In Animal City our painful past is still painfully present

If I asked you to picture a “cow town,” you would probably picture a small town, surrounded by pasture, set far away from the big city.

Yet in the 1800s, cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco were also cow towns. It was not unusual to see herds of cows squeezed through downtown streets, as this was where the slaughterhouses were located. Sheep were also common, as were horses, dogs and pigs. Charles Dickens visited New York City in 1842 and was surprised to find free-roaming pigs among the well-healed locals strolling down Broadway. At that point in history, animals were as common on the streets of New York as people. As Andrew A. Robichaud writes in the introduction to his remarkable book Animal City:

For much of the nineteenth century, American cities were ecologically diverse places, invariably made up of a multitude of domesticated, semidomesticated and undomesticated species. Indeed, animals were so commonplace in American cities that, at times, their presence seemed not worth mentioning at all. Observations of the “animal city” were often left to visitors or tourists from places where urban livestock had already been largely regulated or excluded.

So begins a much-needed and brutally fascinating history of major American cities, seen through the lens of our relationships with animals.

The book opens on New York City in 1858 after the death of an infant named Martha who perished from malnutrition from a steady diet of cow’s milk, a necessity for the growing number of working women who took jobs at wet nurses. Martha might have lived if the milk she was drinking was actual cow’s milk, but dairy producers, eager to maximize profits, fed their cows leftover swill from distilleries, resulting in a “swill-milk” product that was tragic on many levels.

Cows did not live very long on a diet of swill, and were horribly treated along the way. As stories emerged in the media, a growing number of people began calling for the better treatment of animals. Horses, the animals that powered so much of the city, were also frequent and visible victims of abuse, and in the 1860s, Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA focused on slaughterhouses, the transportation of animals, the treatment of horses. It’s sad to think that many of the issues that Bergh focused on back then are still with us today — and that the scale of animal abuse has only grown exponentially.

We move to San Francisco, a gold rush boomtown with aspirations of becoming one of the world’s great cities. Doing so, civic leaders believed, required pushing the slaughterhouses out of the downtown so residents no longer has to see (or smell) the source of their meals. An area that became know as Butchertown was located south of the city along the bay near Mission Creek, where the slaughterhouses were built on stilts over the water under the misconception that the offal would be cleanly swept away.

As slaughterhouses found themselves unwelcome in city centers across the country, zoos found a welcome audience. Between 1859 and 1920, 46 public zoos were established across the US. One of the earliest American zoos was Woodward’s Gardens, a private estate in San Francisco that was opened to the public along Mission Creek, just a mile or so from Butchertown. Robichaud notes that, though the gardens were popular, many visitors noted the ennui displayed by the animals confined to small cages, a reaction that many people experience today (that cages may be larger, but they are still cages).

In 1874, back in New York City, residents of New York were entertained by the sight of a dog in the window of a cider shop, leashed to a treadmill, powering a cider press. Dog power was not a novelty at the time — dogs were often used on farms (as were children) to power butter churns, as seen here.

Henry Bergh filed suit against the owner setting off a very public battle between the ASPCA and the owner. Dogs may be viewed as family members today but, back then, they were just another power source for most people.

The court case also touched on the idea of animals as entertainment, a particularly painful subject of this book, as Robichaud writes about P.T. Barnum, Grizzly Adams and the ugly demise of Woodward’s Gardens. There is one horrible incident in the book involving a boat and Niagara Falls that I would not have believed if it were not true.

So much of American history centers around this idea of “civilization.” San Francisco city leaders wanted a civilized city, so they banned bullfighting, ticketed horse abusers and opened zoos.

But civilization is a tricky word, because the author makes it clear, again and again, that just because slaughterhouses are ushered out of sight and out of mind does not mean they do not exist. They most certainly do exist and we currently kill more animals per year today than ever before. And while dogs now have legal protections, so many species have no legal rights. Horse-drawn carriages still ply many urban streets and SeaWorld continues to keeps orcas (and other mammals) in tight captivity.

It is vitally important that we remember the stories of how animals were treated and mistreated and killed during the early years of this country’s urbanization. And Animal City is a testament to progress made and progress deferred.

Robichaud sums it up perfectly:

Animals are appearing more often in the stories we tell of the past. They have always been there, but only more recently have we recognized their ubiquity and centrality. Animals deserve a place in our scholarship not only because animals lives and perspectives have inherent value, but because understanding changes in human-animal relationships yields insights into questions that have long interested historians, while raising new questions of our past and present. At the very least, animals also deserve a place in the stories we tell because their ghosts still haunt the places in which we live. Our cities still bear the scares and legacies of an urban world where animals once lived and died by the millions.

Animal City: The Domestication of America
By Andrew A. Robichaud
Harvard University Press