Dear familiars, Helen Curran

Creature Comforts: New Zealanders and their Pets: An Illustrated History
Nancy Swarbrick
Otago University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9781877578618

A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in our Culture, History and Everyday Life
Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong, Deidre Brown
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869407728

There’s a curious expression in French, used as a metonym for twilight: entre chien et loup. Literally “between dog and wolf”, the phrase describes that particular end-of-day moment when the known and familiar may, in the fading light and falling shadows, be confused with something wilder and altogether more terrifying: when a dog might conceivably be mistaken for a wolf. Animals have served humans throughout the ages as companions, beasts of burden and food. They are also one of our primary sources of metaphor. Like so many, the one above hides a deeper co-evolutionary truth. Canis familiaris was the first animal to be domesticated by humans, from its grey wolf ancestors. Dogs are, quite literally, familiar – of the house. Four out of five New Zealand dog owners describe their canine companions as “family members”.

Categories can be slippery, however. There’s an extraordinary image in Creature Comforts, Nancy Swarbrick’s illustrated history of New Zealanders and their pets, which makes the point neatly. Four earnest youngsters display their prize-winning lambs at a post-war A&P show; one of them, woolly and oblivious, bears the sign “Food for Britain”. This is the central paradox the book explores. New Zealanders may have the highest rate of pet ownership in the Western world, but our attitude to animals is, and always has been, deeply pragmatic. For every heart-warming Topp Twins lyric, there’s an abattoir. No wonder one early visitor, after travelling through Auckland and Taranaki during bobby-calf season, described New Zealand as “the cruellest country in the world”.

At no time in our history was the cultural basis of our taxonomies more evident than in the early days of Maori-Pakeha encounter. Maori cherished kuri as companions; they also ate them. The Maori word for pet, mokai, expresses this flexibility; it is also used to describe a human slave. In her early chapters, Swarbrick explores the ways in which the tastes and taboos of both cultures were transformed through exposure to the other’s. The explorer, Thomas Brunner, lost and hungry in the West Coast wilds, roasted his dog, Rover; thereafter, he was known to Maori as “kai kuri”.

Wisely, Swarbrick takes a broad view of “pet”. She evokes New Zealanders’ changing relationships with animals, both endemic and introduced, with richly textured first-person accounts, drawn from a wide array of sources. Especially strong are her discussions of the influence of Victorian values and colonial propaganda on Pakeha pet-keeping, and the emergence of the cult of animal celebrity in such figures as Opo, Happy Feet and the late, lamented, Shrek. The delightful, well-presented illustrations are interspersed throughout the text for easy reference.

Swarbrick is a contributing editor at Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and elements of its style are in evidence: a certain breeziness of tone, the sometimes fragmented approach. She’s done her homework, and it shows. (An exception: only one of the native birds pictured in a 1901 poster, the bush wren, is now extinct – cause enough for grief – and not the “some” the author claims.) The details accumulate, wunderkammer-style: whakapapa-reciting tui, a Mount Taranaki-scaling ginger cat, the Puysegur Point lighthouse keeper’s poultry-terrorising kakapo.

Our appetite for the pranks and pratfalls of other people’s pets is seemingly bottomless. For the most part, Swarbrick ably checks the potential for pet-of-the-day mawkishness, while honouring the very real comfort and pleasure people derive from companion animals. Some of her discoveries are genuinely affecting. This account describes the moment the sheep-rustling folk hero, James Mackenzie, is reunited in the dock with his dog, Friday:

in another minute the slim, sad-eyed thing was scratching at the woodwork trying to get to McKenzie [sic]. And McKenzie – the dog’s eyes had made a baby of him, six-footer though he was – the tears ran down and lost themselves in his red beard as he said, “Aye Lassie, poor Lassie, they’ve got you too.”

 

You can tell a lot about a person by whether they like cats (Hemingway, Lessing) or dogs (Schopenhauer, Stein). Swarbrick is a self-identified cat-lover. The authors of A New Zealand Book of Beasts do not disclose their own species biases, but there’s definitely an agenda at work here. Annie Potts and Philip Armstrong are co-directors of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, based at Canterbury University; Deidre Brown is an art historian specialising in Maori architecture. If medieval bestiaries offered a series of allegorical distortions of the natural world, their modern-day book of beasts aims to reveal our own cultural blind spots: how the stories we tell ourselves about animals serve to naturalise our own dearest values, rather than illuminating the interests of animals themselves.

The book is divided into four sections, each of which explores a different realm of human-animal encounter. (Any crossover with Swarbrick’s work is largely within the chapters on companion animals, which present a more nuanced account of the variety and function of Maori attitudes.) Its strength lies in the range of cultural references, including a long-overdue analysis of animals in Aotearoa’s visual arts. Held up for critical examination are, in turn, Witi Ihimaera’s and Ian Wedde’s fictional whales, Samuel Butler’s pastoral satire and Ronnie van Hout’s puking chimp. The authors present some humbling reminders of the non-exclusivity of some of those terrains of experience we might once have claimed for ourselves: tool-making, language, self-consciousness. Sheep – those emblems of doltish passivity and willing self-sacrifice – can, it turns out, identify both ovine and human individuals by their faces, and remember those faces for years. Chickens have been found to use syntax and semantics. Whatever your views on ethical vegetarianism, prepare to re-examine them.

Nor are the authors afraid to take on some sacred cows. In his opening chapter, Armstrong dismisses the role of “protein hunger” in the moa-extinction theories of Tim Flannery, Michael King, James Belich et al, as myth-making of the highest order – a retrospective application of cultural bias that aligns, conveniently, with Western environmentalism and the privileged place of meat in our own society. And Potts’s provocative examination of the vilification of possums in New Zealand culture will likely have some conservationists reaching twitchily for their Timms traps.

At its best, the writing surprises and delights, as when Armstrong talks about the ways in which elements of the landscape have been “dinornithiformed”. His description of the prose styles of various Victorian naturalists as “a characteristic blend of astonishment, calculation and disdain” will resonate with anyone familiar with the writings of a certain 19th-century ornithologist. (Buller’s recent resurfacing as a cultural bogeyman is in no small part thanks to the unsparing dissections of Bill Hammond, discussed by Brown in her chapters on animals in art.) But readers expecting a whimsical romp through a local menagerie will be disappointed. The cultural theory is threaded with accessible detail and some well-chosen illustrative plates: Eric Lee-Johnson’s luminous photographs of the summer of Opo, Joanna Braithwaite’s discomfiting chimeras and Trevor Lloyd’s extraordinary 1907 painting, The Death of a Moa, are stand-outs. But this is essentially a primer in human-animal studies.

One of the aims of this relatively new discipline is to restore agency to animals. The project is not without its difficulties. Folk tales, fables and just-so stories all brim with talking beasts. But how, unless we are in possession of King Solomon’s ring, are we to discover the interior lives of animals? How are we to see them as something other than a metaphor for our own experiences?

This is not to question the value of examining the ways in which animals are tied to our national myths, whether we imagine these islands as a primordial birdland or an empire of grass. Armstrong’s discussion of moa – the “avian undead of the New Zealand imagination” – is particularly enlightening. In the opening chapter, he wonders whether reports of moa sightings, not uncommon in the mid-1800s, dried up because Owen’s prodigious birds really had joined the terrible lizards, or whether we are ourselves to blame for our own reluctance to accept the possibility of a nature untamed by human endeavour. Sceptics will dismiss this as cryptozoological cant. Last year, however, following unconfirmed sightings in the Cobb Valley, the Ornithological Society was persuaded to pull the South Island kokako from the roll of extinct species and relist it as “data deficient”. Could our dear familiars surprise us yet?

 

Helen Curran is a former writer and editor at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

 

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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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