Loudin also waxes on their habits, like jumping around a room
and peeping out from wooden eaves . . .
– Domestic pets: their habits and management, Jane Loudin, 1851
Like all fashions, preferences in pets vary through time, but agility and cuteness are almost always desirable characteristics, especially among those able and willing to pay for what really is a luxury item.
[They] were sold in markets and found in the homes of wealthy urban families, and portraits of well-to-do children holding a reserved, polite upper-class [one] attached to a gold chain leash were proudly displayed (some of which are currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Some things, however, don’t change with time. People get attached to pets, you know? Maybe that’s even the defining characteristic: an animal in your home or yard that you’re attached to.
In 1722, [one] named Mungo passed away.
It was a tragedy: Mungo escaped its confines and met its fate at the teeth of a dog.
Benjamin Franklin, friend of the owner,
immortalized [him] (Ed’s note: the pet, not the owner) with a tribute.
Of course, anyone with children has to consider how the pet will fit into the family: Will it be good with kids?
Mourning [their] death wasn’t as uncommon as you might think
when Franklin wrote Mungo’s eulogy;
in the 18th- and 19th centuries, [they] were fixtures in American homes,
especially for children.
(Ed’s note: emphasis added)
For a pet to be really popular, though, ease of upkeep matters.
While colonial Americans kept many types of wild animals as pets,
[they] “were the most popular,”
according to Katherine Grier’s Pets in America, being relatively easy to keep.
Ah, there’s the rub: over the long haul, wild animals will never be as successful at pethood as domesticated animals are.
Today, experts and enthusiasts alike warn that [they] don’t always make ideal pets,
mainly because of their finicky diet, space requirements, and scratchy claws.
Or, if not truly domesticated, then at least corral-able in a cage. Yes, folks, that’s why dogs and cats and rabbits and fish and iguanas and birds and hamsters and turtles and dagnabbed tarantulas have supplanted squirrels as America’s favourite pet.
What? WHAT? Squirrels? Yes, you read that aright.
Most pet squirrels were American Grey Squirrels,
though Red Squirrels and Flying Squirrels also were around,
enchanting the country with their devil-may-care attitudes and fluffy bodies.
Yes, it’s their devil-may-care attitude that enchants me as [they] dig up my tulip bulbs, strip the buds off my magnolia, and gorge on the unripened berries on my service-berry tree before the birds get even a chance at them.
To be fair (as we say these days) (and just as if it that were or should be my objective), maybe I’m sending mixed messages to the squirrels that rampage through my backyard. From their point of view, [they] probably figure that this allegedly squirrel-proof feeder was put there for [them].
Post-script: Thanks to Barry Jewell for the link to the quotable insights into a little-known part of our history:
When Squirrels Were One of America’s Favorite Pets