Pets – importance in history

Ukiyoe by Kawanabe Kyosai

Would we better understand history if we knew whether ministers and kings owned pets? Between conquering and negotiating, did the King of England cuddled up with his pet fox or water spaniel?  Was the leader a kind and gentle pet owner?  But, did he treat his pets better than his wife and children? Did the Borgia pope, Alexander VI,  have a dog?  Why did Queen Elizabeth burn a cat at her coronation? (Sorry, I just had to add that interesting tidbit.  I must admit my only source for this questionable fact about the cat and the queen is “Pets of the Tudors.” You can use this citation with your history students as an example of a source that is not acceptable in scholarship. Ug!)

American presidents and their pets have been of interest to American voters from the time of George Washington.

The voter seems to trust a man who has a dog.  The White House press corps waited breathlessly for news of whether the Obama family would get a dog for the president’s daughters.   Bo, a Portuguese Water dog, is now the “1st dog.” (See the New York Times article, “Does Bo Know he is Top Dog?“)

Having a pet can also bring a leader bad press.  Franklin D. Roosevelt forgot his dog in Alaska.  I don’t know what the president was doing in Alaska, but his opponents reported that he left his little Scotch Terrier behind.  The public was angry.  What kind of man would leave behind man’s best friend?  The rumor mill persisted.  Roosevelt reportedly sent ships to save his dog.  The public was then furious that America’s hard earned tax money was used to rescue a dog.

Roosevelt spoke humorously about his little dog at a campaign speech on Sept. 23, 1944.  Roosevelt won the election.

How do we know if people in history owned pets?  In modern times we have newspapers and television where the leaders are reported about daily.  How do we know about pets and important historical figures before movies, photographs and the Internet?

A good place to start is by looking at the art of the times.

In Japan, samurai were painted holding pets.  Ukioye 「浮世絵」(woodcut prints) from the 18th century depict samurai holding animals.  “Along with cats and dogs, mice, fish and singing birds were popular.”  Monkeys, too.

If you get to Boston in the next few months, drop by the Museum of Modern Art to see ‘Cats to Crickets: Pets in Japan’s Floating World.’

Admittedly, this does not tell us whether the owners loved or cared for those animals.  Do you know if Japanese literature speaks of the Shogun owning pets?

HISTORIOGRAPHY (for history scholars): Note this article’s connection to Susan B. Hanley’s study of everyday possessions of the Japanese during the Tokugawa era as an indication of the people’s standard of living during that time.  See Susan B. Hanley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: the Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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2 responses to “Pets – importance in history

  • jamisonmichel

    Interesting angle on this one, Maureen. I love how a dog can bring out the soft side of people, even a president. Great delivery, FDR.

  • mbfitzmahan

    Thank you, Jamie.

    One reader sent me the story of Hachikō, the little Akita dog who waited for his master at Shibuya Station in Tokyo. It isn’t a story about a leader and his dog, but it is a tale of how the government used the story of a dog as a public relations (propaganda) campaign. The statute to Hachikō was placed in 1932, a year into the Japanese-Chinese War (1931-45). Loyalty is an important quality of the people during war.

    Admittedly, that statue and that story is still a favorite, not only in Japan but also in the United States.

    I lived in Tokyo when I was in my 20s. I loved that story of Hachiko. I would meet my college friends at the statute before a night out.

    If you are interested there is a very thorough Wikipedia article on Hachikō at At the “exact spot where Hachikō waited in the train station is permanently marked with bronze paw-prints and text in Japanese explaining his loyalty.”

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