Creature Comforts: New Zealanders and their pets – an illustrated history (Otago University Press) by Nancy Swarbrick explores why we are so in love with our finned, feathered and four-legged friends.
How and when did this passion develop and how has our relationship with our pets changed over time?
We share a selection of illustrations from the book, from Show Day in the Canterbury Times, to Floyd, the best known of the Wellington Cats Protection League’s rescued felines that presided over the box office at the Penthouse Cinema in Brooklyn. We introduce these captivating images and photographs with a Q&A with author, Nancy Swarbrick.
Three quick questions with Nancy Swarbrick
1. What inspired you to write this book about our animal companions?
I work for Te Ara: the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and about six years ago the General Editor, Jock Phillips wanted to commission a short entry about pets in New Zealand. He couldn’t find a suitable writer, so I quickly volunteered because I thought it would be fun.
At Te Ara, we work as a team to produce entries – one person writes or checks the text, another edits, another locates images and film, and yet another puts together the design elements. I was impressed by just how much the other team members relished working on the Pets entry – it made me realise that there could be a receptive audience for a full-length book. Also, their enthusiasm got me thinking about the importance of animal companions to people, and how little serious attention this is given. I was really interested in delving into that aspect.
I’m an historian by training, and in the course of researching the entry I realised there was a fascinating and unique New Zealand story to be told. I also became aware that although human-animal studies is a major interdisciplinary field in other countries, it was relatively new in New Zealand and there had been very little historical work done. I was excited at the prospect of doing some original research on topics like Calf Club Day and the beginnings of fanciers’ organisations.
So, I started working on the book project in my own time, and it pretty soon took over my life! It has taken around four and a half years of fairly intensive part-time work to produce.
2. What is the most unusual pet featured?
I think Major the kakapo would strike most readers as pretty unusual. Some people would know that before (and for a while after) Europeans arrived, Maori kept native birds, especially tui and kaka, as pets. But not many would be aware that the first Pakeha settlers did too. By the end of the nineteenth century the practice was less common – native bird numbers had decreased drastically, many species were threatened and laws to protect them were being considered.
Anyway, back to Major. He was kept as a pet by Mr A. Hansen, who was a lighthouse keeper at Puysegur Point in Fiordland in the 1880s. Major is one of several nineteenth-century kakapo pets I have discovered in the course of research, and it sounds like he was a forceful character. One of his habits was to throw all the plates and cutlery off the table, which must have been funny to watch, but a bit trying. Apparently he hated the cat and had the chooks terrorised, but was best friends with the dog, who was called Hector. When Hector was lying in front of the fire, Major used to settle down on him and go to sleep. He also used to tease him by pecking him and running all over him – Hector must have been a very patient dog!
3. Has pet keeping changed considerably over time in New Zealand?
Yes, definitely. Probably the most dramatic change occurred when Europeans and Maori first encountered each other and their distinctive pet cultures. From the 13th century, when they arrived in New Zealand, Maori kept birds and kuri – the now-extinct native dog – as pets. In the late 18th century European arrivals – sealers, whalers, traders and missionaries – introduced other predatory animals, including cats and dogs, and as a result many indigenous animals kept as pets became extinct or rare.
The next important development was the general acceptance of the idea that all animals were entitled to considerate treatment. In Britain, laws against cruelty were passed and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty was set up in the early 19th century. New Zealand followed suit in later in the century. In the 20th century more animal welfare groups emerged here, and animal rights activism increased. All these initiatives were probably influenced by the spread of pet ownership, and in turn they seem to have affected the way people thought about their pets.
Another big change was growing understanding of animal behaviour and needs, especially during the 20th century. The spread of veterinary practices catering to small animals, in particular, made it possible for people to care for their pets properly. It removed many of the anxieties people had about pet keeping.
Possibly the most important recent change has been the development of the pet industry since World War II. Prepared food for animals, and the wide range of products and services aimed at making their lives (and their owners’ lives!) more comfortable, added greatly to the attractions of pet keeping. This has, I think, contributed to the significant growth in numbers of pets since the 1960s.
Selected Illustrations from Creature Comforts
1. Makereti Papakura
Famous Rotorua guide and entrepreneur Makereti Papakura was photographed in 1907 outside her whare Tukiterangi with her dog, one of a long line of pets. Educated in the traditions of both her mother’s Tuhourangi hapu and her father’s English family, Makereti was familiar with the pet-keeping practices of both cultures, and her posthumously published book, The Old-time Maori, commented on traditional Maori customs in relation to animals.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Hislop Collection. Reference: PA1-o-229-26-4. Photograph by Harold Stevens Hislop
In 1846 Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy, with Maori guides Kehu and Tau, ventured down the West Coast of the South Island as far as the Arahura River in a search for land suitable for settlement. Heaphy sketched an incident when the party had to ascend the sheer Te Miko Cliff north of Punakaiki on a rotting ladder made of rata vines. The dog accompanying them was hoisted up on a flax rope. This poor animal had already put up with being fed sea urchin (‘not a favourite food of Scotch terriers’, remarked Heaphy), being thrown overboard to swim when the party was crossing a river on a sinking raft, and being nearly swept out to sea during another perilous river crossing.
© The British Library Board. Reference: Add.19954f.50. Pencil and wash drawing by Charles Heaphy
3. Ginger on Mt Taranaki
Harry Williams holds a blasé Ginger at the summit of Mt Taranaki on 16 January 1917, after the cat’s amazing ascent of the mountain.
Puke Ariki, New Plymouth. Reference: PHO2012-0645
4. Show Day in the Canterbury Times
The Canterbury SPCA used the occasion of the 1906–07 Christchurch International Exhibition to extend its humane education to a wider group of children. It ran a hugely successful pet show in Wonderland, and some of the photographs taken on that occasion were later published in the Canterbury Times. According to one newspaper report, ‘The exhibits were mostly contained in two large marquees, one of which was given up almost entirely to dogs of every size and breed, while the other was a veritable Noah’s ark of birds and animals, ranging from a four-legged hen to hedgehogs.’ The SPCA also ran an essay competition on the topic ‘Kindness to animals’, and entries were received from all parts of New Zealand.
Christchurch City Libraries. Reference: CCL-Disc20-IMG0029
5. Tikitiki School
East Coast Maori children were enthusiastic participants in school agricultural clubs. These children and their calves lined up in the grounds of Tikitiki School, north of Gisborne, on Calf Club Day around 1948. Alexander Turnbull Library, J. Kaa Collection. Reference: PAColl-3417-1
Floyd, the best known of the Wellington Cats Protection League’s rescued felines, presides over the box office at the Penthouse Cinema, Brooklyn, in December 1990. By then he was a local celebrity, sauntering around the neighbourhood, sunning himself in the real estate agent’s window and occasionally dropping into the deli for a snack. He would also greet cinema patrons in the foyer, and once the lights had gone down would identify a comfortable lap to sit on for the duration of the film.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection. Reference: EP/1990/4169
7. SPCA poster
When this graphic reminder appeared in the Wellington SPCA magazine Pet Pride in 1968, the organisation was using the well-tested tactic of teaching children empathy for animals by encouraging them to care for their pets. Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: S-L 1029-13. Permission of Wellington SPCA