Monday, February 24, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“CREATURE COMFORTS – NEW ZEALANDERS AND THEIR PETS” by Nancy Swarbrick (Otago University Press, $NZ55); “ECOSANCTUARIES – Communities building a future for New Zealand’s threatened ecologies” by Diane Campbell-Hunt and Colin Campbell-Hunt (Otago University Press, $NZ40)
I have before me two new New Zealand books, both of which concern animals, or at least non-human life in this country, but each of which is quite different in tone and intent from the other. Nancy Swarbrick’s Creature Comforts will probably have the effect of making you purr contentedly and come over all cuddly and protective. Diane and Colin Campbell-Hunt’s Ecosanctuaries will probably make you think long and hard, in a practical way, about the protection of indigenous species. The authors of both books love animals but the books are different as chalk and cheese. Contrast the amiable popular history with the rigorous thesis (or textbook). In their own very different ways, they are both very revealing.
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The cuddly one first.
I do not hesitate to say that Nancy Swarbrick’s Creature Comforts is both bedside book and coffee-table book. It is bedside book because many of its chapters consist of anecdotes and stories about New Zealand pets, which would perhaps be better consumed one at a time rather than read at a couple of sittings the way I read them. Subtitled “An illustrated history”, it is coffee-table book because a great part of its appeal comes from the many and varied illustrations spread throughout the 240-odd pages of text, before the detailed index and references. However, I’m aware that to call a book a coffee-table book can be somewhat demeaning. Nancy Swarbrick is an historian who has put much solid research into this book, and she is not merely a purveyor of sentimental animal tales. Creature Comforts tells much about the way New Zealanders have related to animals not only in domestic situations but in the workplace, and some of the things it says are surprising.
In her introduction, Swarbrick notes that New Zealand now has a higher rate of pet ownership than comparable countries such as Australia, the USA or the UK. There are 4.4 million people in New Zealand. There are 5 million pets. And yet there is a paradox here, which she also smartly notes and which becomes one of the major themes of her book:
“The existence of a thriving pet culture alongside a deeply pragmatic approach to other animals is a paradox that cannot be simply explained. In a further complication, animals that are usually killed and eaten, or targeted as pests, can also be pets.” (p.10)
Witness, much later in the book, the photograph of the little New Zealand boy with his pet possum, or all the details on farm children whose pet calf or lamb will later be unceremoniously trundled off to the freezing works.
Naturally, Swarbrick begins with a chapter on Maori attitudes to animals, both before and after the Pakeha invasion. There was a tradition of Maori keeping kuri dogs, and birds such as the tui, as pets. Long before missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century, cats and dogs proliferated, having first been left here by sealers and whalers. Both species were liked (and eaten) by Maori. By the mid-nineteenth century, the real kuri dogs were virtually extinct, having interbred with more robust European dogs or having been exterminated as pests by Pakeha farmers. Maori – who had once treated the kuri dog as both pet and delicacy to be eaten – now had a taste for pork rather than kuri flesh and no longer considered kuri as taonga. Swarbrick conveys the absolute delight and surprise (p.23) of Maori at their first sight of horses. She also shows the persistence of the very different attitudes of the two races towards animals in her account of the “Dog Tax Rebellion” of 1898.
When she moves on to early Pakeha settlers in her second chapter, Swarbrick tells us how domesticated and farm animals suffered all the horrors of seasickness on the long voyage out, just as the human beings did. As an alleurophile, I was delighted to hear of the honoured place of cats among pioneer settlers, for their ability to rid homes of mice and of the brazen European rats. But cats’ hunting ability also brought that problem about which Gareth Morgan is now propagandizing. Swarbrick quotes the pioneer Adela Stewart:
“ One day…. our cat brought in a quail, which I took from it, plucked and myself ate, giving it a bit of mutton in exchange. This became a common practice with succeeding generations of cats.” (p.49)
Perhaps it was no loss for puss to kill an introduced species of bird; but it became a very grave problem once puss became one of the reasons some indigenous birds were threatened with extinction.
It is clear that Pakeha quite soon developed the habit of keeping animals for no other reason than aesthetic delight. Apparently the country’s first “pet shop” opened in Wellington in 1868 – a general store selling goldfish and canaries. It was the fashion for wealthy individuals to keep their own menageries, the most egregious example being Sir George Grey with his collections of wallabies and monkeys and the like on Kawau Island. The Victorian temper was such that it was also commonplace for pet-owners to grieve over dead pets and provide funerals for them (as Queen Victoria had for some beloved dogs). Taxidermists throve on the trade of stuffing deceased animals for display in the home parlour.
Outside the domestic scene, though, there was the phenomenon of lonely men in remote country places seeing their beast as both workmate and companion. (Chapter Three, “Man’s Best Friend”). Dogs and horses were the most likely workmate-companions, walking the roads with “Shiner” Slattery and warming musterers at night, but the cat became the beast that gave the isolated hut a sense of civilization. And made it rat-free. The old paradox creeps in, though. Some of the hardy men who petted Dobbin and Rover and Puss also attended mice-fights and dogfights and cockfights, even though these contests quickly became illegal. And when Thomas Brunner and his Maori companions ran out of food on one long trek, they didn’t hesitate to eat their dog (p.76).
Once the first pioneering period was over, there came what Swarbrick calls (Chapter 4) “The Fancy” – that is, those amateurs who stressed over the breeding and pedigree of poultry and pigeons and cats and dogs, and who entered them into shows and competitions and dog-trials. Catteries and kennel clubs arose. Acutely (p.85), Swarbrick notes the class feeling that was often involved in “the fancy”. Fanciers had the sense that they themselves were a superior and more cultured breed of animal lover.
With the rise of the SPCA (Chapter Five) there were strenuous attempts not only to stamp out cruelty to animals, but also to train children in the appropriate care of animals. The early SPCA attempted to emulate the temperance movement (with its children enrolled in “Bands of Hope”) by getting children enrolled in “Bands of Mercy” inculcating kindness to animals. Of course the connection of children and animals leads into a chapter on New Zealand calf-club days, and agricultural show competitions for pet lambs. Says Swarbrick:
“Calling a calf Milkyway or a lamb Roast or a chicken Kentucky was a light-hearted way for children to acknowledge their pets’ probable destiny”. (p.148)
As she moves through the 20th century Swarbrick focuses on animals used in war by the New Zealand army or as “mascots” by businesses, and on police dogs and the controversies they have aroused when they have got out of control (pp.162ff, Chapter Seven); on the control of animals that have become pests, such as dangerous breeds of dog (Chapter Eight); on individual animals that have become “local legends” such as Mackenzie’s dog, Pelorous Jack, Opo, and Hector the cockatoo (Chapter Eight); and finally on anti-vivisection campaigns, and the rise in animals rights.
The materials of this book are so various (and so anecdotal) that they have seduced me into writing this rather scrappy summary in place of a real review.
Time to ‘fess up and tell you the things I really enjoyed in Creature Comforts. Certainly the illustrations, of which I have two favourites. On Page 63 there is the single most terrifying image in the book – a drawing Charles Heaphy did of himself climbing up a sheer cliff by means of a rotting ladder made of rata vines, while his poor dog is being hoisted up on a flimsy flax rope. And on Page 127 there is the affecting photograph of volunteers feeding stray dogs that had been “orphaned” by the Murchison earthquake of 1929. Funny that a non-doggy-person like me should find these images so touching, but there you are. I was also fascinated by Swarbrick’s account of the way the introduction of German Shepherds (“Alsatians”) into New Zealand in the 1920s led to a campaign for them to be banned as a vicious breed. It sounded like the later campaign to have pit bulls banned, although there was good reason for the banning in the latter case.
I was surprised to discover (p.178) that right up to the 1950s, the SPCA itself advised pet owners on how to dispose of unwanted kindles and litters in ways that would now be considered unacceptably cruel (e.g. suffocating them in a sealed biscuit tin). I am unsentimental enough, however, to find very funny the story (pp.55-56) of how an old blind dog, excellent at ratting, accidentally killed and ate its owners’ beloved per guinea pig. And, of course, as an alleurophile, I am delighted to discover that in New Zealand cat ownership far exceeds dog ownership. About half of New Zealand households have a cat, while only about a third have a dog.
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Now we turn to the more earnest book.
Diane Campbell-Hunt and Colin Campbell-Hunt’s Ecosanctuaries has a sad and very touching backstory. In Wellington, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, which was opened in 1999 (and later renamed “Zealandia”), was the first attempt to create an absolutely pest-free sanctuary for indigenous species on the New Zealand mainlands. It has a sturdy pest-exclusion fence.
By 2005, there were 18 such fenced sanctuaries on the New Zealand mainlands.
In that year the botanist Diane Campbell-Hunt began work on a thesis consisting of case studies of six such sanctuaries. The six were Karori (Wellington), Maungatautari (near Hamilton), Tawharanui (north of Auckland), Rotokare (near New Plymouth), Bushy Park (near Wanganui) and Orokunui (near Dunedin and the only one in the study on the South Island). By close observation and extensive interviews with those who undertook to set up and maintain such ecosanctuaries, Diane Campbell-Hunt wanted to examine the different governance models and how effective they were. How much were the ecosancturies run by government grants or dependent on a landowner’s initiative or maintained by voluntary community effort? Which model appeared to be the most effective? Interestingly, five of the six ecosanctuaries studied were citizen-led projects. (p.55)
Tragically, Diane died in a tramping accident in 2008 before her thesis was completed.
Some years later her husband Colin Campbell-Hunt, a business studies academic, decided to take up and complete his late wife’s work, both as a tribute to Diane and as work worth doing in its own right. Ecosanctuaries incorporates Diane’s original material and the original interview data she undertook before 2008, but with updating of information, organization and supplementary material provided by her husband’s additional research.
Especially in its opening three chapters (collectively called the book’s “prologue”) this can be quite a technical book, complete with graphs and diagrams comparing funding models and reminding us what a very formidable and expensive task it is to set up exclusive sanctuaries, as in the statement that:
“Exclusion fencing is an ambitious approach to ecosystem protection and restoration because of the high establishment costs and the need for long term commitment to fence maintenance, repair and eventual replacement. Fenced sanctuaries also require vigilant monitoring to detect pest reinvasions, and the capacity to respond rapidly and effectively when they occur”. (p.51)
After the book’s methodology is established, however, Ecosanctuaries divides into three parts, each of which considers how sustainable some aspect of the ecosanctuary enterprise is. Is the ecology that is being protected capable of being sustained? Is community support sustainable? Are ecosanctuaries sustainable as economic enterprises? (How important are tourists’ and visitors’ contributions?) And how sustainable is the relationship with DOC and government?
I admit that I found much of this dry reading, but not impenetrable. Though the language is formal and thesis-like, it is jargon-free. It is also enlivened by the forthright comments of Diane’s (and Colin’s) interview subjects, especially in the sections that follow the “prologue”.
It is a good and conscientious book most likely to be used as a “handbook” for those interested in flora and fauna conservation.