Seattle is a city of animals, from our beloved cats and dogs to the crows and rats that feed on our leftovers. Around my house, there’s a dog (corgi), a cat (domestic shorthair), a pair of wild rabbits, nesting spotted towhees, crows, chickadees, sparrows and a mysterious raccoon that once deposited a half-eaten chicken on the front steps — feathers and all. Live chickens cluck down the block, and the neighbor’s pit bull drives me barking mad.
The city was also shaped by animals. Pioneer Thomas Mercer’s team of black-and-white horses crossed the plains with him in 1852. Horses helped fight fires, move earth and haul lumber; dogs and cats worked for their owners and had the run of the streets. Herds of roaming cattle and their minders, the rambunctious and foul-mouthed “herd boys,” terrorized the schoolchildren of Ballard. But cow ownership transcended neighborhood and class: One University of Washington president kept a cow in his backyard.
All this and more is vividly chronicled in historian Frederick Brown’s “The City is More than Human: An Animal History of Seattle” (University of Washington Press). Now available in paperback, Brown’s book took 12 years to research and write. His point of view was informed by growing up on different sides of the human/animal divide. Raised in an Oklahoma college town where animals were treated as beloved pets, he was also a frequent visitor to his grandparents’ Kansas farm, where animals were valued mostly for their ability to feed their human keepers.
Brown will discuss the book at two different locations this month: Friday, June 21 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., and Thursday, June 27 at Seattle’s University Book Store. Ahead of these appearances, Brown answered questions about his book. This is an edited version of that conversation:
Describe the presence of animals in late-1800s Seattle. If you took a wayback machine ride to that time, what animals would you see, hear and smell?
Large animals such as horses and cows were part of everyday life. The streets would be a mix of mud and manure, so common that people didn’t comment or worry about it. Chickens were very prevalent. Horses would work downtown carrying goods for shops, though by the 1890s there were laws that moved stables out of downtown. As you got farther out, there would be more cows, in areas like Ballard, Georgetown, West Seattle, Capitol Hill. There were horses running through the street, roosters crowing, chickens clucking, cows mooing.
Before white settlers arrived in Seattle, what animals did Native Americans in the Puget Sound region keep?
In the area around Seattle, dogs were the only domestic animals and were used as companions and for hunting. Dogs with certain kinds of hair were used for wool.
Horses made their way to eastern Washington by the 1740s and to Puget Sound by the early 1800s. Horses were abandoned or stolen from the Spanish in Mexico and made their way north through trading by different tribes.
Settlers brought domesticated animals with them when they arrived in the 1850s. How did they get here, and what did they signify? How did their presence affect Native American communities?
Some came by ship, some overland. The white settlers brought animals with them when they walked across the continent. (Pioneer) Ezra Meeker wrote about his relationship with a steer that came with him — he slept with him, back to back. If he felt the steer moving, he knew something was up. They also brought dogs and cats and bees, sheep and goats. These animals were central to European notions of what life should be, and they really tied into the notions of land ownership. That’s one way Europeans justified dispossessing Native peoples.
Describe the brief reign of the horse in Seattle. They were status symbols and drivers of commerce during Seattle’s great growth spurt in the late 19th and early 20th century … and then they weren’t.
You think of horses as backward, but they were really the symbol of a thriving modern city, and that didn’t happen in Seattle until the 1890s. You wouldn’t have a horse unless you had the means to maintain it. By the 1950s, the majority of households in the U.S. had cars, but that was never the case with horses. [The horse era] would have been maybe 100 years in eastern cities, but by 1910 in Seattle they were being replaced by automobiles.
Describe Seattle’s “dog commons” of yesterday; you write that “the entire city was, in some sense, a dog park.” How did dogs become the highly controlled pets they are today?
Dogs’ lives have changed a great deal. [In the city’s early days] dogs would be beloved friends of children, but they would also protect the house against robbers and be used for hunting. Cats kept down mice and rats. There was a great deal of freedom; a lot of kids would play with dogs, and the dogs would follow the kids to school, and meet their owners as they came home from work.
There were many fewer dogs than there are now. There was 1 dog for every 35 people in the early 20th century, now it’s 2 for every 5. That huge increase would not be possible without laws confining dogs. The most important reason (for those laws) was protecting property, bushes and flowers and lawns. There were issues of health — dog manure, dog bites. A vote in 1958 approved a leash law, and that marked a trend toward dogs being more and more confined.
Now there are so many dogs, and we’ve developed so many systems for them, such as dog-walking services. Dog food became common in the early 20th century — no longer were they eating scraps. From the 1920s to the 1950s, buying dog food became the norm. A few horses wound up in those dog-food boxes.
Explain what you call “the paradox of the pet-food dish,” the contrast between our increasing affection for and sentimentalizing of our pets, even as we feed them the flesh of animals who were raised in grim circumstances far away from us.
It’s an example of the way we are increasingly distanced from the rest of the world — it’s another thing I hadn’t thought of deeply before. A lot of people think of dog and cat food as cereal. I had cats for most of my life, and it’s great to have a connection with animals, but you should recognize the kinds of animals that go into their food. It’s the way we’ve structured the economy in the late 20th century.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.