Thursday, January 28, 2010

Burgess and "The Cat Question"

In the editorial section of the April 1906 issue of Good Housekeeping, the editors alert the readers to an article that they are sure will be controversial. Titled, "Our friend the cat," the editorial acknowledges the role of the cat as a "missionary from the four-footed world" but urges the reader to keep an open mind about the issues that will be raised in the article.

The article was by Thornton Burgess (under one of his many pseudonyms), titled "The Case Against the House Cat." In the piece, Burgess lays out a number of arguments against the unrestrained and unregulated ownership of cats, from their role as a chief enemy of songbirds to the diseases they can bring into the home.

This article provided an opportunity for him to interact with some of the leading naturalists and ornithologists of the day. On the bird front: John Burroughs the American naturalist; Frank Chapman, publisher of Bird-Lore, with whom Burgess had worked on a project for Country Life in America a few years earlier; William Dutcher, the president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, leader of the fight against the plume trade; and Edward Forbush, who would publish the chief treatise on this issue in 1916 (embedded below).

The chief source for the article, however, was Clifton Hodge, a professor at Clark University who had been building a reputation as a proponent of nature study in the elementary classroom. I've embedded his nature study book below.

A quick glance might suggest how these kinds of ideas would inform the approach of Burgess in years to come.

Some background about the "cat question." This problem seems to have been discussed first in the context of animal welfare. See this article in the M[Massachusetts]SPCA publication, Our Dumb Animals (1876):

There were too many stray cats and this was leading to unnecessary suffering. Some regulation was required.

The association of this topic with the problem of dwindling bird populations can be seen in first in British circles. See this chapter in William Hudson's 1898 book about the birds of London.

Hudson is careful not to appear to be anti-cat, but to urge restraints for their own benefit.

Bird-Lore (1902) would pick up this issue and use its forum to urge legislation to require cat licensing. Their "Cat Question" position basically is this: house cats should be spayed and neutered; feral cats should be collected and put to sleep; ownership of cats should be taxed.

This position, predictably, was controversial and sensationalized in the press as a war against cats in general. It should be noted that some bird lovers during this time felt justified shooting cats (sometimes their neighbors' pets) who happened to stray onto their properties to hunt birds. The National Association of Audubon Societies risked alienating large numbers of potential advocates. Here is a 1905 response to such criticisms in Bird-Lore.

The Burgess article in Good Housekeeping was indeed controversial, leading to a rebuttal in the May 1906 issue, titled "In defense of pussy." (You might need to scroll down a little).
While the writer comes off a little like an early 20th century "cat lady," she does raise some factual objections to Hodge's cat disease claims. In the same issue, a more sympathetic story about a cat with kittens, with the bemused titled, "Motherkins: The Story of a Wild Animal."

Note that this story typifies the problem. A stray cat has kittens, to the joy of everyone.

The debate would rage for decades, largely unresolved. The cat question remains a serious problem in bird conservation, but the problem of stray cats is not nearly as severe in most areas of US as it had been 100 years ago, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the ASPCA.

Burgess under the pen-name, Arthur Chapouille, would return to this theme in a 1911 Good Housekeeping article, "A plea for Puss and her victims" (unfortunately not available in Google Books full view).

Tomorrow: A chickadee break

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