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I am glad it is no longer necessary to drown kittens, but the people of the past were not evil for doing it

Self-described “Poe/history blogger and crazy cat lady” Undine @HorribleSanity has unearthed a page from an old children’s book with a moral likely to disturb most modern readers:

I wonder what this little girl is crying about ? O ! I have found out. John has taken the kittens from the old cat, and has drowned them in the pond ; and she is ready to call him a heartless creatore for doing so. Do you think he is ? O, no. It would be cruel, indeed, to torment the kittens as some children do ; but John was told to drown them for the convenience of the family ; so dry up your tears, Miss Lucy.

When I was a child my mother told me that when she was a child in the late 1930s and early 1940s it was still routine for litters of kittens to be drowned. There was a local man who probably made a living as a general odd-job man but who my mother and her sister hated because they saw him only in his role as “the kitten-drowner”. When my grandmother called him round to do the deed, my mother and her sister would hide while it was done and be upset for days afterwards.

But what else were people to do back then? If nature is allowed to take its course, a female cat can easily bear three litters a year. Let’s say three kittens per litter. Where you had one cat you now have ten, and it is not just your Tibbles doing that, but every cat in the neighbourhood, and it is not long before the kittens grow up and start mating with each other. To be sure, the geometric progression will not continue forever. That’s because in a society that has no practical means to stop them breeding, most stray cats either starve to death or are killed by the almost equally uncontrollable population of stray dogs. Unless, that is, someone spares them from this miserable life and lingering death by killing them in a relatively merciful way soon after birth.

Dogs, it is true, can usually be kept from breeding by not letting them run loose. But for most of human history the whole point of having a cat was that it would feed itself and earn its place in a human home by killing mice. It can’t do that on a lead. Commercially made cat food began to be produced in the 1930s. So it did exist when my mother was a child but only as a luxury product. Her family were far from rich. Their cats were given table scraps to supplement their main diet of mice, but the idea of paying for meat to feed a cat when humans often went without would have seemed ridiculous.

Given that she is a history blogger with a specific interest in what TV Tropes calls “Values Dissonance”, I am sure Undine knows all this, but some of her audience clearly have not thought it through. “I hope whoever wrote that is burning in hell,” says one of the replies to her tweet.

Rather than call down damnation on people for whom killing kittens was the least inhumane option, it would be better to call down blessings on those who made it no longer necessary. Those who developed anaesthetics are rightly praised for having freed humans from much suffering, both by making surgical operations pain-free and by making surgery more likely to succeed because it no longer had to be done at speed. These benefits quickly filtered down to animals, too, first to bulls and stallions, and then on to smaller animals like cats and dogs. They can do surgery on hamsters now. If you think that wasteful, remember that the benefit of being able to save a pet goes not just to the animal but to the humans who love it.

As I said, we rightly praise the pioneers of medicine who made this happy situation possible – but the biggest driver in changing possibility to fact was the capitalist system that made us so much richer than our ancestors. We can afford to buy food specially for cats. We can afford to take cats to the vets to get the snip, and to have their annual injections done and their ailments treated. Now that their offspring are greatly reduced in number, we can afford to support animal shelters that will find homes for them if the card in the newsagent’s window doesn’t work. We can afford not to drown kittens.

15 comments to I am glad it is no longer necessary to drown kittens, but the people of the past were not evil for doing it

  • Kirk

    The other lesson here is that the “old days” weren’t the way they were because people were cruel and deliberately nasty, but because they had no other damn choice than to do the things they did.

    This is a major issue I have with everyone who yammers on and on about the “injustices” of what were present in the old ways of what we now term “gender relations”. Everyone thinks it was just awful that we didn’t educate young women, but when you look at the rate of death in childbirth, the average number of wives a man would have, plus their ages? Yikes. Ignace Semmelweis deserves a statue in every female-oriented venue around the world.

    It wasn’t sexism. It was reality. What sense did it make to send a girl off to college, if she were extremely unlikely to ever make use of that education? What was the payback, on that, for society?

    As well, people forget the tremendous death rates for young men, particularly in daily life. How many died due to some horse kicking them in the head? The mortality rates of “ye olde dayes” were incredibly high, and that influenced society’s values and mores tremendously. It wasn’t that people were cruel and controlling, it was that they were clear-eyed and recognized reality. They had no choice in the matter; life was a hell of a lot closer to the bone than we even can even wrap our heads around. One bad harvest, and your entire family would starve for a year, and maybe not even make it through to the next one. Having a horse stolen might result in your entire family dying, not just you. Which is why they hung horse thieves back in the day. Not because they were cruel, but because they recognized that stealing from someone on that level was tantamount to murder, just like stealing food from them might be.

    One should never judge the past by the standards of today.

  • Nemesis

    I blame Disney.

  • Duncan S

    Kirk asks, rhetorically,

    How many died due to some horse kicking them in the head?

    My 6x Great Grandfather died from a kick from a horse in 1843. He was 76: my ancestor, not the horse. 😉

    But I agree with his comments, and, sadly, we’re in the mess we are today because too many people “judge the past by the standards of today”.

    On the subject of drowning cats, we lived on a farm when I was younger and I’m still a little haunted by my mother drowning my cat’s first litter.

  • bobby b

    The resurgence of coyotes across much of the US has freed us from needing to thin our cat herds. Now it’s automatic. Just let them go outside.

    This is, again, due to the high level of prosperity we have attained. It’s a rich society that can afford to have natural predators roaming around. Ask the cattleguys out West about the reintroduction of wolves.

  • Stuart Noyes

    My pappa said spitting in the streets was heavily scolded and throwing stones at stray dogs encouraged. His father drowned litters of kittens during the 30s.

  • Zerren Yeoville

    On this topic, we can also refer to Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘The Early Purges’ and his treatment in the closing lines of the differing moral standards at work.

    I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
    Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’,
    Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,

    Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
    Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
    Of the pump and the water pumped in.

    ‘Sure, isn’t it better for them now?’ Dan said.
    Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
    Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

    Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
    Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
    Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

    Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
    When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
    Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens’ necks.

    Still, living displaces false sentiments
    And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
    I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense:

    ‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town
    Where they consider death unnatural
    But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Something to think of in the coming hard times. From reading British papers I understand that your grocery stores are like ours, with a lot of empty shelves. And as supply chains continue to tighten up and prices rise, people are having to make some choices.

    Most people are not going to want to think of this, but soon pets may again become a luxury that people will have to make decisions about. Look at stocking levels in stores, ours and yours. There are gaps and if not gaps, shelves are not as full. For both people and pet foods. I cannot speak to British practices, but here it used to be that between stores and warehouses each city had about a 3 day supply of food. Now I am sure here it is less than that. Supermarkets here used to get 1 or 2 semi trailers to restock with every night. Now they get 1 every couple of days.

    I already recommend that people stock extra food for themselves in homes. If you have pets, recognize that you probably need to have supplies [including pet meds] stockpiled if you plan to try to keep them. Or make the decision to get rid of them.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Ferox

    Though the author calls this out in one of the paragraphs of her post, it’s worth highlighting – drowning the kittens is not the bottom step of the societal wealth ladder; letting them die of natural causes (i.e. from predation, starvation, exposure, or disease) is the bottom step. Drowning them is a step up, and only done when people have both the time and the inclination to take that step.

    In a truly poor society (say, one in the late stages of socialism) the kittens would be left to fend for themselves, or else they might become a food source for the desperate.

  • Fraser Orr

    TBH, this strikes me as one of those theoretical moral dilemmas: if you see a train running down the track heading toward killing five people do you push a fat guy in the way to sacrifice the life of one to save the life of five others?

    Which is to say there is a difference between letting a bad thing happen (coyotes ripping the heads off cute kittens) an acting in a bad way to prevent a larger bad thing (killing the kittens more painlessly.) As a rule most people seem to think that there is a much higher threshold for justifying active bad actions than for justifying inaction. Most people would not push the fat guy in front of the train, but most people would think shooting an innocent person to prevent a nuclear explosion in the center of a city was justified, especially so if they can delegate the dirty job to someone else.

    These dilemmas should be very much on our minds — should America bomb hospitals full of innocent people because the enemy have placed a rocket battery on the roof, for example.

    But I certainly agree that it is the soft and cushy life that capitalism and freedom have brought to western nations that allow us to be a little more morally squeamish about, for example, animal welfare or animal experimentation, than a poorer nation might be able to. And that has been taken to the extreme where things like “being offended” or “microaggressions” are treated with brow furrowed seriousness rather than laughed off as ephemeral whining. It is what the Soviets used to call “Western Decadence”.[*]

    However, as you often do Natalie, you definitely made me think with this one.

    [*] BTW, I was thinking about this and I don’t actually remember any Soviet saying that. So it is possible that it was Soviets in James Bond movies that used to say that not actual Soviets but that totally ruins my point, and takes away a delightfully concise description that I think it rather better to ignore this minor matter of its factualness.

  • Paul Marks

    Nature is grim – grim indeed.

  • Fraser:

    Yes, if the fat guy is an ethicist.

  • Ben David

    should America bomb hospitals full of innocent people because the enemy have placed a rocket battery on the roof, for example.
    Not a theoretical for us here in Israel. The Palis have placed the major armory/intelligence center of Gaza under a hospital.

    In a truly poor society (say, one in the late stages of socialism) the kittens would be left to fend for themselves, or else they might become a food source for the desperate.
    A hi-tech colleague who did globe-trotting customer support had a policy of “eat first, ask later”. He was served kebabs somewhere in South America and when he asked what it was, got the reply “gato”… with a shrug, as if it was obvious…

    Ted Sch:
    Yes, if the fat guy is an ethicist.
    You win the Internet this week…

  • lucklucky

    But abortion is Ok.

  • Kirk

    @Ben David,

    One of the things that has always impressed me about the IDF is the attention it places on “Purity of Arms”, integrating it into training and operations to an extent that would stun most outside observers. If they bothered to pay attention to it.

    There’s a huge difference between the IDF and the US military when it comes to these things. If I remember right, there’s a young IDF infantry officer who’s still in military prison because a lapse of his led to one of his men having an negligent discharge during an operation on the West Bank. That’s how seriously they take that stuff.

    In the US Army? LOL… I know of several cases where they had people screw up and actually kill dozens of civilians through misadventure, not necessarily negligence (although that was a component of it…) and they just shrugged their shoulders and said “Oh, well… Things happen…”

    Israeli officer I met had those situations described to him, and he said they’d have been career-enders in the IDF, and likely have met with prison terms.

    Which is one reason I laugh so heartily whenever I hear someone talking about IDF atrocities. They may happen, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, but the idea that it’s either routine or goes unpunished? Utterly ridiculous.

  • Patrick Crozier

    For background/context in the reading for What the Paper Said I frequently come across cases of animal cruelty ending up in the courts. So, it was certainly taken seriously in the 1920s.