Why goats used to breastfeed human babies

February 25, 2016

The Washington Post

Among the Internet’s favorite animal images are photos or videos of one species nursing a baby of another. A cow nurses lambs. A dog nurses tiger cubs. You can almost hear the awws.

Google a different sort of interspecies suckling, however — animal-human nursing — and you’ll likely find tabloid headlines and no small amount of fetishized, not-safe-for-work material that borders on porn.

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.

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