- Animal Age
Bear with me, Mistress!—I was not Always so curst a creature—Perhaps old age, that on me gains,So fast, with all its aches and pains, Has something changed my nature,But not my heart.—Anon., “My Dog and I”
Whether out of hunger for their flesh or fear for their suffering, we seldom allow animals around us a prolonged old age or natural death. Perhaps that is why we, like the Victorians, often overlook the later stages of animal lives until animals enter our homes as pets. As I have discussed in an earlier article, “Dog Years, Human Fears,” the rise of pet culture in the nineteenth century inspired a host of poems lamenting the impending deaths of pets, along with cemeteries to honour their passing. Both signalled new attention to the odd in-between status of creatures that had breached the traditional human/non-human divide. Converging interests in time scales, life spans, and forms of life may also have sparked Victorian interest in the age of animals in ways that still go largely unnoticed.
As the work of historians such as Harriet Ritvo demonstrates, Victorian fascination with animals took strikingly diverse and often contradictory forms at both the macro and micro levels as scientists challenged the Biblical account of creation and the nature of human historical time. Evolutionary theories argued for the animality of humans, which shocked readers by pointing out resemblances across species, while also precisely describing the minute differences of sub-species from one another. Evolution also focused attention on the ways the environment operated on living beings through time. The careful observations of natural historians like Darwin alongside the discoveries of extinct animal fossils suggested that evolutionary change could result from slow adaptations over millennia, but also that catastrophic natural forces might have an immediate, dramatic impact on the life spans of individuals, species, or populations. Theodore Goldsmith argues that before Darwin’s work, scientists viewed longevity as a salient characteristic in the description of animals (29–36). Later in the century, biologists such as August Weismann (whose work was popularized in Britain by George Romanes) hypothesized that long life was a negative condition that threatened the vitality of species (see 22–29). In an 1881 lecture that was quickly translated into English, Weismann went so far as to argue for a [End Page 24] what biologists now call “programmed death” (22–29) as insurance against the ill effects of reproduction in late life, though he later rejected that theory.
Presumably, few people would have encountered truly elderly animals beyond the domestic sphere. While a few zoo animals became long-lived fixtures in London and other European capitals, they were well known because they were unique. Those exotic animals that miraculously survived grueling sea voyages from the tropics or the Arctic rarely withstood the climate, new diseases, or strange diets in their new homes long enough to indicate what a full lifespan might be. Even the growth of pet culture, which prompted a longing for long-lived animal companions, was matched by a rise in vivisection, a practice that cut animals’ lives short. Painful, gruesome, and often lethal operations on dogs and other domestic animals implied that their lives, short or long, were of no importance. Animals were objects, not sentient beings whose lifespans merited concern.
Meanwhile, in a parallel development documented by historians of aging (such as Pat Thane and, in her recent study of Victorian attitudes toward age, Karen Chase), age itself emerged as an absorbing field of study. By the second half of the nineteenth century, biologists, medical researchers, demographers, economists, social engineers, and politicians were deeply preoccupied with the nature and impact of long-lived humans. While the focus of age studies has for the most part been on humans, age as a part of biological and cultural identity hardly belongs to one species. In the arts as well as the sciences, anxieties about time and subjectivity frequently meet in representations of the aging animal.
These moments of intersection often conflate differences of age, gender, ethnicity, and animality. H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) offers one of the most striking examples. In one...