Pet Friendly

A History of Domesticating Animals

Henry Pontier photographed handfuls of animal subjects, circa 1870

Harry Whittier Frees photographed animal subjects in the early 20th century.

The American pet industry rakes in about $50 billion every year. In 1909, a hunting trip sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution brought back 11,397 specimens for potential display in the American Museum of Natural History. It’s clear that Americans’ desire to bring animals indoors — and under their control — has manifested itself in many different ways over time.

In this episode, we’ll look at how Americans have often projected their own desires onto the animals over which they have dominion. From the contributions made by pigs in the colonization of America to the lethal justice carried out on elephants centuries later, we’ll try to figure out if our relationships with animals have served as a sort of practice field for our relationships with each other.

Help Shape the Show: We’ve all had interesting experiences with domesticated animals. What’s your best story? Was your relationship to your childhood pet different from your relationship to your pet now? Any family stories of an aunt who bucked the law to fulfill her need for exotic birds? Let us know below, or at



Comments (6)

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  1. J Witt

    When I’m working at my computer, my cat Spice loves to lie between the keyboard and the monitor shelf. She manages to produce the most spectacular mishaps, as if she knew what she was doing, just by lying on different parts of my keyboard. The best was when she caused the monitor image to rotate 90 degrees!! I had to Google the solution. Now I finally had a brainstorm! I rolled up a sheet into a tubular pillow. As soon as she hops on the desk and selects where she’s going to recline in state, I promptly stuff the pillow between her and the keyboard. Its working, we’re both satisfied with this compromise. (What compromise? As usual she gets what she wants.)

  2. Mike Hasley

    How about the pet rock? Or other pet fads? Have any resulted in a negative, like the introduction of kudzu? Or… .another thought I had, how important have Presidential pets been, especially those of Teddy Roosevelt?

  3. Sara

    My husband and I have two guinea pigs, which are not quite exotic pets, but are out of the norm as the only pets of childless adults. They were a carefully thought out compromise for us, one of many markers of our intercultural marriage. I’m of European descent from the rural Midwest and grew up surrounded by animals. My husband is a second-generation Indian American from the East Coast suburbs and grew up with limited exposure to domestic animals. They work for us because they are small, don’t need much attention, and hang out in their own space until we want to get them out.

    Having guinea pigs as adults comes with some baggage. Many people associate them with small children and seem confused that we have guinea pigs as our only pets. People quickly associate us with guinea pigs; my husband’s coworkers good-naturedly hassled him about them, we’ve received special guinea pig themed Christmas cards, and my friends often send me articles they find about eating fads related to guinea pigs.

    It’s also very interesting to watch members of our families interact with the pigs. Most adults in my husband’s family are nervous around them, so it becomes a game of who is brave enough to touch them. We won my mother-in-law over by explaining that they never try to escape their cage and are fully vegetarian. Children from both families are always excited to play with them, and we have several petsitters who enjoy spending a few days with them.

    The last point to share is how surprised we were with the range of expression we see in our guinea pigs, and with how reactive they are to us. Most pets learn how to manipulate their owners, but is there anything worse than being gamed by rodents? They have learned when to plead for veggies — not just when they hear the fridge open, but when they hear a combination of sounds like fridge, plastic bag, knife on cutting board. They get their main daily serving first thing in the morning, and they quickly learned to wait for us to go to the bathroom before going crazy with excitement.

    Looking forward to the show!

  4. amy

    When I was growing up in the 50s, most dogs were outside dogs and were either chained up with a dog house or in a kennel. While they were sometimes allowed in the house, they were usually not allowed to sleep in the house, and certainly not on the bed or furniture. Cats, however, did live in the house and on the furniture and beds. Flash to the present and our two dogs live in the house and frequently sleep on the bed and are treated as members of the family. This seems like a big change in a small amount of time. What are/were the key drivers of this change? While we certainly cared for our dogs when I was a child and played with them all the time, they certainly had a different relationship with us than our current dogs do….

  5. Nancy Lemons

    RE: Pet healthcare

    When I was a little girl in the 70s, we had three house dogs and a parakeet. One dog had been my mother’s before I was born, one dog was inherited from my grandmother (on my mother’s side) and one dog was rescued (or stolen, depending on how you look at it) from a neighbor and relative whom my mother thought wasn’t taking care of the dog. The parakeet became my mother’s when my other grandmother on my father’s side died. We loved these pets, but wouldn’t have spent a great deal of money on their healthcare.

    Now, my husband and I have three dogs (two strays we found and one we adopted from a rescue shelter). We don’t have kids and we treat these dogs like royalty. Our life revolves around their waking, eating, walking and sleeping. Back in January we paid for our oldest and dearest dog Kah-less (yes, that is Klingon — we’re Star Trek nerds) to have a cancerous growth removed from his dog “elbow.” We briefly considered radiation treatment at the vet hospital in Pullman, Wash., but decided against after considering the suffering versus quality and length of life. It didn’t seem like it would add more years to justify it.

    People used to not spend money on animals like this. Now there’s pet health insurance! How/when did this culture transition happen? Was it PSA’s telling people to spay or neuter their pets like Bob Barker used to at the end of “The Price Is Right”? I know some people today still don’t take care of a pets’ basic needs, while others would practically mortgage their house to keep their beloved alive.

  6. Lee

    How about animals that fit around a work schedule. I went with cats because I sometimes had to work 16 hours without notice, and did not think it fair for my dogs to wait that long to go out doors. Most cats will use a litter box, and give you the same affection as dogs, but sometimes in a different way.