Seafaring pets: animal shipmates

By Amanda James 8 November 2013
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Sailing can be a long and lonely affair, but the company of pets has made many a shipmate happy.


SAILING CAN BE A long and lonely affair, with only endless oceans and the same shipmates for company day after day. Historically, when maritime ventures could last months or years, sailors often kept their sanity with pets such as cats, dogs, monkeys, and birds.

As well as keeping rodent populations down, these animals were dutiful companions and they provided a focus of emotions for men travelling long distances away from their families.

Sailors’ relationships with their beloved seafaring pets were documented by pioneering Sydney photographer Sam Hood, who boarded thousands of ships between 1900 and 1950 to tell the story of these cherished companions. The photographs are the subject of a new exhibit at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.


“Pets on ships play the same role they do at home,” says Stephen Gapp, curator of Hood’s collection of more than 10,000 images at Australia’s National Maritime Museum.

The travelling exhibition of 14 photos from Hood’s collection, called Little Shipmates, includes formal photos of crew members with serious faces, whose solemn appearance was broken only by the appearance of a cat curled up in a welcome lap. Other images resemble family photos because of how affectionate the sailors were with the pets.

“Sometimes sailors would bring pets home as souvenirs to their families,” says Stephen. Exotic pets, such as monkeys, from India would make a great gift because they were very unusual, says Stephen.

Cats were considered lucky by superstitious sailors. They caught rats and mice and helped ease the boredom of long sea voyages. Since rodents aren’t as much of a problem on ships today, it’s not as common to carry cats aboard; however, one notorious ship in Australia, the Windeward Bound, which is harboured in Hobart, still carries a cat aboard on all of its voyages.

The black and white kitty resembles explorer Matthew Flinders’ feline friend and even bears its name, Trim. Modern-day Trim has never had a home on land, and has circumnavigated Australia and travelled to New Zealand multiple times in its 8 years aboard the Windeward Bound.

“Cats are very amenable animals to have on a ship because they’re very clean and have a way of getting to the heart of a lot of the crew members, as well as the passengers,” says Captain Sarah Parry.

The Little Shipmates exhibit will be featured at the Eden Killer Whale Museum in Eden, NSW, until 23 January.

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