The term “exotic pet” refers to wild animals kept in captivity in a domestic setting for the purpose of personal interest or entertainment. With globalization the trade has increased dramatically, although its real scope is difficult to ascertain because for most species there is no registration requirement. Its scale may be a contemporary concern, but the practice itself has a long history. The public has always been obsessed with non-native animals.
Specialist merchants did not start trading until the nineteenth century, but the transportation of animals was common practice in early commerce. In medieval times, Asian animals were brought along spice routes by Venetian or Genoese traders. Exotic African animals moved through the North African ports. Spanish and the Portuguese merchants controlled the trade from the Americas. The first main supplier for north-western Europe was probably the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which by the sixteenth century had built animal pens alongside its quays in Amsterdam.
Countless monkeys, parrots and parakeets were transported to European cities in the triangle slave trade. In Africa and the Caribbean ships on their way back to Amsterdam, Le Havre or Liverpool would have taken animals on board both as cargo and as private purchases by sailors with the intention to resell them at home. Many species did not survive the sea voyage, but the trade continued unhindered.
European menageries have a long history. The collection in the Tower of London was on display as far back as 1204. The privilege of showing rare animals (and the associated revenues) originally belonged to the Keeper of his Majesty’s lions at the Tower. That monopoly was finally broken when entrepreneurs began to realize that city dwellers were hungry for entertainment and excitement. A show of exotic animals proved to be a profitable business.
Urban collections started to take root in the eighteenth century. Jan Blaauw ran a popular tavern of that name on the Kloveniersburgwal in Amsterdam which served drinks and displayed animals. An admission fee was paid allowing clients to see the creatures, many of them waiting to be sold to collectors or showmen. But it was London where the trade really took off.
The Exeter Exchange (popularly known as the Change) was built in 1676 on the Strand at the site of the demolished Exeter House, residence of the Earls of Exeter. It was originally occupied by a string of small shops on the ground floor and offices in the upper rooms. From 1773, the location was operated as a menagerie where animals were bought and sold. The Exchange was purchased in 1793 by Gilbert Pidcock in order to showcase his latest exotic acquisitions.
In June 1790 a rhinoceros had arrived in London from Bengal aboard the East Indiaman Melville Castle. It was a present from the “King of Laknaor” (Lucknow?) to Lord Melville, a trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (he acted as Lord of Trade and later as Home Secretary). The unusual gift was sold on for exhibition purposes.
Once in his possession Pidcock put the rhino on show to the public, but it died a few months later (having apparently developed a taste for sweet wine). Undeterred, the owner exhibited its stuffed skin to a curious audience. At some time between 1790 and 1792 George Stubbs produced a painting of the rhino showing the animal full length in profile. The painting was acquired by surgeon-anatomist John Hunter and put on display in his Hunterian Museum at Leicester Square in London.
In 1804, George Wombwell was working as a shoe maker in Soho when on a visit to the London Docks he was offered two South American boas for sale. He exhibited them in local taverns, cashing in on his clients’ curiosity. Soon after he started trading in exotic animals that arrived on ships from Africa, Australia and South America.
Business boomed. Founded in 1810, Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie toured the fairs of Britain. By 1839 his enterprise totaled fifteen wagons and was accompanied by a brass band. George’s exotic collection included elephants, giraffes, leopards, six lions, three tigers, zebras, panthers, monkeys, lamas, a gorilla, a kangaroo and other creatures.
Although many of his exotic animals did not survive the dampness of the British climate, Wombwell could profitably sell dead bodies to a taxidermist or a medical school. At other times he chose to exhibit the dead animal as a curiosity for its own sake (at London’s Bartholomew Fair he put a dead elephant on show which attracted large numbers of visitors). He also raised animals himself, including Britain’s first lion to be bred in captivity.
Queen Victoria was a fan of the show and invited Wombwell’s menagerie to the Royal Court on three occasions. The owner died in 1850 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery under an impressive statue of his beloved lion Nero.
Elephant on Board
In April 1796, the America arrived in New York from Calcutta. Captain of the ship was Jacob Crowninshield whose German ancestors had settled in Salem, Massachusetts. The ship’s logbook was kept by Nathaniel Hathorne, father of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (who later added the ‘w’ to the family name). A remarkable entry, written in capitals on February 17, 1796, reads ‘ELEPHANT ON BOARD.’
Recorded in history only as the “Crowninshield’s Elephant,” she was the first of the species to reach the United States. Having joined the Cayetano’s Circus of New York, she was introduced to the public in 1812. It is not known how long she lived or when she died (the last recorded exhibition took place in July 1818).
Old Bet, the second elephant to arrive on American shores, was owned by Hackaliah Bailey, a farmer of Somers, Westchester County, New York, who took Bet on tour by walking from town to town under the cover of night in order to prevent anyone from having a free look at her. He assembled one of America’s first circuses, Barnum & Bailey.
Old Bet’s popularity inspired others to set up their own menageries. Within a short time there were several traveling collections of wild animals of which June, Titus, Angevine & Company was one of the more noteworthy ventures. Founded in 1830, it advertised a collection of many unusual animals, including tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, elephants, bears, zebras, hyenas, kangaroos, camels, and a rhinoceros (advertised as a unicorn).
The final touring season took place in 1842. In total, there were sixty animals on show, transported in twenty-nine wagons, pulled by sixty-four horses. Fifty men operated the logistics. A pamphlet documenting this tour reflects the huge demands it took to move the show around. Having spent the winter in Cincinnati, the season started on April 21 in Elizabethtown, Ohio, and ended October 22 in New York. Over that period, the company had traveled nearly 2,500 miles and opened their tents in 141 different towns and cities.
Theirs was much more than just a wildlife collection – it was a complete performance, incorporating equestrian stunts, acrobatics, juggling and other entertainments, musically accompanied by a fourteen-piece band from the city of New York. Setting a precedent, the company combined menagerie with circus. The distinction between the two spectacles gradually faded as a consequence. It was in this setting that young Isaac Van Amburgh learned his trade.
Born in 1808, Isaac Van Amburgh was raised in Fishkill, Dutchess County, NY, a Hudson River town where his ancestors had settled from the Netherlands at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The name evolved from the Dutch words vis (fish) and kil (creek or stream). Isaac was apparently three-quarters Dutch and one quarter Cherokee Indian.
By 1833, he worked as a cage-cleaner at New York’s newly opened Zoological Institute at 37 Bowery, opposite the old Bowery Theatre. A spectacular menagerie covering four blocks, the establishment was open to visitors who for the price of fifty cents could examine bears, tigers, monkeys, hyenas and other animals, all kept in individual cells along a great hall. Each exhibit displayed elaborate panoramas depicting the animal’s natural habitat.
Cages were numbered and corresponded to a guidebook for visitors. Above the animal floor was an orchestra promenade with a theater-like seating for special events such as lion taming, circus spectaculars or equestrian shows. Working in this setting between 1833 and 1838, Van Amburgh developed an understanding of how to deal with “dangerous” animals.
He gained notoriety in New York for his daring acts after stepping into a cage occupied by a lion, a Bengal tiger, a leopard and a panther. He was likened to the prophet Daniel when he entered the den of beasts and made them obey his commands. The first man to put his head into the mouth of a lion, he enjoyed success with an act set in ancient times and was named the “Brute Tamer of Pompeii.”
For his fearless attitude and Dutch courage towards wild animals, he earned the title “Lion King.” Isaac was also a master of self-promotion, a showman who once took the liberty of riding down Manhattan’s Broadway in a chariot drawn by lions and tigers.
In August 1838, Isaac arrived in London with his troupe of performing lions having been offered lucrative contracts. He made his debut at Astley’s Amphitheatre at Westminster Bridge Road on August 27, 1838. His shows at this, London’s prime performance venue, were received with wild enthusiasm. His presence coincided with an upturn in the trade of exotic animals in the capital.
Van Amburgh’s dauntless feats of control established the act of lion taming as a popular feature in theaters and circuses. His performances attracted diverse sections of society, ranging from factory workers to members of the Royal Household. Queen Victoria was so entranced by his showmanship that she attended his show at Drury Lane Theatre seven times in six weeks, impressions of which she noted down in her diaries.
In 1839, she commissioned Edwin Henry Landseer to produce a painting of the master tamer “in action.” The artist selected a theme from a live show which Isaac had based upon the text of Isaiah 11:6: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” The artist excluded wolves, fatlings and kids, but put Van Amburgh in the centre surrounded by lions, leopards and a lamb (the lion in the picture bears a striking resemblance to the four that were cast in bronze from Landseer’s model for the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, unveiled in January 1867).
As far as entertainment was concerned, the Euro-American exchange up until that time had been very much a one way direction. Leading performers, actors and musicians were signed up in London, Paris or other cities to travel to the United States. American talent being engaged in Europe was a rarity. Van Amburgh was the first American super-star to hit the London stage. By the mid-1840s, he was operating the largest traveling menagerie in Britain and was so popular that ceramics were produced and sold as keepsakes at the theaters where he performed.
Bible & Brutality
Van Amburgh.Whether in biblical outfit or in gladiatorial garb, Van Amburgh attempted to evoke scenes of ferocity (by starving his animals before a performance) after which he would beat his lions into submission. He was loudly cheered when he made them lick his boots as a sign of total domination.
Critics of lion taming stressed the act’s brutality. In spite of his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, Van Amburgh was accused of using violence by hitting his big cats with a crowbar to make them submit. Rumors circulated that he declawed his lions and had their teeth filed. Always having a Bible text at hand, Isaac would answer his opponents and justify his methods by quoting Genesis 1:26, arguing that God had given men dominion over animals. It was, in other words, a “religious act” for trained animals to kneel at his feet.
When he returned to America in 1845, Isaac started his own circus and is credited with the early design of ornate circus wagons, running one of the largest traveling shows in the country. In November 1865, the lion tamer suffered a fatal heart attack at Miller’s Hotel in Philadelphia. The Lion King died not in action but in bed. He was buried at St George’s Cemetery in Newburgh, Orange County, NY, but the “Van Amburgh Circus” continued to perform for decades after his death.
Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows
He goes into the lion’s cage, and tells you all he knows;
He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, and keeps it there a-while,
And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile –
W.J. Wetmore. “The Menagerie,” comic song, 1865.
Illustrations, from above: Van Amburgh’s Menagerie, 1865 by W.J. Wetmore (Published by D.S. Holmes, 67 4th Street, Brooklyn); T. Crajenschot’s etching of Jan Blaauw’s tavern and menagerie in Amsterdam, 1751; George Wombwell’s tomb at London’s Highgate Cemetery; Rhinoceros, 1790/2 by George Stubbs (Royal College of Surgeons, London); lithograph of Isaac van Amburgh, November 1838 by T.C. Wilson (National Portrait Gallery, London); Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals, 1839 by Edwin Henry Landseer (Royal Collection Trust); and Staffordshire porcelain figure of Van Amburgh.
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