You can almost hear the ewws.
But it was not always this way, and it’s still not in some places. In fact, human-animal breastfeeding has a fairly rich history. Look no further than Rome (or, if you’re low on frequent flyer miles, Georgia), whose symbol is a statue of the Roman gods Romulus and Remus, who according to legend were abandoned and then breastfed by a she-wolf — an image said to symbolize the city’s strength and survival.
Animals nursing human babies
That’s myth, of course. But plenty of examples of animals suckling babies have been documented in real life. A heyday was the 16th to 19th centuries in Europe. This was before pasteurization and before the vulcanization of rubber — a process that led to the widespread manufacturing of soft rubber nipples for bottles that could be sterilized.
Prior to that, if a baby didn’t have a mother’s breast to suck, there weren’t many options. Cloths soaked in animal milk could be squeezed into a baby’s mouth, but that was often a bacterial bomb, said Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University history professor who wrote “Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships.” Mothers could hire wet nurses, but they weren’t cheap, and they weren’t a sure bet — especially in the era of syphilis, which in 16th-century France prompted many mothers to reject wet nurses out of fear their babies would be infected.
The solution, sometimes, were animal teats. French mothers typically let their babies suckle from goats, wrote Deborah Valenze in “Milk: A Local and Global History.” In the 18th century, orphans, some of whom had syphilis, were sometimes held to the udders of animals kept on site just for feeding.
“Animal nursing rescued European societies more than once from widespread infant death,” Valenze wrote, quoting one doctor who visited an infant hospital in Aix-en-Provence in the early 1800s:
“The cribs are arranged in a large room in 2 ranks. Each goat which comes to feed enters bleating and goes to hunt the infant which has been given it, pushes back the covering with its horns and straddles the crib to give such to the infant.”
And though latching a baby to an animal’s underside might not have been a first choice, it wasn’t frowned upon. Pierre Brouzet, the physician to King Louis the XV, wrote that he had known “some peasants who have no other nurses but ewes, and these peasants were as strong and vigorous as others.”
One mid-19th-century French volume on midwifery lauded goat wet-nurses, according to Nicholas Day’s entertaining book “Baby Meets World“: Their nipples were well-shaped for infants to grasp, their milk was abundant, and they bonded well with children. In 1816, a German writer even published a book advocating the practice. The title: “The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet-Nurse.”
But there was often concern that the suckling infants would take on characteristics of the animals feeding them. That led some Europeans to prefer donkeys, according to Samuel X. Radbill, an American physician who researched the history of animal-human breastfeeding in 1976.
“Since they had a better moral reputation than goats, the children were less apt to acquire a libidinous character,” Radbill wrote. Donkey milk was believed to cure distemper and poisoning; pigs also often served as wet nurses, but they were “socially persona non grata.”
Women nursing baby animals
Yes, it goes both ways. At least as far back as the ancient Romans and Persians, women around the world have been encouraged to suckle animals to relieve engorged breasts, prevent pregnancy — nursing can stall ovulation — encourage lactation and toughen nipples.
Among Radbill’s findings: Women in the far eastern Russia peninsula of Kamchatka suckled baby bears, which they’d later kill for their meat and valuable gall bladders. Canadian Indians nursed young dogs. And “nurses in Turkey used suckling puppies to maintain their milk supply when they had to travel by sea from distant villages to the capital.”
William Potts Dewees, who in 1825 published one of the earliest American books on pediatrics, advised “regular application to the breasts of a young but sufficiently strong puppy immediately after the seventh month of pregnancy to harden and confirm the nipples,” thus preparing the mother for the “future assaults of the child,” according to Radbill. (For those averse, Dewees recommended drawing out milk with a tobacco pipe — how, it is unclear.)
“I have known midwives who advocated the use of puppies to suck the breasts of mothers for one reason or another in my own practice in Philadelphia,” Radbill allowed.
The practice has been widespread even in more recent times — a “near universal custom” among some groups who nursed puppies and piglets in the Pacific islands, according to a 1982 article by geographers Frederick Simoons and James Baldwin. They found historical examples of women nursing animals nearly everywhere across the globe (though few in Europe, with the exception of a 1927 Italian newspaper ad seeking a young woman to nurse five orphaned English spaniel puppies.)
Sometimes the impetus was economic, to sustain baby animals that would be sold or eaten. In other cases it was ceremonial, such as in northern Japan, where Ainu women were said to suckle a baby bear that would be killed in an annual ritual.
Some Brazilian tribes nurse animals out of affection, they wrote. That was documented more recently by the photographer Domenico Pugliese, who spent time with the Awa-Guaja tribe, whose members keep monkeys, squirrels and wild pigs as pets.
“They feed the squirrels and monkeys like they feed their kids, breastfeeding,” Pugliese told the Daily Mail.
The practice, Simoons and Baldwin argued, may have helped domesticate pigs and dogs in some places by operating as a “taming mechanism.” More recently, they wrote, some groups in Papua New Guinea had stopped nursing animals amid growing influence from the West, where the idea never really took off.
When the pioneering American photographer William Lyman Underwood took a photo of a Maine woman nursing a baby on one breast and a bear cub on the other in 1921, it stood out precisely because of its strangeness.
These days, the idea of animal-human nursing is treated as news of the weird. In December, for instance, two Swedish women were banned from owning animals after authorities discovered they had treated their cats as babies and breastfed one of them.
But why? The average American drinks around 20 gallons of cow’s milk a year. It’s not consumed directly from the udder, of course. But it’s an interspecies milk exchange nonetheless.
Bulliet, the Columbia professor, argued that if the idea makes you retch, it’s because we live in an era of “postdomesticity” that began in the late 20th century, in which people have little contact with the animals they rely on for leather, meat and wool. Nor do we need to keep them alive — that’s someone else’s job.
“As long as milk was thought of as an infant food, and that it was delivered by a living organism, then the idea that this is somehow barbaric or primitive or animalistic I don’t think would have arisen,” he said.
That’s changed. Now dairy cows are packed into industrial farms, their udders hooked to mechanical pumps, their milk shipped to stores in plastic gallon bottles.
“From the end of World War II onward or even before, people became distanced from milk consumption by the packaging of milk,” he said. “Now I can’t think of much of anyone who would open a bottle of milk and think of an animal.”