New Worlds: Working Animals

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The Industrial Revolution changed a lot of things, but one of the aspects I’ve least often seen commented on is the change in our relationship with working animals.

You may think there are a lot of animals around you now, but compared to a few centuries ago, they’re vanishingly rare. And unless you live on a farm, most of the ones you encounter are likely to fall into two categories, “wild” and “pet.” For most of us, the only working animals we meet on a regular basis are going to be service animals: dogs especially, but other species as well. They guide people with visual impairments, sense epileptic seizures, and more.

Dogs are the original working animal, and the original domesticated one, too. They’ve proven remarkably plastic, with generations of breeding producing dogs specialized in body and behavior for a variety of purposes. Need a dog to herd sheep? We’ve got them. Pulling sleds? Yep. Guard a location? These days most “guard dogs” are really just very loud pets, but sure. Find drugs in someone’s luggage, or a human buried in an avalanche? Their noses are there for you. They can hunt different kinds of animals, from rats to boar, or turn a spit to roast that boar’s meat for you. Plus the aforementioned service animals, and even some who might be able to smell cancer.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cat person, but I have to admit that dogs are pretty amazing.

In fact, dogs serve as kind of a template for things we use working animals to do. The tasks of draft (pulling things like wagons or plows), pack (carrying loads directly) and riding came up when we talked about transportation, so I won’t rehash the list of species used in different parts of the world — but I will note that certain animals we can’t domesticate, like zebra and moose, can occasionally be tamed to perform those tasks. This category is where the Industrial Revolution made the most immediate and obvious dent: once we could replace muscle power with steam power and its successors, we no longer needed to keep millions of horses and mules and donkeys and camels and so forth to work for us.

Which isn’t to say that use is gone. In less industrialized nations, animals are still vital for this purpose — and even in developed areas, plenty of cities offer horse-drawn carriage tours of picturesque neighborhoods. But a hundred years ago, the estimated horse population of the United States was over 26 million (with a human population of about 100 million). These days, we have about 300 million humans and only 9.5 million horses. It’s a wild swing.

We also don’t rely on animals to control pests the way we used to. Your cat may occasionally surprise you with a dead mouse, but very few of us these days keep them around specifically to work as a mouser. That was their oldest use: protecting granaries against vermin. We didn’t so much adapt them for the purpose as create an all-you-can-eat buffet of rodentia, and the cats moved in. Mongooses can be used for a similar purpose, and will additionally fight and kill venomous snakes.

Moving on to nobler prey, I mentioned before that cheetahs can be tamed and used in hunting. So can ferrets, for small prey like rabbits. Falconry has often been something of an aristocratic art, but not exclusively so, and there’s a recent movie (The Eagle Huntress) about a Kazakh girl competing at an eagle festival in Mongolia — the tradition is alive today. Some people have even trained birds like cormorants to catch fish.

When it comes to guarding, dogs are by far the most common choice — but not the only one. I was a Latin nerd in high school, and so I’ve long been familiar with the story of Manlius and the sacred geese, wherein the cackling of the latter alerted the former to a Gallic assault. That aggression and territoriality can be useful to us! I’m also charmed to discover that apparently llamas can be trained for guarding. Nor are dogs the only ones with sensitive noses: horses can also be trained to follow scent, and pigs are used in Europe to seek out truffles — a type of subterranean fungus that resisted human cultivation for a long time.

Guarding is just a short step from military use. Cavalry used to be a significant part of the arsenal where suitable mounts were available, especially after the invention of the stirrup made it possible for a soldier to remain in the saddle. Greater mobility is only one of the advantages, though; warhorses could be a formidable threat in their own right. In other parts of the world, cavalry might be replaced or supplemented by camelry or elephantry. As the technology of our wars changed, this too declined, though horses still have limited use, especially in a police context.

That’s only part of the military picture, though. I knew dogs likewise worked with police for a variety of tasks, but I didn’t know until I researched this essay that they can be trained to find land mines — and so can rats! The latter have the benefit of weighing less, and therefore being less likely to set off the mines. (And they, too, can detect some diseases.) Dolphins and sea lions are their aquatic counterparts, flagging mines for divers to deal with and even patrolling harbors.

Heading back in a civilian direction, I’m afraid that George R.R. Martin has given the world an incorrect idea: in reality, ravens cannot be trained as messenger birds. They simply don’t have the necessary homing instinct. The only species we can rely upon for that task is the homing pigeon. Even then, you can’t simply send them wherever you want; the point is that they fly home. So in between messages, you’re hauling cages full of pigeons hither and yon across the landscape, so they can fly home again.

Finally, one category of working animal that may not seem much like it’s working: the performing animal. A very wide range of creatures have featured in circuses and streetside entertainment, some domesticated (horses, dogs) and some decidedly not (monkeys, bears, lions). Some of these events end in tragedy, as the animal proves not to be as tractable as its trainer hoped. And alas, I must inform you that most “flea circuses” did not, in fact, feature real performing fleas: they started out as a way for watchmakers to demonstrate their skill with machinery. But apparently a very few shows did actually use real fleas; they were harnessed with fine wire, and then — based on a predisposition toward running or jumping — their natural behavior could be made to kick balls or pull tiny vehicles. No training was involved, just a flea tied to a prop.

If you find yourself thinking “poor fleas,” you’re not wrong. Quite a lot of cruelty can be involved with training animals to work at certain tasks — one of many ways the world of the past tended to be more casually violent than the world we live in today. Even if our training methods have become kinder, though, some of the jobs we ask animals to do can be incredibly stressful, both physically and mentally. (Some of those jobs are stressful for the humans who perform them, too.) Ethical debates are ongoing about whether these practices are justifiable, and if so which ones, under which circumstances. There are no straightforward answers.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Working Animals — 8 Comments

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  2. On the frontiers of France there were once bands of smuggler dogs, who carried packs of contraband salt through rough terrain with humans only involved at the beginning and end of the journey. On their own they would seek the best routes, evade or occasionally combat the armed gendarmes and tax-collectors, and train their puppies to the trade. The Revolution put an end to the salt tax and the smugglers.

  3. Remember, too, that in our mechanized-movement age we still acknowledge ye olde Clydesdale, in a unit of power approximately equal to seven and a half lightbulbs. Old-style incandescent lightbulbs, that is: 746 watts = 1 horsepower. (OK, 735.5 metric; and I’m enough of a nerd that I didn’t have to look either one up. Yes, there really is a difference in what “horsepower” means between the metric and English systems, just like the mass for one ton at Earth sea level is different.)

    The sad thing is that James Watt missed when he was attempting to determine how much power “a horse” had, choosing exemplars somewhat on the small side because that’s what was handy. A “real” adult draft horse’s power is somewhere above 900 watts, whether a Clydesdale or a Percheron or…

  4. Only the other day, a friend of mine was talking about visiting a distillery in Scotland guarded by geese. A quick google reveals it to be the Dumbarton Distillery, although the geese – called ‘The Scotch Watch’ – are no longer on active duty (they were replaced by a CCTV in 2012).

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