Thursday, January 10, 2019

Jack London's Terriers

Jack London and wife, with Possum, just 6 days before Jack's death in 1916.

He was a socialist racist, a meat-eating vegetarian, and a moralizing alcoholic who wrote two books about terriers that helped jump start the animal-rights movement.

Jack London and his wife, Charmian, acquired a Jack Russell terrier named "Possum" in Baltimore in 1912.

Later London wrote a book entitled Jerry of the Islands, about a terrier born on one of the Solomon Islands, who is first owned by a man called "Skipper" who is killed by natives. The dog falls into the hands of a head-hunting chief in a cannibal village. Sheer chance saves Jerry from the cooking-pot and he escapes into the wilds, where he enjoys a semi-feral life until rescued by the yacht Ariel, and its crew, Harley and Villa Kennan, who seem as gods.

To say this book does not travel well in the 21st Century does not begin to start the conversation. It is a rather unvarnished paean to racism.

Later, in 1915, London wrote another book: "Michael, Brother of Jerry". From the forward to that book comes this missive about how Jack London saw the circus and show-dog trainers of his day:

Very early in my life, possibly because of the insatiable curiosity that was born in me, I came to dislike the performances of trained animals. It was my curiosity that spoiled for me this form of amusement, for I was led to seek behind the performance in order to learn how the performance was achieved. And what I found behind the brave show and glitter of performance was not nice. It was a body of cruelty so horrible that I am confident no normal person exists who, once aware of it, could ever enjoy looking on at any trained-animal turn.

...I have indeed lived life in a very rough school and have seen more than the average man's share of inhumanity and cruelty, from the forecastle and the prison, the slum and the desert, the execution-chamber and the lazar-house, to the battlefield and the military hospital. I have seen horrible deaths and mutilations. I have seen imbeciles hanged, because, being imbeciles, they did not possess the hire of lawyers. I have seen the hearts and stamina of strong men broken, and I have seen other men, by ill-treatment, driven to permanent and howling madness. I have witnessed the deaths of old and young, and even infants, from sheer starvation. I have seen men and women beaten by whips and clubs and fists, and I have seen the rhinoceros-hide whips laid around the naked torsos of black boys so heartily that each stroke stripped away the skin in full circle. And yet, let me add finally, never have I been so appalled and shocked by the world's cruelty as have I been appalled and shocked in the midst of happy, laughing, and applauding audiences when trained-animal turns were being performed on the stage.

...Cruelty, as a fine art, has attained its perfect flower in the trained-animal world.

Right. I have to say that Jack London is not necessarily an honest voice or an expert in these matters.

He was, it should be said, a dilettante who stuck his beak into a lot of areas, without fully understanding them.

He bought a boat when he did not know how to sail, and was ripped off for his ignorance before wrecking the craft entirely.

He was a socialist who looked down his nose at people of color, and who embraced eugenics and class systems.

He was a sometime militant vegetarian who would revert to eating meat.

Nonetheless, his books sold, and his attacks on circuses found great influence following the publication of Michael, Brother of Jerry after London's death from alcoholism.

In the next 15 years, "Jack London Clubs," dedicated to animal rights, were started all over the U.S. These clubs achieved an international membership of nearly one million (almost all school children who signed a piece of paper but never donated or acted again) before the Second World War and, in 1925, they were said to be responsible for Ringling-Bothers Barnum & Bailey Circus removing all animal acts for the next four years.

In fact, this story is not true, and reality is a bit more complex.

Ringing Brothers never stopped having animal acts, as a simple check of circus posters for the period in question will reveal. There were lions, tigers, and elephant acts, to say nothing of horses, dogs, and many other kinds of other animals.

This is not to say the Ringling operation was entirely healthy.  The circus was undergoing a major change in management, and was a bit on the ropes due to the rise of animal acts at the Hagenbeck–Wallace Circus, which featured the great lion-tamer Clyde Beatty.

During the period in question, Ringling moved its base of operations from Wisconsin to Florida (where it remains to this day), rebuilt its capital fund, and bought out the Hagenbeck–Wallace Circus in part to transfer over Clyde Beatty's big cat acts to Ringling.

Not only did Ringling Brothers not abandon animal acts -- they doubled down on them!

1 comment:

jdlvtrn said...

I have owned, trained, driven teams of, back packed with Alaskan Malamutes and read all manner of writings about them from juvenile fiction, to historical writings and attended innumerable seminars on sled dog topics. No one has anything but the utmost disdain for Call of the Wild, White Fang and everything that Jack London ever wrote about the dogs, their behavior. But his damage has outlived him and seems immortal.