After discovering claims that Indian women breastfed beavers, I become interested in whether or not other stories existed about women breastfeeding animals. I first continued my search for Indian women breastfeeding and discovered several stories in which Indian women had suckled deer, bears, and other animals. As I was searching, however, I came across a number of instances where white doctors recommended that their patients breastfeed animals in order to reduce engorgement or to toughen the nipple. In 1687, for example, a Dutch physician named Paul Babette suggested that engorged breasts could be “cured in one days space with [a] compound Ointment of Marshmallows” if “the wary matter” was “suck[ed] out by a Woman or Whelp.” In 1734, Richard Wiseman reiterated the suggestion that women whose breasts were too full with milk find a “neighboring woman,” some “young Whelps,” or an “instrument” she could use herself to empty them. In 1847, William Dewees went further than recommending that women use puppies if their breasts were engorged and suggested that women could improve their breastfeeding experience by using the animals to practice breastfeeding before their babies were born. If women breastfed puppies beginning in the eighth month of their pregnancy, “the nipples [would] become familiar to the drawing of the breasts; the skin of them [would become] hardened and confirmed; [and] the milk [would be] more easily and regularly formed.” Although most of what I encountered was medical prescriptions for white women to allow puppies to suckle at their breasts, there are a few instances recorded where the prescription was put into practice. One of the most famous involves Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1797, the feminist philosopher gave birth to a daughter she named Mary. Although the delivery itself was successful, Wollstonecraft contracted an infection. To prevent her from spreading the infection to her child, they gave the newborn to a wet nurse and brought in puppies to suckle her breasts. According to biographer Diane Jacobs, Wollstonecraft made jokes about the pups. She died a week after contracting the initial fever.
As I was reading these instances, I found myself wondering about the difference between the ways that Native American and white women were being portrayed. In the medical literature, both white and Native women were portrayed as nursing animals. For Native women, their willingness [whether real or imagined] to breastfeed animals seems to exoticize them. It makes them seem slightly distant. Within the medical literature, however, the same act – breastfeeding an animal – does not seem to exoticize white women. The question, for me, is why?
I’m not sure of the answer, and I would love to hear the thoughts of others. But, I think the answer may lie in the way that the women are thinking about the animals they breastfeed. In the descriptions of Native American women, for example, the animals are described affectionately. William MacKenzie’s Sketches of Canada and the United States, for example, describe an Indian woman allowing the deer to place “its fore-paws… on the pap.” As it drank, it was “paddle paddling in a very playful manner” and MacKenzie claimed that the woman treated it with “much maternal tenderness.” The descriptions of Native women raising beaver kittens describes them almost as kin to Indian children. The suggestion that white women breastfeed animals, however, has none of the maternal language that is used to describe the relationship between Native women and animals. Instead, the pup becomes a means to an end. It can be supplanted by an instrument or by a woman who has been trained to drain the breasts of other women. Dewees, for example, includes a note saying that the text should not be understood as suggesting “the mouth of a pup better than that of a nurse, or one who is accustomed to this operation.” Instead, he recommended the puppy only because it was easier to procure. In another case, an 1884 article admitted that the practice of putting pups to the breasts of women was “not always agreeable” to the patient. For people living in the nineteenth century, it seems to have been the familiarity and fondness for non-human nurslings that marked Indian women as exotic, not the act of breastfeeding animals itself.
Reading these accounts has been an interesting experience. This is posting the same day as I scheduled my labor to be induced at a local hospital. I could theoretically be breastfeeding – a baby not a puppy – at the moment you are reading this. I personally find the idea of breastfeeding an animal unsettling – the closeness it promotes between the human and the non-human, the idea of non-human teeth touching a human breast, it’s all a little bit ewww-making. BUT, it is also a good reminder that breastfeeding does have a history and is influenced by human culture and understandings of science as much as anything else is.