Man is not a meat-eating animal : vegetarians and evolution in late-Victorian Britain

Richardson, Elsa (2019) Man is not a meat-eating animal : vegetarians and evolution in late-Victorian Britain. Victorian Review, 45 (1). pp. 117-134. ISSN 0848-1512 (

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Featured in an 1893 edition of the comic newspaper Funny Folks, the story of “The Vegetarian Cat” describes an unusually earnest feline who forgoes meat in favour of “cucumbers and beans”. Having managed to resist the temptations of “succulent” mice and “delicate” birds, the cat undergoes a transformation of temperament: usually to be found “yelling at night on the roof” these “riotous tendencies” are quietened by the “mild vegetarian diet” to which it now strictly adheres (“Vegetarian Cat”). Victorian readers would have been amused by the notion of a cucumber-eating kitty, but they may have also enjoyed the tale as part of a long-running satire on the absurdities of the vegetarian movement. Whether in the form of fake newspaper reports, bawdy rhymes or amusing songs, Funny Folks extracted a good deal of comic material from the pious follies and wrong-headed enthusiasms of dietary reformers. The cartoon “Vegetarian Vagaries”, serialised through the 1880s, depicted the everyday conundrums of meat-free living: sheep rescued from the abattoir become household pets, a bowl of salad must be avoided because slugs were harmed in its preparation, a pair of non-leather vegetable-derived boots sprout grassy shoots and an especially dedicated root-eater “evolves” into a turnip. Likewise, the story of the vegetarian cat pushed dietary idealism to a farcical extreme to expose the absurdities of human bean-eaters. Yet the case of the meat-avoiding puss speaks of more than a satirical tradition. Though clearly not intended as serious commentary, the strange tale does raise a number of questions ---regarding the impact of environment on physiological adaptation, the role of diet in species development and the moral capacity of non-human animals--- that vegetarians were also keen to address.