Where Have All the Dead Birds Gone?

The other day we decided to beat the winter blahs by taking a “staycation” at the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. An afternoon by the pool followed by an evening of dining and cocktails seemed like a good little pick-me-up at this point in the winter.

As we were lounging by the pool I couldn’t help but notice that one of the images decorating the area was a reproduction of Edwin Landseer’s famous image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1840-43). I’m a big fan of Landseer’s work, so strolled over to take a closer look as I made my way from the salt water pool to the hot tub.

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Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas.

“Have a closer look,” a woman in the pool called out to me. “What do you think the little child has in her hands?” I knew without looking that young Victoria (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s oldest child) was holding a dead bird in her hands, but I didn’t want to seem like that kind of art historian. To be polite I walked closer to look at that section of the painting and that is when I was startled to discover a rather glaring omission from this reproduction.

In Landseer’s original painting there is a row of dead game birds laid out next to young Victoria and a few more on the floor in front of Prince Albert’s feet. Prince Albert’s clothing (including those oh-so-tight trousers showing off every detail of his kneecap!) tells us that he has just returned from hunting, so the inclusion of this detail makes sense. Further, the juxtaposition of the very dead birds with the animated and life-like dogs is just the kind of thing that Landseer, one of the most celebrated animal painters in the history of art, is known for.

At the Prince of Wales hotel, however, all of the dead birds except for the one that young Victoria holds are missing. I can only assume that this was done to make this modern day replica somehow more palatable to hotel patrons. I’ve looked up other replicas of this Landseer painting available for sale, and in all the ones I can find the dead birds remain part of the composition as the artist intended.

detail of image at POW hotel
Detail of the replica of Landseer’s painting at the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Photo taken February 2019.

I’m still mulling over why this would be done. This is not an establishment nor a town that is known to be particularly sensitive towards animal issues. Indeed, the use of carriage horses as part of the tourism industry in this town often draws protests from local activists. Further, I would say that Niagara-on-the-Lake ranks pretty low in terms of vegan-friendly dining in the region — indeed, a glance at the menu of the Prince of Wales hotel, the very building where this altered replica of this image hangs, indicates an establishment that prides itself on the various high-end meat dishes it serves (including, rather ironically, a smoked duck breast dish).

I wish I knew more about the decisions that led to this edited version of Landseer’s image hanging in this hotel. It is a fascinating example of visual culture in that it seems to point to present-day anxieties around the representation of animals. As I frequently say to my students, “what is absent from an image is sometimes as significant as what has been included.”

“We Practice the Convictions of our Minds and Hearts”

As the weather starts to turn colder, many of us are thinking about getting a new winter coat. I love that there are so many cruelty-free fashions to pick from! Imagine my delight, then, when during the course of my research I learned about a woman who was making cruelty-free alternatives to fur coats, silk scarves, and “kid” gloves over 100 years ago! Her name was Maude (“Emarel”) Freshel, and she was the co-founder of an organization known as the Millennium Guild. The Guild advocated for a lifestyle that included a vegetarian diet and hosted lavish meat-free Thanksgiving dinners in Boston in the early years of the 20th century. The sale of the cruelty-free outerwear that Freshel sewed helped to fund the activities of the Guild. A number of these fashions were featured in the Boston Sunday Post on November 17, 1912.

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Freshel told reporter that members of the Millennium guild “have found splendid substitutes for furs,  feather hat trimmings and kid gloves, and know we are better off without eating meat. We practice the convictions of our minds and hearts.”

Freshel was also the author of The Golden Rule Cookbook, a vegetarian cookbook promoting the abstention from meat eating for ethical reasons. Freshel defined a vegetarian (remember, the term “vegan” didn’t exist until 1944) as someone who “for one reason or another condemns the eating of flesh.” She saw this as occupying “a very different place in the world of ethics from one who is simply refraining from meat eating in an effort to cure bodily ills.” Freshel’s dog, a terrier named Sister, was also a vegetarian and reportedly enjoyed such foods as lentils, peas, apples, oatmeal, and buttered toast.

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

The Mouse’s Petition


In 1773 Anna Laetitia Barbauld published a poem called “The Mouse’s Petition.” The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse who had been captured in the home of Barbauld’s friend, the renowned natural philosopher Joseph Priestley. The mouse was placed in a cage in Priestley’s laboratory as he intended to use the animal in one of his experiments the next day. Barbauld’s poem was a plea for mercy, and she slipped in to Priestley’s lab to affix it to the cage so that he would see it prior to beginning his experiment on the mouse.

The poem begins with the following lines:

O hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
    For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
    Against the wretch’s cries!

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
    Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at the’ approaching morn,
    Which brings impending fate.

Priestley reportedly released the mouse after reading Barbauld’s poem.

Many of Barbauld’s contemporaries championed “The Mouse’s Petition” as an important contribution to the conversations about cruelty to animals that were taking place in the 18th century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, noted that “thanks to Mrs. Barbauld,… it has become universally fashionable to teach lessons of compassion towards animals.”* Barbauld later stated that this poem was actually meant to be a “petition of mercy against justice.”*  In either case “The Mouse’s Petition” is an important early example of a creative work that prompted readers to empathize with nonhuman animals and to consider the often unjust ways they are treated.

Thomas Holloway, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1785)
Thomas Holloway, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1785)

*See Mary Ellen Bellanca, “Science, Animal Sympathy and Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition.’” Eighteenth-Century Studies 37 no. 1 (Fall 2003): 47-67; Julia Saunders, “‘The Mouse’s Petition’: Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Scientific Revolution.” The Review of English Studies 53 no. 212 (November 2002): 500-516.

**This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

“Not a Drop to Wet Their Poor Parched Mouths”

Around 1870 Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, witnessed an act of compassion that deeply touched her. She had been on a train journey, and near Fitchburg her train pulled up alongside another train at a station stop. As she waited for her train to continue, Alcott passed the time by looking out her window at the sights — a beautiful waterfall caught her attention, but she also noticed that in the train next to hers were several cattle and sheep crammed in to rail cars.

It was a hot, sunny day and Alcott recognized that the animals must have been scared, uncomfortable, and thirsty. As she noted, “how they must have suffered in sight of water, with the cool dash of the fall tantalizing them, and not a drop to wet their poor parched mouths.” She was troubled by the very visible distress of the animals in the next train and was pondering how she might best help them when she noticed two young girls come up beside the train. The girls had been out picking berries and, upon noticing the animals in distress, one of the girls dumped out her berry pail, ran to the water’s edge and filled her bucket with water. She returned to the train and offered the water to the sheep “who stretched their hot tongues gratefully to meet it.” She repeated this numerous times while her companion picked grass and clover to feed to the animals. Alcott was touched by this kindness and wrote that she wished she “could have told those tender-hearted children how beautiful their compassion made that hot, noisy place.”

Kindness to Sheep on a Cattle Train (from THS book)

This story was repeated in a number of 19th century animal advocacy and humane education publications, often with the above image accompanying it. The actions of these two young girls became a lesson in kindness and compassion.

Over 140 years later a similar story is being told. Members of Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots organization that aims to bear witness to the suffering of animals who are raised and killed for food, have made headlines for giving water to pigs arriving at slaughterhouses on transport trucks. Their actions mimic those of the young girls that Alcott wrote about in 1870. This past summer, a heated exchange between one of the activists, Anita Krajnc, and the driver of one of the trucks has led to a criminal charge of mischief for Krajnc.

It is utterly absurd that we live in a world where kindness and compassion is criminalized. What, I wonder, would Louisa May Alcott have to say about this ridiculous charge?

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

Conference Travel and Some Amazing Vegan Food

I can’t believe it is mid-April! The weeks have been flying by. I’ve been working away on the book manuscript, but I also have been doing some travelling.

First I went to the 2nd instalment of the “Living With Animals” conference at Eastern Kentucky University. I went to this conference two years ago, the first time it was held, and just loved it. It was such a great mix of people–a truly interdisciplinary gathering of people who shared common interests. The second version of the conference was just as good. I heard some excellent papers and especially enjoyed hearing Julia Schlosser’s keynote presentation about her artwork.

One of the things I really like about this conference is that there is a good amount of the program dedicated to teaching animal studies, so there were great presentations about pedagogy (I especially liked Jeannette Vaught’s presentation called “Animal Infiltrations: Teaching Animal Studies in Traditional Courses”) and a roundtable discussion focusing on ideas for setting up animal studies courses and programs (both Human-Animal Studies and Critical Animal Studies) at the post-secondary level. As was the case two years ago, we had some excellent discussions!

I also travelled down to Denton, Texas to attend the “Moral Cultures of Food” conference at the University of North Texas. When I saw the call for papers for this conference I knew it was one I wanted to go to. Not only did the topic appeal to me and relate to my current project, but I also knew that the University of North Texas was home to “Mean Greens,” the first all vegan dining hall. Ever since I first heard about Mean Greens I was trying to find an excuse to go to UNT, so this seemed like a conference I had to attend! The conference was great and, like the “Living With Animals” conference, it featured scholars from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds.

Both conferences had such a good, collegial atmosphere–when people asked questions you got the sense that they were genuinely curious and interested to know the answers. (sadly, not at all the norm at most academic conferences) I met some really interesting people and came home feeling enthusiastic and energetic about working in this area. The “Moral Cultures of Food” conference also included excellent keynote presentations by James McWilliams and Carol J. Adams. (sadly I had to miss David Kaplan‘s closing keynote presentation due to an early morning flight)

I had the honour of being Carol Adams’s houseguest while I was in Texas, and it was there I discovered the recipe for the world’s most delicious vegan mac and cheese recipe. Honestly. This stuff is out of this world. It is a recipe that Carol veganized from a cookbook that her family used. She promises to do a blog post with the recipe, so I don’t feel comfortable sharing it here, but keep an eye out for it on her site. [Update: here is the recipe!] It is so ridiculously good. I’ve made it twice since returning home. In fact, all the food she served was incredible–she even cooked up a full vegan version of a Texas barbecue.  Amazing!

And speaking of amazing food in Texas, “Mean Greens” at UNT absolutely exceeded my expectations. I was excited about the fact that there was such a thing as a vegan dining hall on a university campus. I hadn’t stopped to think much about what precisely that would mean, but figured it was the novelty of the experience, not necessarily the quality of the food that I was going for. Let me tell you, the food was incredible! And it was really affordable too! I went with a group of conference attendees at lunch and it was $7.50 for as much food as you wanted to eat. There was a breakfast bar, hot dishes, a salad bar, a dessert tray, and even a ice cream sundae bar. And the food was really, really good! I also loved the environment. It was bright and cheery, and had quotes about veganism and compassion for all species painted on the walls of the dining room. There was even a sign on the door declaring it an “meat free zone.” This was full on, unapologetic veganism gone mainstream, and the place was packed! We even got to talk to one of the chefs who told us how popular the initiative has been and how it is, in fact, saving UNT money when compared to other meal options. I hope to see more campuses following this lead!

Mean Greens was a "Meat Free Zone"
Mean Greens was a “Meat Free Zone”
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No animal products used in this kitchen!
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There was even a sundae bar!

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The Art of Animal Activism: Critical Parameters

I am really pleased to be co-chairing a session with Alan C. Braddock on animal advocacy and the arts at the next College Art Association Conference in Washington D.C. I’ve included the call for papers for our session below. More details on the conference and how to apply can be found on the College Art Association’s Official Call for Participation. Please share widely.

The Art of Animal Activism: Critical Parameters
Alan C. Braddock, College of William and Mary; and Keri Cronin, Brock University. Email: acbraddock@wm.edu and keri.cronin@brocku.ca

Today nonhuman animals figure more prominently in cultural, ethical, and scientific inquiry than ever before, thanks to recent research that has forced a significant reassessment of human exceptionalism, or speciesism. Lately some art historians have begun to consider these issues as well. All of this has taken place amid growing popular fascination with animals and backlash against their egregious, often concealed abuse in factory farming, entertainment, laboratories, and other areas. Animals have become subjects of vision, imagination, and activism—but also exploitation—like never before. This session examines the critical parameters of animal activism and advocacy in art since the eighteenth century. Papers should address important landmarks and historical contours of such art, assessing creative techniques used to advance particular goals. Consideration of why the discipline of art history has been slow to map this tradition and challenges involved in visualizing the interests of other beings are also encouraged.


Tom and Ollie

Tom and Ollie are two of the cats we brought in off the street last year. Ollie is a small, spry tuxedo cat who seems to think the world is a giant game. She is clever and silly and loves to play. She is about a year and a half old and still acts like a kitten. Tom is a very fluffy orange and white cat who is quite a bit older than Ollie, although we don’t know exactly how old he is. He was in pretty rough shape when we rescued him, and it turns out he has kidney disease. He is a kind, gentle giant and he is Ollie’s best friend.

In my study I have a reading chair with a quilt folded over the back of it. About a month ago I noticed that Ollie had figured out how to cover herself with the quilt when she took a nap on the chair. She stands on the seat of the chair, reaches up and pulls the quilt down over her. It is pretty cute–sometimes all you can see are her toes or the tip of her tail. She clearly knows how to deal with winter!

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Lately Tom has been feeling a little under the weather. We are working with the kind people at Martindale Animal Clinic to help Tom manage the kidney disease. This past week hasn’t been a good week for him. He stopped eating and did what cats often do when they are sick, he started hiding. He is normally very social, but we started finding him hiding behind the chair that Ollie likes to sleep on in recent days.

Yesterday Ollie went up on the chair and I saw her going up to reach for the blanket, but instead of pulling it on herself as she normally does, she pushed it off the back of the chair on to the floor where Tom was. I am absolutely convinced that she knew what she was doing, that she was giving her friend some comfort.

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These two are the best of friends!

2014: The Year of the Cats

As 2014 draws to a close, one word comes to mind: cats. This was the year of the cats for us. During the last few months of 2013 we noticed a significant number of community cats hanging around our yard. As the weather grew colder, it became obvious that these cats were looking for food, water, and shelter. These were not cats that had been let outside by their caregivers but, rather, these were cats who had nowhere else to go. This was, to say the least, distressing. We later learned that there were some situations in our neighbourhood (abandonment, hoarding, etc.) that led to the spike in the number of community cats hanging around. At the time, however, we weren’t sure what was happening but began putting out food and building shelters. We started to get to know some of the cats, the ones that came to our house the most frequently.

First there was Ollie and Ernie. We had been feeding them for a while and they started coming regularly, like clockwork each morning at 6am. Ollie, a little tuxedo cat, was friendly almost from the first moment we met her, but Ernie was quite afraid of us. Very early on in January we brought Ollie and Ernie in to the house. Our 14 year old house cat Jenny doesn’t really like other cats, so we weren’t sure how this would go. We put them in the basement to quarantine them (not sure what we were dealing with) — not ideal, but at least they were out of the polar vortex temperatures.

Miss Jenny wasn't so sure about all the other cats who were hanging around in 2014.
Miss Jenny wasn’t so sure about all the other cats who were hanging around in 2014.

The day Ollie came in, it was one of the coldest days of the year and temperatures were around -20 C. I looked out the window and saw her stuck in a snowbank, crying her head off. She had dove from the fence to escape pursuit from one of the unfixed male cats in the neighbourhood and could not get out. By the time I got to her, she was soaking wet and shivering. After Ollie was in the house, her pal Ernie started spending a lot of time near the basement window. I’m convinced they could see each other and it wasn’t long before Ernie was also inside.

Ollie and Ernie have adjusted very well to life indoors.
Ollie and Ernie have adjusted very well to life indoors.

We couldn’t get near Ernie for the longest time, even after she was inside. Yes, we discovered that Ernie was a SHE when we noticed her ever-expanding belly. We managed to get her up and out of the basement and in to a bedroom just hours before she gave birth to four beautiful kittens. We still call her Ernie (the name stuck!), but her full, official name is now Miss Ernestina Maria.

The kittens were born in March, and they were a true delight. It was wonderful watching them grow and explore the world around them. Luckily we found people willing to adopt these kittens, and they are all doing well in their new forever homes now.

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Throughout the spring and summer a big fluffy cat we named Tom started coming around regularly. Poor Tom seemed to always be getting in to scraps and scrapes, and one morning he showed up with a pretty nasty war wound. He had a bump on his head about the size of a small apple and it was swollen and bloody. Of course, he wouldn’t let us get near him. It was that day that we decided we needed to do something for Tom and the others, so we worked with our neighbour, Allyson, to organize a fund-raiser for the community cats of our street. Allyson was also providing food and shelter and comfort to as many cats as she could throughout the cold months of 2014. We decided to hold a yard sale and bake sale in July, an event to raise money to help get some of these cats off the street and in to their forever homes — they all needed spaying/neutering, and many needed medical attention. The event was a great success, not only in terms of the amount of money raised (way beyond our modest expectations), but also in terms of bringing neighbours together to talk about the problem.

Throughout the rest of the year we upped our efforts to get the community cats off the street. The money raised was a big help, but it wasn’t nearly enough to deal with the scope of the problem. We also received generous assistance with the spay/neuter procedures from Niagara Action for Animals. Many kind people also donated cat food to the cause.

All in all, we were able to help 10 cats from our community this year, 3 are still with us and the rest have been adopted out to their forever homes. All of them are doing very well. We also heard through the grapevine that the hoarding situations near us have been “dealt with” — I’m not exactly sure what that means (although I have some guesses). I hope the cats that were removed are ok. I wish we could have helped more of them.

Over the last few weeks we have breathed a sigh of relief each time we look out on freshly fallen snow and see an absence of paw prints. I know that there are hundreds and hundreds more animals in need in Niagara so I’m not resting too easy, but I’m glad that for the moment things are a bit better for the community cats in our neighbourhood. I was also glad that we were able to help these 10 cats and would do it again in a heartbeat, but will also be quite happy if 2015 doesn’t bring quite as many cats to our doorstep. It was an intense year–if we weren’t actively taking care of them, we were talking about them, worrying about them, or raising money to help them.

Porch Cats

The fall term is over, and I’ve had a few days that are miraculously free of meetings and other administrative tasks. Having a stretch of time to focus exclusively on writing and research is so very rare these days – I live for these moments!

I thought I would have some uninterrupted writing time over these few days, but hasn’t really worked out that way. I’m distracted by the plight of a family of homeless/stray/feral cats that have taken up residence on our block. They curl up on our porch and hang out in our garden. As I sit at my desk and work, they look in at me through the windows. We have put out food, water, and shelter for them (a couple of home made shelters lined with straw, and a fancy deluxe electric heated outdoor cathouse that we ordered online), and the plan is to eventually trap them so that they can be spayed/neutered. There seem to be 5 different cats, but only one of them will let us get close. The others take off the second we step outside. Of course, we have named them all.

There is Ollie, a little black & white cat who seems to be under a year old. She is the friendliest of the bunch and is quite vocal about asking for some food.

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Ernie is about the same age as Ollie and I wonder if they are siblings. They pal around together as if they are, and I’ve often seem them playing/play-fighting. Ernie is mostly white but has the cutest orange “hat” and some orange spots on his back. He is quite afraid of us, but is getting better.

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I put some catnip out for Ollie and Ernie the other day and they seemed to really love it!

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The other cats are all quite a bit older and are much more afraid of us. Lady Grantham (yes, I’m a bit of a Downton Abbey fan!) is black and white and has the same kind of “hat” that Ernie has. I’ve seen Ollie and Lady Grantham greet one another in a way that makes me think they are mother-daughter. Sadly, it looks like Lady Grantham has an expanding belly, and I fear another litter may soon be on its way. Tom is a fluffy orange and white cat who hangs around with Lady Grantham (there isn’t exactly Downton Abbey storyline consistency with this naming project!), and Oscar is a very sad-looking black cat. I don’t think Oscar is part of the same family unit as the other 4. He has the saddest eyes and hangs around by himself all the time. He seems as though he may have once upon a time lived with a family and has now ended up on the street whereas the others seem like they have been outside most/all of their lives.

I wish I knew their stories and where they came from. They are absolutely breaking my heart. I wake up in the night thinking of them, hoping they have found a warm place to curl up. I keep an eye out for them and worry when I don’t see them. I’ve been reading all I can to learn about how best to help these cats. I know there are other neighbours on this street who are also looking out for these cats. I wish this kind of situation wasn’t so common.
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Blackfish opens today. This promises to be a powerful and important film dealing with whales in captivity. Films like this have an important role to play in shattering the myth that marine animal theme parks are in any way appropriate. People often defend the “educational value” of places like Sea World or Marineland. Want to be educated? Watch the horrifying and heart-breaking footage of these animals being rounded up and taken out of their natural habitats and separated from their families.

One of the best parts of our recent trip to California was that we saw so many marine animals in the “wild.”  One evening we walked down to the beach in Carmel to watch the sunset and noticed 6 dolphins swimming very close to shore. They swam back and forth along the beach, occasionally “jumping” out of the water. It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t get great photos of this moment, but it will forever be etched in my mind. Seeing these incredible creatures in this setting made me more convinced than ever that marine animal theme parks need to be shut down. How anyone could think that it is ok to confine these creatures in a cement tank is simply beyond me.

dolphins at Carmel

I recognize that not everyone is able to travel to places like Carmel to watch the dolphins, but I simply can not agree that a marine animal theme park is an appropriate substitution. Captivity kills. There is no justifiable excuse for confining creatures in a tank or a cage simply for the convenience of humans. It is possible to appreciate, learn about, and respect animals without having the chance to witness them firsthand. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to travel to Africa, yet I think giraffes are magnificent creatures! If you are so convinced that viewing marine animals up close is necessary, I urge you to take the money you would have spent at Sea World or Marineland (these are not cheap tickets!) and put it in a savings account for a trip to a coastal location like the Monterey Penninsula. It will be well worth the wait!