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Our Ancestors and Their Pets

Recently I was reading the book Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy when I came across a snippet that really intrigued me. The interesting segment has to do with a particular greyhound dog. Hernan Cortes was not the first explorer to survey America, and during his first expedition he and his fleet were searching for a favorable plot to harbor on the mainland of the Yucatan peninsula after leaving the nearby Isla de Mujeres. Fair winds had pushed their fleet some four-hundred miles into the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico and Cortes decided to send his Captain Alonso de Escobar ahead to scout a spot to land noting that he had one of the fastest and shallowest ships in the fleet. Escobar searched and came to a harbor called Puerto Deseado and while they were approaching the beach, a certain greyhound dog came yelping and barking and running around the beach while awaiting their landing. This dog had been left two years prior in this harbor when an explorer named Grijalva had landed, scouted the land and its inhabitants, and then left. To their amazement, the greyhound had affectionately welcomed them and was sleek and fattened from the abundant game in the area. She even aided their survival by showing them where to hunt and gather.

It is believed that the domestication of animals began around 10,000 years ago beginning with chickens and then quickly followed by larger animals such as goats, oxen, and horses. This process involved not only taming animals, but selectively breeding them based on desirable traits. Today, we see domesticated animals of all kinds, and may even more strongly associate domestication with dogs or cats.

Some of our ancestors undoubtedly also had pets. Perhaps some worked on farms around animals like horses and cows or maybe they lived in a city or suburb and had a house pet like a cat or dog. I am sure that if we look we can find some kind of animal or pets associated with an ancestor of ours.

In my search I learned that my great-grandmother Barbara Allen, otherwise known as Granny to my dad’s generation, grew up on a farm and cared for many animals such as horses. My dad tells me of a great story that she would recount him about a time when she was little and had to run an errand for her dad. When Granny was a little girl, they lived on a farm in Gilbert, Arizona. On this farm they cared for many animals and Granny would help be responsible for the horses and in turn would care and grow close to them. One particular horse they had was well trained and perfectly suited for Granny to take and run this errand. This particular errand required that Granny take some goods into Phoenix, which at this time would have been a bit of a trek. So Granny readied the horse attached to a small wagon and began the trip into Phoenix. By late afternoon she had arrived and taken care of business, so she turned the horse around to start back home. After a while, and maybe as the sun was setting, Granny got tired and hungry so she jumped into the back of the wagon, got something to eat, pulled a blanket over her, and dosed off. The next morning, she woke up and the horse and wagon she had fallen asleep in were standing in her front yard. Because they had cared and trained the horse well, the horse was able to continue on the journey and knew exactly how to get back to their home despite Granny being asleep in the back! It just goes to show what good training and a good horse can do!

Also in my search I came across a great photograph of my maternal great-grandmother Edith Johnson holding a large tuxedo cat. The photograph was taken before she left Sweden when she was a teenager. She is holding the cat delicately and the cat looks calm and collected in her arms. The two obviously shared a pet-caretaker bond that is so fun to see!

Pets often play an important role in our lives, and surely they played a role in the lives of our ancestors, so I encourage you to look for them!

Do you know of any pets or animals that your ancestors cared for? Do you remember seeing any pets when you visited your grandparents or even great-grandparents? Let us know!


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