In celebration of National Puppy Day on March 23rd (yes, it’s a real holiday, promoting the adoption of dogs from shelters and educating about the dangers of puppy mills), let’s talk about the Shakers and their pets!
The Millennial Laws, written in 1821 and revised in 1845, outline the proper relationship between Shakers and animals: “No Believer is allowed to play with cats or dogs, not to make unnecessary freedom with any of the beasts of the field, or with any kind of foul or bird.” There were no personal pets allowed in the Shaker communities in the 19th century. All animals in the community served a specific purpose: cows for dairy and meat, oxen for farm work, horses for travel, chickens for eggs and food, and cats for pest control. “No kind of beasts, birds, fowls, or fishes may be kept merely for the sake of show or fancy,” the Laws further clarify. The Shakers also had very strict rules for humane treatment of all creatures: “No beasts belonging to the people of God may be left to suffer with hunger, thirst, or cold, in consequence of neglect on the part of those who have care of such beats; but all should be kept in their proper places, and be properly attended to according to their needs . . . No beasts, or any living thing, may be wantonly pained, injured, or tortured. And no living thing should be corrected or chastened in a passion.”
Like many things in Shaker life, this no pets policy eventually changed by the early 20th century. Photographs of Shakers and their animals show us that they cared for and cherished cats and dogs, and these pets were beloved by the whole community. The rule against naming animals with “the given or Christian names of persons” was clearly out the window by this point, as evidenced by a cat living at Hancock called Theodore Roosevelt Chickenhouse.
The Shakers here at Watervliet had several dogs. The North Family had a dog named Rover. At the South Family (the last of the community to remain open, closing for good in 1938), there were many dogs throughout the 1910s and 1920s. A few of them, unfortunately, were sent away or killed for biting people. On October 11, 1915, for example, South Family journalist Anna Goepper notes: “Dog Laddie bit one of the plumbers very badly on the arm and Hugo shot it.”
Sister Lucy Bowers, who came to the South Family in 1915 when the Enfield, CT community closed, truly loved dogs. She had several after coming to Watervliet. Her first, Brownie, came with her when she moved here. Lucy cared for little Brownie like she was her own child, and I’m sure many pet owners today can relate to this feeling. Brownie seemed to have health issues throughout her life, as Anna G. mentions several visits to the vet, special diets, medicines, and even surgery: “Dr. Kelley [a veterinarian] . . . come here by car to operate on Brownie, Lucy’s dog, for a tumor on her back. He used ether and took it out and bandaged it. If dog does not improve, will put it out of way in humane manner. It is a terrible day for poor Lucy.” The operation seemed to be promising, but Dr. Kelley returned only a month later: “Dr. Kelley there again – expects to operate upon it – she is full of some kind of nasty sores or tumors.” It seems the operation went well, but Brownie eventually died.
Lucy spent time replying to ads of dogs for sale and eventually got another puppy, Luckie Boy, in 1922. At this point, Lucy was in charge of keeping the daily written record, and she mentioned her pup several times: all the girls loved playing with him, Lucy often had those going into Albany bring back liver for him, sending for biscuits, giving him worm medicine, etc. Unfortunately, Luckie Boy bit Caroline Tate on the arm while she was on the floor playing with him. A doctor came and cauterized the wound and Luckie Boy – only a year old – was taken to the humane society. Luckie Boy found a new home with a man in New York City, and Sister Lucy mailed his license and pedigree papers to him. This must have been a huge blow for her since he was such a big part of her life. On December 29, 1922, she writes: “How much I long for a little dog.”
The next spring, she got her wish: a small Boston terrier from Rensselaer she named Tiny. Tiny was as loved and cared for as her predecessors, and she is mentioned several times throughout the journal: going for a “frolic” with the girls, going to the vet, and even eating steak!
Today at the Shaker Heritage Society, we’ve continued on with the tradition of animals at our site. Bob Reilly, one of the Society’s longtime supporters and volunteers, runs our small farm program and houses his heritage breed chickens and turkeys on the grounds year-round. In the summer, a couple of his Kerry cows and oxen enjoy our pasturelands, which have been used for that purpose since the 18th century. And, of course, we have William the Cat, who not only serves as a friendly greeter for visitors, but keeps our old historic building rodent-free and is beloved by many.