Seattle history focuses on treatment of animals, wild and domesticated

“The City Is More Than Human” by Frederick L. Brown

The cover of “The City Is More Than Human” – a winsome photo of a tot facing off with a fire department workhorse, circa 1922 – should be enough to make anybody want to pick up a copy of the book. But inside you’ll encounter a frequently distressing examination of the way humans treat animals, particularly in the 200 years since Euro-American settlers came to the Pacific Northwest.

Although the book’s subtitle is “An Animal History of Seattle,” virtually any Northwest community would recognize itself in much of this book.

Historian Frederick L. Brown roams further afield to describe what life must have been like for wildlife in Western Washington before the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Animals provided food for local tribes, but they were also a source of spiritual empowerment. In Native American mythology, animals had qualities that could be tapped by or bestowed upon people seeking assistance in their affairs. While the Coast Salish people also domesticated dogs and horses before white contact in the region, the overall philosophical framework was one of coexistence.

The influx of white trappers, traders and settlers brought a different perspective, with an assumption of human dominion over all other species. There was also a propensity for sorting animals as domestic or wild, with the aim of eliminating animals that were not compatible with the domestic sphere – cougars, bears, and wolves, for example.

With the aid of dozens of historical photos, Brown re-creates a sense of what life must have been like once white settlements were established – horses provided transportation through the streets of the town, chickens and dogs roamed freely, and cows grazed in the commons. Hogs were a different matter; early ordinances were strict about keeping them from running at large.

As Seattle grew, concerns about sanitation increased. Brown notes that in 1900, there were 1,911 workhorses in Seattle – “a workforce that produced something like thirty tons of manure and two thousand gallons of urine each day.” There was also the matter of how to dispose of dead animals: solutions ranged from sinking carcasses in Elliott Bay to processing their remains in glue factories.

And within Seattle limits – up until 1990 – there were stockyards, slaughterhouses and fish canneries that provided meat to urban dwellers, but also produced tons of blood and offal that needed to be gotten rid of.

This is difficult material to read, to say the least.

Brown discusses early efforts of folks championing humane treatment of animals, and another, later sorting that distinguished between work animals and pets. He reviews the rising regulation of cats and dogs, as well as the rise and fall and rise again of backyard poultry-raising.

Today our society tends to be pet-friendly, livestock-averse, and deeply divided over whether to exterminate or protect large wildlife.

“The City Is More Than Human” is a tough but valuable read, challenging us to consider our actions and attitudes toward other species.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.