Monday, March 23, 2009

Famous Pets & Famous Owners

"Casanova's Parrot - and other tales of the famous and their pets" - Mark Bryant
"Reigning Cats and Dogs - a history of pets at Court since the Renaissance" - Katharine MacDonogh

Okay, let me just start by saying I’m glad I got “Casanova’s Parrot” real cheap because this book is not worth much unless you’re a complete psycho about animal reference books. It’s sort of an encyclopedia (with VERY small entries) about famous people and their pets. It doesn’t have an index, which is absolutely incredible and is not alphabetical. Someone decided it would be better to organize entries by profession (the owner’s not the pets), so you have weird categories like “Belles-Letres”. Oh well. Some pet information is scant to say the least. Some people are listed as having had “a parrot” or “a monkey”. Well, was it a budgie or a cockatoo? A spider monkey or a marmoset?

Other times the information left me with some doubts. And at least in one case (Cardinal Richelieu) “Reigning Cats and Dogs” contradicted the facts on “Casanova’s Parrot”. It seems that the legend that the Cardinal had tens or hundreds of kittens around and that hey were his most beloved pets is likely to be a concocted history, put together by his political adversaries, in a time when cavorting with felines still had the whiff of the demoniacal about it. Still, I did enjoy learning George Orwell had a pet goat named Mabel.

Katharine MacDonogh’s “Reigning Cats and Dogs” is another affair altogether. Extensive in chronology and geography, brimming with notes and bibliography, it got me dizzy with information. That’s a good thing, by the way. Sure, it’s hard to keep all the Henri’s Charles' and Francis’s straight when you’re reading about so many royal houses, but well worth the effort. MacDonogh makes an excellent case in proving how keeping animals mainly for company and emotional solace first arose in the crowned houses of Europe and Asia. From childhood, future monarchs and emperors lived such artificially conscribed lives, with aloof parents engaging in political intrigue (and often more devoted to their own pets than their children) and kept away from children their own age (in an attempt to protect them from disease, child mortality being what it was) that their first hug was probably bestowed on a tiny lap dog.

Lavishly illustrated with both black and white and three (!) sets of color art reproductions “Reigning Cats and Dogs” is a joy for both the brain and eyes. The chapter on “Cruelty and Kindness” can get a little nauseating, but hey that’s history (and regarding certain awful tortures such as bull, dog and cock fighting it’s not yet history, unfortunately). It’s seems as if the powerful have always been at the forefront of extremes whether creating the most pampered pets or killing for sport. For anyone with a love of pets and history I’ve not come across a more satisfying book.

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