Australian native, nonhuman animals at first intrigued and then disappointed newcomers as Australia was colonized by the British in the late eighteenth century. They were disparaged as unproductive and unpalatable oddities, killed as competitors to introduced species, or harvested as a source of fur and feathers for export. Focusing on the period 1803 to 1939, this paper examines one exception to this general pattern: the keeping of native animals as “pets.” Contemporary newspaper articles and advertisements are drawn upon to demonstrate that the Australian native fauna kept as pets were highly valued both emotionally by their “owners” and economically in the commercial trade and the courts. This valuation had few direct benefits to species overall because it remained focused on individual pets and was not shared with free-living animals, but it did keep alive an interest in native animals that greatly expanded in the mid-twentieth century.
In October 1870, two women appeared in the Metropolitan District Court in Sydney, the capital city of the British colony of New South Wales, to resolve an ongoing dispute over a “pet parrot” claimed by Mrs. Healey (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 13, 1870, p. 2). The bird had been alive when Mrs. King was directed by the police to return the parrot to her neighbor, but was dead on delivery. In her defense, Mrs. King said that if the other woman had been civil, she could have had the bird back alive and well. Evidence was given to show that the parrot was a valuable one and in the words of one witness “a most accomplished bird.” Mrs. King was ordered to pay £5 5s damages to Mrs. Healey for the loss of her parrot, the equivalent of over three weeks of a laborer’s wages.
The emotional investment in this parrot by Mrs. Healey and, by court order, the financial investment in the bird by Mrs. King, suggest that native animals kept within households in colonial Australia had a status and value based on the attachment felt towards them by those whom society deemed to be their owners. The impact of this practice of keeping indigenous species as companion animals was not taken into account in previous studies of attitudes towards Australian animals in the period up to the mid-twentieth century. Scholars argued that the shifts in these attitudes were dramatic, from disparagement of native fauna as odd, primitive, and even deformed obstacles to progress in the early 1800s to regarding them as cherished symbols of the unique qualities of Australia and Australians over a century later. In tracking these changes, the focus has been on native animals as sources of fur and feathers, damaging agricultural pests (Stubbs, 2001), and objects of ethical concern about species loss (Franklin, 2006; Robin, 2002; Lloyd, 2005).
This paper adds a new dimension to this body of work by investigating the impact on attitudes to Australian native fauna of keeping them as companion animals. The research shows that the ties formed between humans and other animals sharing domestic arrangements and interacting on a daily basis gave the kept animals significance greater than that of their wild living counterparts. This was translated into economic value in court cases, when companion animals were bought and sold and when rewards were offered for the return of lost animals. It will be argued that keeping Australian native animals as companions, both within Australia and overseas, ensured that a positive valuation of individual native animals was always present, even as those who remained free-living were ignored, culled, and displaced by favored introduced species (Dunlap, 1997). The specificity of this valuation meant that while some individual animals were highly valued, other native animals remained outside of the circle of concern. When protective legislation was passed in the early twentieth century, native animal keeping was not seen as making a contribution to conservation. Instead, the freedom to keep native animals for any purpose was strictly regulated or removed.
This paper will also establish the range of native animals kept in Australian households in the colonial period and, drawing extensively on contemporary newspaper advertisements, will demonstrate that engaging with them as companion animals continued a valuing of these native animals initiated by scientific collectors in the earliest days of the exploration of the Australian continent. It will then assess the relationship between this practice and the progressive extension of protection legislation in the first half of the twentieth century, arguing that by targeting native animals kept as companions, these laws curtailed an important practice that had ensured an emotional connection with some Australian animals during the long period when they were otherwise widely condemned.
While the term companion animal is generally preferred, some use of the term “pet” is made in this paper because this was the common usage during the period under consideration and it better captures the nature of the relationship being explored. Even in the mid-twentieth century, according to Franklin and White (2001), household animals were generally regarded in Australia as toys, ornaments, and amusements rather than companions. Although many keepers of native animals praised their placid nature, loyalty, and affectionate behaviors, these were the offspring of free-living animals and not dogs or cats bred over thousands of generations to serve as companions to humans. The term “owner” will sometimes be employed in referring to keepers of native animals, especially in discussing the monetary value placed on them.
A challenge which presents itself early to the historian of the keeping of animals is the availability of sources for this primarily domestic and largely undocumented phenomenon. As Paddle (2000) observed with regard to thylacines, “pet-keeping was only rarely translated into publication” (p. 70). Scattered references to pet keeping in letters, diaries, and other personal papers from the period undoubtedly exist but are too diffuse for the purposes of this initial survey. The solution has been to rely chiefly on the newspapers made available in searchable form via the Trove website.1 The study begins in 1803, when newspaper publishing began in Australia, and continues to 1939, when most states had in place legislation which limited opportunities to keep native animals domestically. Newspaper references provide a perspective on keeping native animals which is public and anecdotal but remains relatively consistent over time.
Establishing a Native-Animal-Keeping Culture
The taking of animals as pets—broadly defined as an animal kept in some form of captivity for human enjoyment, companionship, or pleasure—is a phenomenon that is common across most cultures, and existed well before the domestication of dogs and cats some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago (Serpell, 1996). It is perhaps one of the most revealing forms of the human-animal relationship because of its blurring of the boundary between “animal” and “human.”
These animals are afforded a more elevated status than most others. They are named, and, in many cases, given some form of family membership; have access to the interior spaces of the home; and are included in important family events and rituals (Serpell, 1996; Grier, 2006). In settler Australia, this meant that animal species who had still not been domesticated were taken into the domestic sphere, bringing into close contact the introduced culture of the colonizer and indigenous nature.
In choosing to examine the history of keeping native animals by non-Aboriginal Australians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this study focuses on the norms of a society which was modern, capitalist, and British colonial while it was in the process of superimposing itself over the very different cultures of Indigenous Australians. Serpell (1989), based on the work of Zeuner (1963) and Meggit (1965), showed that Australian Aboriginal people kept a variety of native animals including “dingos, wallabies, possums, bandicoots, rats, cassowaries and even frogs” (p. 11). These companion animals were members of species who had a spiritual and ceremonial role in Indigenous society as ancestor beings and totems. Small animals were carried between camps while larger ones like dingos retained freedom of movement, playing a complex role as watchdogs, scavengers, and companions, especially for older women (Gunn, Whear, & Douglas, 2012). Although settlers would have observed these interspecies relationships, they rarely adopted Aboriginal cultural practices. Their keeping of native animals was instead an adaptation of the British tradition of pet keeping.
As Franklin (2006) suggests, “the propensity to keep animals as pets is of course a function both of opportunities to do so and the degree to which keeping them is valued culturally” (p. 9). The valuing of keeping companion animals was present at the birth of British Australia in 1788 when two high-ranked men, Governor Arthur Phillip and clergyman Richard Johnson, disembarked from the First Fleet with greyhounds and cats, respectively (Johnson, 1954). In the context of a colony being established by immigration, there may well have been a greater tendency to keep animals as companions than within the tightly interconnected webs of kinship of Australia’s Indigenous societies and indeed of more settled western countries. Tuan (1984), Franklin (2006), and Fudge (2008) have argued that the weakening of bonds of kin in modernity led people to seek close relationships elsewhere, including in the apparently unconditional attachment provided by animals. Pets could serve as a partial replacement for previous human relationships severed by the forced transportation of convicts or the willing emigration of the free settler. They helped transform the isolated tents, slab huts, and cottages of colonists in a fractured, new society, into homes.
Franklin’s second element contributing to the extent to which companion animals are kept is opportunity. Without the familiar array of British species to be purchased or otherwise acquired, the first colonists had to look more widely for possible companion animals. In 1770, Australian animals had attracted the attention of the world when news of the discoveries made by explorer James Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks was published. Australia became renowned for the oddity of its native species (Olsen, 2010). First among scientists and then among a sensation-seeking public, Australian animals gained a cachet which led colonists to collect them to sell alive or as preserved specimens to those returning to Europe (Franklin, 2006). It may be that experience gained in preparing animals for export was also applied to keeping them in the longer term. Affective relationships tempered the widespread fear, perplexity, and disappointment associated with native fauna with a deep knowledge of individual animals.
The species most widely and successfully made into pets were those who best fit into pre-existing ideas about pet keeping. First among them were the colorful and vocally expressive birds. Paintings and later photographs of Australian houses very often show a bird in a cage in a public and sociable position on the front veranda. The most successful of the varieties of kept birds was the grass or shell parakeet (budgerigar), but cockatoos, rosellas, lorikeets, and cockatiels were also popular, and even emus were taken in. Among the mammals, possums, kangaroos, and wallabies followed by wombats were most often kept. The thylacine, variously known as Tasmanian tiger, wolf, and hyena, was made a pet in Tasmania where some behaved “just like a dog and … got very friendly” (Paddle, 2000, p. 71).
Reptiles were less commonly kept because widespread fear of venomous snakes made people overly cautious of all snakes and lizards. Native-born youths were keeping snakes in Sydney by the 1860s (Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 1868, p. 5), and large and attractively patterned carpet or diamond pythons were a fashionable drawing-room amusement by the end of the century. The range of animals kept challenges any assumption that native animals are unsuited to being kept and would necessarily prove to be unsatisfactory in that role (Figure 1).
Evidence of keeping native birds, mammals, and reptiles extends across the continent and throughout the period of study. However, the prevalence of this practice should not be overstated. In the cities, keeping native animals was unusual enough to form the focus of periodic newspaper stories on unique or uncommon pets aimed at reassuring readers that keeping captive snakes, lizards, possums, and wallabies could be engaging and rewarding (Sydney Morning Herald, February 28, 1917, p. 5). In rural areas, native pets were more common, with incidental reports of birds, kangaroos, and possums in domestic settings occurring frequently in children’s letters pages, lists of items in farm clearance auctions, and news reports of fires and crimes (Launceston Examiner, April 13, 1889, p. 7; Mercury [Hobart], January 17, 1893, p. 3).
In the course of this research, thousands of advertisements, news items, letters to the editor, reports of court proceedings, and human-interest stories featuring the keeping of native animals as pets were located, peaking with some 1,921 mentions of “pet kangaroos” in 1928 (Trove “Digitised Newspapers and More” database). Taken together with other sources including works by naturalists, pet-keeping manuals, private letters, and photographs, these references clearly show that Australians were keeping a variety of native species throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Over the century and a half under consideration, settler society in Australia was transformed from a single colony struggling to establish the furthest outlier of the British Empire to a thriving self-governing nation enjoying one of the world’s highest standards of living. Many things changed during this long period, not least of them relations with animals. These relations have been studied from several perspectives, most notably by Franklin (2006), but Australia does not have a history of pet keeping to parallel Grier (2006) for the United States. The keeping of companion animals in Australia followed the general trajectory of pet keeping sketched by DeMello (2007), expanding from the elite to the middle and working classes in the early nineteenth century, and combining companionship with usefulness such as killing rodents, hunting game animals, or providing security. This need for a justification for keeping a pet diminished in the twentieth century, and animals were increasingly kept for non-utilitarian reasons. In this sense, native animals were an early manifestation of the modern companion animal, as they were kept as novelties, companions, and amusements from the beginning with very few making any practical contribution to a household. By inviting these animals into their lives, colonists created a new category of Australian animal: natives who were not wild, pests, or vermin but held the status of pet.
Valuing Native Animals as Pets
Having established that native animals were being kept as pets throughout the study period, our attention turns to developing an understanding of the status and meaning of native pets in colonial society. Ritvo (1987) suggests that keeping native species could be a personal demonstration of the colonial mastery of the British over the continent, even a subconscious re-enactment of the hierarchical order among humans being set up in Australia, with Indigenous people at the bottom and the British social order grafted on top. This fits well with the general enthusiasm among the British middle classes for domestication in the Victorian era. Children, workers, other races, and even landscapes were then being subjected to new regimes of control and expectations of propriety (Howell, 2000). In a rare expression of such a motive, Australian singer Bertha Bird explained in 1911 that she took her possum with her when she moved to the
What newspapers do record clearly is the business of buying and selling native animals, court cases seeking compensation for damage caused by or to them, and rewards for the return of lost pets. Taken together, these fragments of evidence demonstrate the monetary value of these animals. As sources of amusement, companionship, and visual, emotional, and aural pleasure, they had an economic value far greater than that of animals of the same species who were not pets. Monetary exchanges related to native animals referred to as pets are therefore significant as a proxy for the intangible value these animals held.
It should be acknowledged at the outset that many kept native animals existed outside of an economic framework. Grier (2006) discusses in the American context what she calls casual pet keeping of wild creatures including squirrels, crows, and garter snakes. This occurs when an animal, generally one who is young or injured, is taken into care by a human. In Australia, there is certainly evidence of such serendipitous acquisition when, for example, a dead female kangaroo was found to have a joey in her pouch, or when an injured magpie was discovered and cared for. There is also ample evidence that shows that young birds and mammals such as possums were deliberately taken from nests. A Queensland boy wrote in 1901: “We have got a little pet opossum, which our Kanaka boys caught while they were cutting scrub. It will eat out of your hand and at night it runs all over the place like a steam engine” (The Queenslander, March 2, 1901, p. 398).
In the context of the time, these animals were available for the taking, and, if they survived, could live easily enough around the household. They could be said to have agency by presenting themselves to humans in ways which made them attractive in human eyes: juvenile, visually attractive, and vulnerable. Similarly, the actions or behaviors of animals sometimes brought an end to the companionate relationship. Many were only tolerated as long as they avoided behaviors which displeased humans. In a typical case, a farmer in the Gilgandra district of central, western New South Wales during World War i kept a carpet python who became tame enough for his children to handle. When the snake strayed from a diet of rodents and took one of the family’s chickens, the creature was “brought up for trial, found guilty and duly executed” (Gilgandra Weekly, February 2, 1917, p. 2). Casually acquired native animals tended to have a value close to that of those living free. Humans might abruptly end the association by killing or ejecting the animal, and such animals were not pursued if they strayed.
Other instances of keeping native animals, especially in urban settings, proceeded much more deliberately. One signal of commitment was the expenditure of money on the acquisition and retention of the animal, leading in some cases to the placement of the most frequent type of pet advertisement, that of offering native animals for sale. Casual sales of live native animals began very early in the colonial period, directly by trappers and later through general purpose auction houses. Two budgerigars were offered for auction with other goods from a mixed business in Sydney in 1845; in 1861, a galah and a cockatoo were offered for sale by a Sydney auction house along with a variety of dogs and other types of birds (Sydney Morning Herald, December 20, 1845, p. 2, and October 5, 1861, p. 10).
Coote (2013) found that there were up to seven street-front natural history trading enterprises operating in Sydney between the 1840s and 1860s, selling live animals including kangaroos, emus, and porcupines [echidnas] as pets, as well as preserved specimens. Individuals sold wallabies and wombats they had kept as pets, noting that these animals were superior to those newly taken from the bush because they were quiet and had been habituated to children and the house (The Mercury [Hobart], August 20, 1869, p. 1; Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 1891, p. 12, and August 29, 1891, p. 12; West Australian, July 22, 1897, p. 2). Diamond and carpet pythons, and some species of lizards, “opossums,” “sugar squirrels” (presumably sugar gliders), and wallabies were frequently offered for sale.
Enterprising Australian residents traveling overseas took with them a range of native species of birds, mammals, and reptiles to be sold at their destination. One advertised (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1849) that he would purchase “regent birds, cockatoo parrots, cockatoos, budgerygars, parrots, of all sorts, black swans, emus, kangaroos, wallabies &c” (p. 1) before he left for England in 1849, while a ship the following year carried an “astonished and howling” dingo, a large number of birds and some wallabies (Sydney Morning Herald, October 15, 1850, p. 2). Collectors often met ships seeking such exotic animals or made purchases through animal merchants and dealers clustered in London’s Strand and Piccadilly districts (Plumb, 2010). One of these was the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose wombat “Top” had originally been presented to the Prince of Wales in Hobart in 1868 and then traded through animal dealer Charles Jamrach, who also stocked a range of other Australian mammals and birds (Simons, 2012). Native animals continued to be perceived as a distinctive gift for foreign notables in the twentieth century, as when the Duke of York, visiting to open the new Federal Parliament in 1901, was presented with a kangaroo, possum, and a white cockatoo by the Queensland government (Morning Bulletin [Rockhampton], May 13, 1901, p. 4). The interest in Australian native animals in the United Kingdom is striking given that the preconceptions which led to the disparaging of these animals originated there.
A commercial trade in native companion animals existed from at least the 1840s. Birds were commercialized first, reflecting the practice of owning caged song birds that had long been present in Great Britain (Plumb, 2010). In Australia, this taste for keeping birds was increased by the variety of colorful finches and medium-sized parrots who could easily be trapped. Birds were also relatively portable and many of those on the market were intended for export. Sydney bird seller J.W. Roach advertised in January 1845 that he would purchase live birds and their eggs from residents of the interior and sell them to gentlemen about to leave the colony (Sydney Morning Herald, January 27, 1845, p. 1). His listing of the birds by their scientific names, popular colonial names, and names from Aboriginal languages indicates that this was an enterprise approached with some seriousness. By 1851, he had a competitor in naturalist J. Wilcox who bought, sold, and exchanged live birds, insects, shells, and skins in a shop near the Australian Museum where these types of preserved specimens could be viewed (Sydney Morning Herald, June 3, 1851, p. 1). By the 1860s, regular shipments of thousands of parrots were leaving Adelaide for London. Later in the century, trappers worked with Aboriginal hunters in Western Australia collecting kangaroos, wallabies, parrots, and lorikeets for export and raising young kangaroos in captivity to encourage a smooth transition into domesticity (Simons, 2012).
Longer lasting and more diversified sellers of live animals began to appear in the late nineteenth century. At a George Street, Sydney, animal business, wallabies continued to feature but new species were added in the early 1890s including possums; large kangaroos; black, brown, and diamond snakes; alongside exotics like African grey parrots and monkeys (Evening News [Sydney] May 6, 1892, p. 1, and January 25, 1893, p. 1). The inclusion of snakes and lizards at a time when the prevailing attitude toward reptiles was openly hostile was notable. An apparent export of live thylacines to Europe was reported in an article on a pet shop owner in Adelaide (The Mail [Adelaide], March 14, 1914), who stated that they sold for 50 guineas each. This shop owner claimed that in addition to tens of thousands of birds a year, he had exported an assortment of native mammals and birds including “Tasmanian devils, Tasmanian wolves and bears [koalas]” (p. 9).
By the 1920s, the Railway Bird and Pet Shop, located on Pitt Street, Sydney, was offering for sale a variety of native species of birds, mammals, and reptiles, including, on occasion, baby crocodiles. In the absence of systematic captive breeding of native animals, shop owners continued to solicit collectors to provide them with kangaroos, wallabies, reptiles, and birds (Sydney Morning Herald, March 2, 1925, p. 7). The placing of advertisements for the sale of live native animals by individuals, general auction houses, and dedicated animal traders provides solid evidence that these animals had a commercial value which reflected their desirability to collectors and those seeking companion animals.
Legal recognition of the value of native animals was expressed in decisions of courts. This was a significant development, as it followed a shift in British law which occurred in 1845 with the Dog Stealing Act. Prior to that time, animals kept as pets were excluded from larceny laws because they were deemed to be playthings without any utility value (Howell, 2000). This new recognition that animals could have value because of sentiment, attachment, and their role as companions was taken up in the Australian colonies, although there was also often reference to the native animals litigated over having been “improved” by their prior habituation to humans. In 1861, John Herd sought compensation in South Barwon Police Court near Geelong, Victoria, when the local hunt club entered an enclosed paddock where he had secured his kangaroo and the creature was killed by their dogs, with club members jeering him when he tried to protect the kangaroo. Herd was directed to seek redress from the hunt club (Argus [Melbourne], August 31, 1861, p. 6).
In Tasmania in 1871, a man was jailed for two months for stealing a kangaroo kept by a judge (Mercury [Hobart], September 7, 1871, p. 3). When, in 1878, a pet magpie strayed into a neighboring garden in Melbourne’s South Yarra, the person regarded as the bird’s owner was refused permission to enter the property to retrieve the magpie and the bird was not seen again. As in the King-Healey case cited earlier, the judge ordered that the owner be compensated, in this instance because the bird could repeat a number of phrases (The Argus [Melbourne], June 15, 1878, p. 7). After a youth lost his eye in an attack by a pet magpie on the outskirts of Sydney, the judge ruled that as with a dog attack, the owner should pay damages, in this case £200 (Windsor and Richmond Gazette, July 4, 1891, p. 4). Having been improved through training and being regarded as private property, these animals had transcended the identity of their bushland counterparts and were treated accordingly by the legal system. They were a qualitatively different form of animal, and those deemed to be their owners could expect compensation for their loss and to be held accountable for their actions.
A final demonstration of the economic valuing of kept native animals is the placing of advertisements for lost animals. Reports of lost native birds and kangaroos and the offer of rewards for their return suggest that people were very attached to them (see, for example, Mercury [Hobart], February 26, 1884, p. 3; West Australian, July 22, 1897, p. 2). The earliest such advertisement found comes from the second year in which newspapers were published in Australia, 1804, when Sergeant Richardson placed a very detailed description of his lost king parrot offering a reward of up to one guinea (£1 1s) for information leading to the bird’s return (Sydney Gazette, September 2, 1804, p. 1).
Some advertisements give the names of the animals, demonstrating that they were known as individuals and were assumed to know their owners. When seeking her kangaroo lost from the Brisbane suburb of Hamilton in 1896, Mrs. Huet asserted that he would answer to the name Joey (Brisbane Courier, February 27, 1896, p. 8). These claims reinforce the level of attachment felt toward, and possibly reciprocated by, such animals, and the range of city addresses given confirms that the keeping native animals was not confined to areas where they were also living free. By taking these animals into domestic spaces, they were drawn into the urban settings where most Australians lived. The advertisements provide direct evidence of the level of attachment advertisers had for their native animals and their unwillingness to relinquish them without making efforts to secure their return.
The economic value associated with kept native animals marked them as being in a special category. To varying degrees, they were commodified. At the extreme end were the budgerigars who were rare until the 1840s; they were exported from Australia in huge numbers by the 1860s and took on an independent life beyond the antipodes, being kept and bred around the world (Coote, 2013). By 1900, the new yellow variety, soon followed by blue, was being imported back into Australia where they were “eagerly sought after, high prices being paid for them and for their progeny” (Cayley, 1935, p. xii). Markets for other birds, mammals, and reptiles were less well-developed but all had a price. These animals had not become simple tradeable commodities, however. The value represented by the money which changed hands as native animals were captured, bought, sold, litigated over, lost, and found was based instead on their qualities as companion animals and the attachments people formed to them.
Native Pets and Attitudes to Wildlife
By the interwar period, many native animals were known as desirable pets. Naturalist “Fabian” wrote in 1935 (Brisbane Courier, November 23, 1935):
a remarkable number of native animals and birds have taken kindly to domestication … I think all of the marsupials without exception can be kept successfully.… In Tasmania both the “wolf” and the “devil” have been kept successfully…. From the emu to the mistletoe bird, our feathered pets make a very long list. They include bower birds, eagles, hawks and owls, curlews, herons, sea gulls, scores of finches and parrots. (p. 21)
Despite their proven suitability, by this time, the practice of keeping native animals was being curtailed by the animal protection legislation introduced progressively by the six Australian colonies, which became states in the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Stubbs (2001) traces the key ideas underpinning protection for native animals from recognition of their economic value as game and for fur in the 1860s when the first game laws were passed; to a sense of their ecological and aesthetic roles, especially the contribution of birds in the control of insect pests and a desire to protect beautiful and harmless species; and finally, in the early twentieth century, to sentimental beliefs about the inherent value of native fauna as living creatures and the grave wrong of allowing those who were unique to Australia to become extinct.
The ethical concerns at the turn of the twentieth century were part of both rising nationalism and the influence of progressivism with its privileging of the common good and a Romantic appreciation of nature (Lloyd, 2005). Of particular concern were the hundreds of thousands of possum, wallaby, and koala skins being sold on the United Kingdom fur market each year (Webb, 2002). Protection varied from state to state but generally was strongest for vulnerable and charismatic animals such as the koala and the lyrebird, who was extensively hunted for the bird’s feathers. Other species, like the brush-tailed possum and some kangaroos, were only provided with a closed season for hunting. Those perceived as pests or competitors to agriculture such as wombats and wedge-tailed eagles remained without protection.
This legislation disrupted the previously unregulated keeping of native animals within households. To help enforce closed seasons, much of the protection legislation made it an offense to have a native animal in one’s possession. Under the South Australian Game Act of 1886, one man was successfully prosecuted in Adelaide in 1891 for procuring three black swans during the closed season and another for offering them for sale in his fish shop, and two settlers who kept young kangaroos were fined in Yarram in 1902 (The Advertiser [Adelaide], June 23, 1891, p. 3, and May 26, 1902, p. 6). Many naturalists, including David Stead of Sydney, a co-founder and long-time president of the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia, kept their own native animals (James, 2013) but spoke out strongly against the traffic in live animals for the pet trade, decrying both the large-scale capture of birds and the high death rates during live export. Native animal traders as well as ordinary keepers of native animals were increasingly viewed with suspicion and regulated by later legislation which banned keeping some species and required a permit for others. Intending keepers had to apply to a government department and undergo an inspection to ensure that they were properly prepared to look after the animal (Chronicle [Adelaide], April 21, 1923, p. 27; The Brisbane Courier, October 8, 1927, p. 16; Gippsland Times, September 16, 1929, p. 3; Western Mail [Perth], September 17, 1936, p. 52). Most people accepted the loss of access to these animals. As Mr A. Gaydon wrote in the 1930s:
The lyrebird is undoubtedly the finest of all pet birds and if the species weren’t protected by law there would be constant expeditions for nestlings. But the possession of a pet lyrebird now means an immediate visit by the police (and rightly so). (Brisbane Courier, November 23, 1935, p. 21).
The targeting by those designing protection legislation of this trade in native animals and of the practice of keeping them demonstrates their view that such activities were not in keeping with prevailing conservation values. The small scale of keeping native animals within Australia meant that it was unlikely to have had any significant impact on most free-living populations. The international trade in birds was of much greater concern, but the real impacts on native animals came from competition and predation from introduced species, and habitat loss.
The valuing of native animals as pets was quite separate from their conservation value. As has been shown, kept native animals had a special status and an economic value far in excess of that of free-living animals. This is in keeping with the argument made by Fudge (2002), drawing upon the work of Marc Shell, that a pet is loved as an individual, distinct from other members of their species: “a pet is a pet first, an animal second” and love for a pet does not necessarily translate into a general love of the animal’s species or of all animals (p. 32). Serpell (1996) suggests a hierarchy in which companion animals are treated as more worthy of moral consideration than other animals. The imagined human/animal boundary may be blurred in the case of pets but non-pets are clearly on the animal side. This is evident when stories of beloved native pets are entangled with disregard or even animosity to other animals: the devoted keeper of a possum who also recalled the pleasures of youthful possum shooting expeditions (Burra Record, November 4, 1881, p. 2S); the keeper of a kangaroo who followed him around like a dog who became a sworn enemy of all dingos after one killed his favorite (Brisbane Courier, January 15, 1881, p. 6).
Thylacines, possums and kangaroos were treasured companions to some at the same time as bounties were placed on their scalps by those seeking to protect livestock and crops from their predation or competition. Affection for individual animals did not necessarily translate into respect for other native animals. What the keeping of native animals did achieve was the continuance of the limited but passionate interest in Australian fauna first kindled by explorers and naturalists, which was so greatly expanded in the twentieth century.
Using the Trove online newspaper archive, this study has been able to begin an exploration of the nature of the affective and relational bonds shared between Australian native animals and European Australians, and their impact on the experience of colonization. To advance research in this field, it will be necessary to locate and analyze the more intimate accounts of keeping companion animals which appear in letters, diaries, and memoirs; as well as records of financial dealings involving native animals. These sources will shed light on the class, gender, and location of buyers and sellers of native animals and reveal how keeping them intersected with the keeping of introduced species such as cats and dogs. We have shown that native animals received commitment and care from humans, but were there limits on how well non-domesticated species could fit within the contemporary models of pet keeping? More fine-grained studies will be better able to reveal the role the animals themselves played in these relationships, something which can only be glimpsed in the public record of the newspaper article.
A wide variety of native mammals, birds, and reptiles began to be brought into the domestic sphere and constructed as pets by colonial Australians soon after European colonization began. A native animal economy relating to this practice, comprising businesses and individuals, was established by the middle of the nineteenth century. It involved selling native species not only to a domestic market but also to an international one, giving them legal recognition in courts of law and leading to the posting of rewards if they strayed. A social and commercial value for some native animals was thus established which other native fauna did not enjoy. This affection for native animal pets generally did not appear to create an ethic of concern for the wellbeing of all native fauna among their keepers, but it can be seen as a significant strand of empathy during a period in which Australian animals were routinely disparaged. Australians’ affection for and economic valuing of native fauna as expressed through pet keeping complicate ideas about human-animal relations in this period and offer great scope for further research.
The authors would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their very useful comments which have shaped the final version of this article.
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Trove, available at http://trove.nla.gov.au/, provides access to the full text of more than 1,000 Australian newspapers. Systematic searches were made of both news articles and advertisements in this database for this period. The search terms paired “pet” with the names of over 30 native species (such as “pet magpie”) or categories of animals (such as “pet snake”). It is conceded that much more keeping would have been occurring than is represented in these newspapers and that what was deemed to be newsworthy creates a particular bias in how the practice has been recorded. Some relevant material will have been missed, because scanning is imperfect, leading to non-recognition of search terms; the spelling of the names of animals only slowly became standardized and the common names of some species varied over time and place.