The Animal Kingdom

This is the 16th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit

The Wild Ostrich
June 1918
by Theodore Roosevelt

In one of the more unusual articles to have appeared in The Atlantic, the former president, who had traveled widely in Africa, weighed in on the behavior of ostriches.

If, when assailed by the ostrich, the man stands erect, he is in great danger. But by the simple expedient of lying down, he escapes all danger. In such case, the bird may step on him, or sit on him; his clothes will be rumpled and his feelings injured; but he will suffer no bodily harm. I know various men … who have had this experience.

Vol. 121, No. 6, pp. 755–757

The Ethics of Animal Experimentation
September 1926
by John Dewey

In 1926, the philosopher and educator John Dewey took a stand on behalf of scientific research.

Different moralists give different reasons as to why cruelty to animals is wrong. But about the fact of its immorality there is no question, and hence no need for argument. Whether the reason is some inherent right of the animal, or a reflex bad effect upon the character of the human being, or whatever it be, cruelty, the wanton and needless infliction of suffering upon any sentient creature, is unquestionably wrong. There is, however, no ethical justification for the assumption that experimentation upon animals, even when it involves some pain or entails, as is more common, death without pain,—since the animals are still under the influence of anæsthetics,—is a species of cruelty …

When we speak of the moral right of competent persons to experiment upon animals in order to get the knowledge and the resources necessary to eliminate useless and harmful experimentation upon human beings and to take better care of their health, we understate the case. Such experimentation is more than a right; it is a duty …

These things are so obvious that it almost seems necessary to apologize for mentioning them. But anyone who reads the literature or who hears the speeches directed against animal experimentation will recognize that the ethical basis of the agitation against it is due to ignoring these considerations.

Vol. 138, No. 3, pp. 343–346

Death of a Pig
January 1948
by E. B. White

In 1948, the essayist and author E. B. White offered a sad account of an episode at his farm. Several years later, he went on to rework the story as the children's novel Charlotte's Web.

I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting …

The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom-time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.

Once in a while something slips—one of the actors goes up in his lines and the whole performance stumbles and halts. My pig simply failed to show up for a meal. The alarm spread rapidly. The classic outline of the tragedy was lost. I found myself cast suddenly in the role of pig’s friend and physician—a farcical character with an enema bag for a prop …

I discovered … that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles. The pig’s lot and mine were inextricably bound now, as though the rubber tube were the silver cord. From then until the time of his death I held the pig steadily in the bowl of my mind; the task of trying to deliver him from his misery became a strong obsession. His suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness …

He came out of the house to die … his face had a mild look, expressive neither of deep peace nor of deep suffering, although I think he had suffered a good deal …

I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.

Vol. 181, No. 1, pp. 28–33

The Truth About Dogs
July 1999
by Stephen Budiansky

Atlantic correspondent Stephen Budiansky unearthed some dismaying facts about man’s best friend.

Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I’m thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we’d be calling a lawyer, or the police …

Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when we’re up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity …

Consider the countless stories about dogs that have “saved” people. In fact dogs have no particular instinct to save people and no particular understanding that that is what they are doing even when they do it …

If you shout at a dog, it cringes. Does this mean the dog feels sorry for peeing on your Oriental rug? The fact is that it doesn’t matter, as far as the dog is concerned, whether he feels sorry or not. The cringe is a successful technique for deflecting aggression … Just as we are genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty, dogs are genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours.

Vol. 284, No. 1, pp. 39–53

Oliver's Travels
October 2003
by James Shreeve

James Shreeve told the extraordinary story of a chimpanzee named Oliver, whose upright bearing and fondness for human companionship briefly earned him celebrity status as a possible missing link between apes and humans.

Oliver became a celebrity in January of 1976, when he was approximately sixteen years old. There is no question that he was odd. His head was bald and abnormally small in proportion to his body, with a cranium more rounded than a typical chimp’s. His lower face lacked the usual pronounced forward jut. His ears were high and pointed, his skin pale and freckled, and his aspect unusually gentle and intelligent … He walked on two legs all the time. When he lived under the care of Frank and Janet Burger, the animal trainers who raised him, Oliver occasionally fed the dogs and did other chores, relaxing afterward with a cup of coffee. In the evening he might sit and watch TV with the couple, sometimes preparing a nightcap for Frank and himself of whiskey and 7UP. He did not get along with other chimps, and separation from his human companions was said to bring him to tears. When he reached sexual maturity, he was interested only in human females …

“I’ve had forty chimps in my day,” [Janet Burger] told me. “But Oliver, he was altogether different. A real oddball. This guy walked all over the place. He lived out in the barn with the others, but as soon as it was morning, he’d want to come in the house. He’d sit around watching television, maybe have a jelly sandwich. That made him happy. He loved TV. But he didn’t like the violence. If he saw two men fighting, he’d go over and punch the screen. He was peaceful. Kind of a loner.” …

A thirty-three-year-old Manhattan appellate lawyer named Michael Miller … found himself so obsessed with the notion of an upright-walking ape that he tracked the Burgers down at their place in New Jersey and asked if he could meet Oliver in person …

“It was a transforming experience,” Miller told me recently. “I thought I was seeing the missing link. I was seeing Australopithecus. And I felt a terrible sense that if this creature was so important to science, he shouldn’t be with a carnival guy.”

Miller decided on the spot that Oliver should be with a Manhattan appellate lawyer instead … [The Burgers] offered to sell Oliver for eight thousand dollars. They wrote out the agreement on a piece of paper on the hood of the car.

“In my heart, I felt destiny was pointing,” Miller told me. “Here I was, Michael Miller, just a guy, with the opportunity to present to the world this extraordinary creature. I felt I was the fisherman who finds the coelacanth in his net, or the shepherd who discovers the Dead Sea scrolls. The earth has many secrets, and I was privileged to find a living one. My life was moved off the rails that night. I couldn’t go back to practicing law.”

Vol. 292, No. 3, pp. 94–102