s observation, the general phenomenon should have evoked no surprise, despite the canonical claim of science to freedom from such social connections. After all, the dawn has risen rosy-fingered, and overhanging cliffs have threatened like a man with raised shoulders ever since literature began. If distantly inanimate objects are read in human terms, how can we possibly resist the temptation to view our true relatives, warm and sentient, with faces and emotions like ours, as symbols or embodiments of human values and institutions?

All but the most unrepentant positivist from my own scientific camp will understand and embrace Harriet Ritvo’s major theme—that all forms of human relationship with animals, including those labeled most objective or scientific, must record (at the least) human hopes and preferences imposed upon nature, or (at most) elaborate metaphors of human society read into the lives of animals. The brilliance of Ritvo’s book, my favorite for 1987, does not lie in this accepted generality, but in the particular examples that she has chosen to illustrate the institutional bonds of humans with other animals. She has selected a series of seven vignettes or case studies for Victorian Britain, varied in source, message, and meaning, but coherent in a common theme: the depiction of animals in popular books of natural history, the breeding of prize cattle, dog fancying, animal protection, rabies, zoo keeping, and hunting.

Nothing titillates intellectuals more than the fierce battles that rage on other people’s turf. With ice-cold detachment, they can enjoy the gossip and marvel at the passion that other people are willing to invest in issues that appear inconsequential (or at least not worth a cuss hurled across a crowded convention floor). I don’t want to butt into other people’s battles, and I do know that historians can get royally worked up over the conflict between traditional accounts of kings, battles, and diplomatic history and the focus of annalistes on the commonplaces of ordinary lives and institutions. But I must say that, from a purely personal view, I am fascinated to learn that while Lincoln died, Victoria prospered, Bismarck rose, and Italy coalesced, the Smithfield Club Fat Cattle Show, the Kennel Club Stud Book, the Case Book of Prosecutions by the RSPCA, and the Regent’s Park Zoo Guide Book all continued to publish their annual volumes, and that so much of general interest and importance can be learned from these and other neglected sources from the underbelly of traditional scholarship. I may have learned little but mythology about the former topics in school, but I never knew that the latter existed at all.

Ritvo’s seven vignettes are purposefully arranged as a spectrum of metaphors about Victorian society. Her prologue, on animals in popular books of natural history, discusses the general principles of ranking that made life orderly and intelligible, especially to those in the higher classes. The remaining subjects are then presented as three groups of two: cattle breeding and dog fancying “corroborated human claims to superior status”; animal protection and disease “expressed anxiety about the maintenance of social discipline”; zoo keeping and hunting “justified and celebrated Britain’s imperial enterprise.”

Each chapter contains surprising observations and insights that reinforce the social origin of properties attributed directly and “objectively” to nature. I can only wonder what truths of modern biology will be read by our successors as mirrors of twentieth-century social peculiarities. I knew, for example, that the old popular treatises of natural history tended to rank animals in a linear order arranged as a moral hierarchy. I assumed that they used intelligence as a primary criterion of ranking, and that monkeys would therefore fall just below us (an opinion supported by taxonomic and, after Darwin, genealogical arguments as well). Ritvo shows that some natural histories did present such an order, though not without an apologia for the ornery mischievousness that might demote monkeys in a primarily moral hierarchy. But others placed dogs just below people, and dogs versus monkeys excited controversy.

Enmeshed as we are today in our cognitive definitions of intelligence, and in our knowledge of genealogical kinship between monkeys and humans, we are at a loss to understand how dogs could ever have been judged as the next group down from us in an intellectual ranking. Ritvo notes, however, that nineteenth-century naturalists did not judge intelligence as a twentieth-century experimental psychologist might—“the ability to manipulate mechanical contraptions or solve logical problems.” They used a different word, “sagacity”—“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 qualified, and we learn something about nineteenth-century thought in resolving an apparent paradox.

Prize-cattle and dog breeding present a well-chosen contrast to illustrate the embodiment of social class in the treatment of animals. Both cattle and dogs were bred and shown under the aegis of well-financed, elaborate social institutions. But the contrast could not have been sharper. Prize-cattle breeding was the preserve and hobby of landed gentry. It proceeded under the rhetoric (and, in part, the reality) of benefit to the common farmer through improvement in breeding stock (“speed the plough” proclaimed the Royal Agricultural Society in its motto). In fact, efforts centered on producing grotesquely large bulls, whose flesh was often downgraded by butchers and who, in extreme cases, became so fat that they could not mount (and therefore could not breed in these days before artificial insemination). Moreover, “official” literature incessantly proclaimed that such breeding must be done by men of wealth and leisure, not by more modest and profit-minded farmers, because income could not exceed expenses no matter how successful the enterprise; service to the nation could be the only overt justification.

By contrast, dog fancying was primarily an urban activity of the middle classes. Manipulation and artificiality reigned. Patrician bull breeders could embody their own claims to power, and their own ideas of social stability, in trying to make ever bigger, and objectively better, a creature that stood for their own estates, and that symbolized the unchanging basis of landed wealth. But middle-class dog breeders had just arrived. Their commitment was to mobility and the possibility of advancement within newly created and self-defined categories. So they invented breeds, often endowing them with spuriously older pedigrees, and artificially established the characters that would define greatness at their proliferating dog shows. The dog fanciers proclaimed no rhetoric of utility. Ritvo observes that “the prizewinning pedigreed dogs of the late 19th century seemed to symbolize simply the power to manipulate and the power to purchase—they were ultimately destabilizing emblems of status and rank as pure commodities.”

The history of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the fight against rabies may seem an odd pair of subjects to juxtapose, but Ritvo has an uncanny sense for discerning what in her profession’s jargon designates as the “subtext” beneath exterior differences. (As I lose the arrogant parochialism so common during early years in any trade, I come to respect more and more the different professionalisms of scholars trained in other subjects. Good philosophers really can manipulate ideas in ways that do not arise from simple native brightness. English scholars, like Ritvo, can read a text with more understanding of hidden meanings and levels of signification. Now if all students knew the boundary between these valuable skills and their nether world of pedantic posturing and jargon, intellectual life would be far happier and provide more books worth reading.)

The subtext that united animal protection and disease was fear of social disorder from the lower classes. The RSPCA did not worry about slaughtered foxes; they refused to ally themselves with the antivivisectionists (a strong movement in late Victorian Britain) because animal experimentation was a domain of well-bred people like themselves. Animal protectionists concentrated their efforts on “sports” enjoyed by the lower classes (bull, bear, and badger baiting, dog fighting), and particularly on the mistreatment of working animals in cities (primarily horses, but dogs were also used as beasts of burden in London until the 1830s). These animals were handled by the roughest members of the working classes and, more importantly, their mistreatment was so palpably public that forced cessation became a major weapon for imposing social order from above (the RSPCA maintained their own uniformed private police force). Fear of rabies becomes another chapter of the same story both for the immediate reason that free-running, sewer-dwelling dogs of the urban proletariat were suspected as primary carriers, and for the symbolic equation of such communicable madness across species lines with the cancerous spread of social disorder from below.

Zoos and hunting displayed the trophies of empire, both the quick and the dead. In contrast to our modern aesthetic, which tries to re-create nature in our zoos (both for the animals’ benefit, thus giving the project a moral tone as well, and to pique the public’s interest in vanishing wilderness), Victorians reveled in the artificiality of their created settings, a symbol of mastery over animals and their natural places. Cages were small, and placed in well-manicured parks adorned with artificial lakes and carefully cultivated botanical displays. Ritvo also notes that all nineteenth-century zoo guide-books prescribe a linear route through the exhibits, thus reenacting and celebrating “the imposition of human structure on the threatening chaos of nature.” Most modern zoos tell us to wander and enjoy, and signs at their entranceways look like the crossroads of an English village, with markers pointing to diversity in every direction.

I felt only one minor frustration as I read Ritvo. She tells so many wonderful stories, but in using them to illustrate general points, she often fails to provide the ending once she has extracted the meaning. Yogi Berra, who preferred comic books, roomed with Bobby Brown when both played for the Yankees during the late 1940s. Brown, a medical student when not playing third base, spent a good deal of time between games reading Gray’s Anatomy and other tomes. Berra, according to legend, only wanted to know how all those books came out in the end. Ritvo sometimes veers too much toward the Gray end, and forgets that her stories need closure. The conclusions often come from science. Ultimately, those fat bulls either did or did not help English farming, and I’d love to know. What toll did inbreeding exact? Science is inevitably embedded in social relations, but it also can provide a factuality that supplies many stories with interesting conclusions. The German socialist Karl Kautsky, commenting on the Marxist tradition for social analysis of science, wrote in 1902: “The fact that an idea emanates from a particular class, or accords with its interests, of course proves nothing as to the idea’s truth or falsity.”

My only other frustration arises simply from my high opinion of the book. I’d like to know more. I want to know about circuses and carnivals. I want information on the upper-class pursuits of fox hunting and horse racing, and on the pigeon fancying of urban workingmen. The Andy Capp strip continues this last tradition today; Darwin, though a country patrician himself, joined two pigeon fancying clubs and used their information as his leading case study in the Origin of Species. Why did Marlon Brando raise pigeons in On the Waterfront; and why has keeping tropical fish been so largely a blue-collar hobby in America?

A modern naturalist, in the meliorist tradition of science, might read Ritvo with a certain smug satisfaction. Victorians thought that they were studying nature in the raw, but they extended the umbrellas of empire and class structure over the animal kingdom (even the word kingdom has its obvious implications). We know better. At least some people know, observe, respect, protect, and try to understand. Yet as Ritvo would say, in her own way, this claim is just another text, or trope, or discourse in a long history of the underlying social reality inevitably recorded in the literary forms of writing about animals. We can say, at most, that some of our modern contracts are much more respectful of animals as they lived before we first intruded upon them—and I do not minimize the power and moral force of this new dialogue. Yet we developed this revised contract only because previous versions had nearly erased, through rapacity, all possibility of communication between culture and nature.

One Man’s Owl, written by one of America’s outstanding academic naturalists, is a long embodiment of this modern dialogue. Heinrich, a student of social insects, spends his summers in a backwoods Maine cabin. A heavy, wet April snow-storm breaks a tree branch, and a nest of owls, long under observation by Heinrich, tumbles to the ground. Heinrich rescues one nestling from certain death in the snow and, after much soul-searching and bureaucratic paper work (many animals can be shot, but few can be legally taken as pets from the wild), he “adopts” the owl and names him Bubo (not a particularly original name, since the great horned owl is Bubo virginianus to naturalists). Bubo lives with Heinrich in camp during the next three summers. He spends the first winter (of discontent, as we shall see) in a rescue center for injured raptors (birds of prey), and the second in a large aviary that Heinrich constructs at his home in Vermont. Eventually, Bubo returns successfully to the wild, as a properly fledged hunter. Happy ending, au naturel.

This book is presented as a work, personal to be sure, in natural history. It provides much interesting information about owls in general, and the growth of Bubo in particular. Heinrich shines in his perceptive descriptions, but flags in attempts at generalization about evolution, beauty, and the cosmos. To put it as kindly as I can, traditional nature writing is among the most treacherous of literary traps. If you have certain skills of phrase and cadence, in the lineage stretching from Saint Francis of Assisi through Henry David Thoreau to Loren Eiseley, then, by all means, wax lyrical about the shine on the blueberry and the rumbling on you distant hills. If you don’t, please leave well enough alone.

But One Man’s Owl will be misinterpreted if placed in the genre of descriptive natural history. I believe that it must be analyzed—though I doubt that Heinrich so intended, and he will probably be offended by the suggestion—as a tale in literary traditions of storytelling or myth-making (in the noble sense of mythology). I do not mean that the book contains a single falsehood. I have no doubt that everything happened just as Heinrich describes. But when you live with an owl for three years, you could write a million anecdotes and descriptions. The choices actually made are an infinitesimal subset, chosen (in this case) to tell a certain kind of story, and connected in the interests of a larger theme.

Heinrich begins by professing his faith in the modern naturalist’s ethic of respect, even reverence, for the unsullied outdoors—a notion that too easily becomes “four legs good, two legs bad” in caricature:

To be a part of nature, through touching and understanding, is to strive to understand the principles of how nature operates. And to know those principles is to be able to work for the good of all…. Almost all of our problems have a biological basis of one sort or another, and if living in harmony with the other animals in our planet’s ecology were a central issue of faith, then paradise (within certain constraints) would be more than a fantasy.

Just think how far we have come! The paraphrased original of the Rubáiyát conveys an exactly opposite message—“Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” (Did O’Neill really change it to Ah, Wilderness!, as legend proclaims, in order to get first billing in the Times’s alphabetical listing of Broadway plays?) We have lost the original meaning through disuse of the subjunctive, but I assume that Omar Khayyám (through Fitz-Gerald) was trying to tell us that wine, bread and thou would be enough to convert a dark, dank, threatening, beast-ridden, snake-infested wilderness into the paradise of an Islamic courtyard with its soothing arabesques and rigidly geometric designs.

With this perspective, the saga of Bubo, as a myth, can only move in a certain direction, channeled more by the norms of literature than the exigencies of science. (Of course, the bird might have disobeyed and died, or stayed house-bound, but then Heinrich would probably never have written the book.) The initial rescue must be tempered with the doubt of removing an animal from nature, particularly the fear that artificial feeding might destroy the owl’s development of hunting skills and preclude any successful life in the proper domain of nature. This conflict must come to a crisis, be resolved, brought to balance by a slow weaning of Bubo from artificial handling to natural competence, and culminate in his successful return, as a skilled hunter, to the woods—all accompanied by the grief of separation assuaged by the knowledge of nature’s rightful primacy. Que sera, sera. Human nurture becomes nature’s agent. It just has to work this way; there is no other story. This is The Call of the Wild, 1980s version by a loving and responsible naturalist.

And so the story goes, almost to the end, when circumstances intervene to alter the finale and save the book. With endless patience and admirable curiosity, Heinrich watches and feeds Bubo through the first summer, trying to stimulate the skills of a hunter, but with limited success. Then, the crisis. He cannot bring Bubo back to Vermont for the winter, so Bubo goes to a center for injured raptors. There the proprietress upbraids Heinrich severely. Didn’t he know that by taking a bird from the wild, he has destroyed all hope for successful return and condemned Bubo to a schizophrenic life caught between a human world that he can never adopt and a natural domain to which he can now never adapt?

Sure enough, Bubo returns the next summer, prophesy fulfilled. He will not recognize Heinrich; he will not perform any of the hunting maneuvers that Heinrich had encouraged; he will not even look at potential prey. Straps hang from his feet, remnants of Bubo’s display to schoolchildren throughout the winter. Heinrich despairs, but vows to bring Bubo back. And he does, slowly, ever so slowly, and with a subtle understanding that only a great naturalist could muster and sustain (especially toward an owl that wakes you up at 4:30 every morning, thinks that your cabin is his territory, and therefore drives away every visitor for an entire summer). Bubo goes home with Heinrich next winter; no repeats of last year’s mistake. One more summer, and he will be as free as Jack London’s husky in the Yukon wilderness.

While the story progresses in its canonical mode, Heinrich’s general attitude toward nature coincides with the tale. All is balance, good design, and harmony. Adaptation reigns in Bubo’s life and actions. Of all the thousands of things that could inspire thought and speculation in the growth of an owl, Heinrich focuses entirely on the subset of forms and actions that illustrate Darwinian adaptation. Nature is a cruel task-master; her hecatomb for good design is the slaughter of millions less well adapted. But her products are marvels of excellent function. And Bubo shall be placed into this well-oiled world, fully able to compete.

All progresses predictably until ten pages from the end. The second summer is drawing to a close. Heinrich’s wife and young son are present, but we now get a jarring and ominous hint of fundamental change. Heinrich writes about two passions: Bubo and long-distance running (obviously serious, since he lets slip in a single line that he is the US 100-mile champion). He now laments: “Sharing a passionate interest makes it grow. But a passionate interest that may be admired from a safe distance is often thought by those who are closest to you to be a self-centered indulgence. Worse, it is difficult for others to criticize the passion directly, and so the resentment rears its head at unexpected moments.”

The next chapter is even more jarring, for Heinrich’s attitude to nature is now changing. (Heinrich’s words provide no hint that he recognizes the change himself, but the alteration is stunning if you have been following the text as a literary exercise in storytelling.) After 180 pages on good design, Heinrich writes an entire chapter on why the lack of regular pattern in molting of tail feathers probably indicates that this basic feature has no particular adaptive rationale.

Something is happening: Heinrich’s marriage is crumbling, and the departure of his wife is mixing metaphorically with the inevitability of Bubo’s coming freedom. And so, the crucial third summer, which should receive a long and triumphant chapter filled with tales of Bubo’s maturation as a hunter, gallops by in a single page. We learn nothing about the successful culmination of this great experiment because its associations have become too painful. Finally, in the last paragraph, nature herself has changed from Darwin’s well-oiled machine to the chancy domain of complex accident:

That summer was painful to me not only because it was the end of my relationship with Bubo, but also because it was a summer without Margaret and Stuart…. Fate had brought her into my life, as it had Bubo…. [His nest] had been shattered that winter because of a series of natural events: a frost had made the sappy pine limbs brittle because a tropical storm veered north at the “wrong” time and encountered cold air; Bubo’s parents had chosen to nest on an ill-fated limb; and finally, one snowflake too many had fallen—gently, innocently—on a branch. The last snowflake was not at fault. And so it was with Margaret and me. Sometimes the reasons for an occurrence are so complex and out of our control that it helps to think of them as fate, and all of us creatures of the Earth must live with fate and embrace it.

I found this ending poignant in its unexpectedness, its brutal change of metaphor. The tale of Bubo finished exactly as designed, but its meaning had been cruelly transmogrified. If this had been well-planned and properly balanced as a work of literature, I might have admired the skill of its composition in the abstract. But the ending is clumsy and ill-executed—190 pages of buildup, and one tumbling page of denouement, as though Heinrich wanted to forget the whole project and move on. As such, and at the risk of unintended romanticism, the ending comes directly from the heart—and I was strangely and greatly touched, perhaps because I had steeled myself in cynicism for the trite and conventional finale.

The taxonomic boundaries between species are real; those between domains of human knowledge are artificial and misleading. I have just read an intended work in natural history as a primal myth in literature, and I have learned much about science from an English teacher. Vive les differences, but let’s keep talking to each other.