BOOKS: Clara’s Grand Tour & General Howe’s Dog

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1995:

Clara’s Grand Tour
by Glynis Ridley
Atlantic Monthly Press (841
Broadway, New York, NY 10003),
2004. 222 pages, hardcover. $22.00.
General Howe’s Dog
by Caroline Tiger
Penguin Group (375 Hudson St.,
New York, NY 10014), 2005.
192 pages, hardcover. $18.95.

Historical scholars Glynis Ridley
and Caroline Tiger each happened across an
intriguing mention of an animal while inves-
tigating other events of the mid-18
ry. Each reconstructed the story of the ani-
mal, as best she could from surviving docu-
mentation. Each produced a book about her
findings, with remarkably different results.
Ridley produced an award-win-
ning account of the travels and influence of
a young female Indian rhinoceros, Clara,
whose mother was killed by hunters in
Assam, India, circa 1738-1739. Hauled
overland to Calcutta, Clara was raised to
adulthood in the home of Dutch East India
Company director J.A. Sichterman, initially
as a household pet. Outgrowing her quar-
ters, Clara was sold in early 1741 to Dutch
sea captain Douwemont Van der Meer. Van
der Meer sailed to Leiden with her.
From July 1741 until Clara died
suddenly in London in 1758, Van der Meer
exhibited Clara, visiting virtually all of the
leading cities from Versailles to Vienna,
Naples to Berlin.
Clara may have traveled farther in
her lifetime than any other rhino ever. Other
rhinos were brought to Europe before and
after her, but no others lived nearly as long,
were seen in as many places, or were
depicted as often in art and literature.
Traces of Clara are easily recog-
nized, because before Clara toured Europe,
rhinos for more than 200 years were almost
always drawn, sculpted, or described from
Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of a rhino in
armor, published in 1515. Clara became the
model for a whole new view of rhinos, con-
tinuing to attract creative attention even after
her horn fell off during a visit to Italy.
Ridley discovered enough of Van
der Meer’s sensational promotional litera-
ture about Clara to establish a significant
discrepancy between the allegedly fierce
beast described to the public and the rather
friendly animal captured in art.
Van der Meer exhibited Clara at a
time when the prevailing modes of animal
exhibition were still royal menageries and
small traveling shows. Bear-baiting and
other forms of mortal combat were common,
but as Clara was one of a kind, far too valu-
able to risk, Van der Meer resisted opportu-
nities to pit her against supposed natural
foes, even while attracting customers by
portraying her as a serial killer of elephants.
Neither the modern circus nor
zoos of educational pretensions existed yet.
Although Van der Meer’s exhibitions antici-
pated modern circuses in many respects,
including in his invention of a heavy-duty
circus wagon for Clara, he also anticipated
the zoos of today in purporting to teach
viewers about nature and the world beyond
Europe. The earliest drawing of Clara posed
her with a mounted human skeleton, each
presented as an object of scientific curiosity.
Tiger enjoyed much less success
in trying to dig up the story of “George
Washington, the Battle of Germantown,
and the Dog Who Crossed Enemy Lines.”
Revolutionary troops found a dog
belonging to British commander William
Howe; George Washington sent him home.
Neither his name nor anything else about
him was ever recorded.
Tiger strives mightly to fill out her
story with background information about
Howe, who was friendly with Washington
and skeptical of the war, and Washington,
whose famed fondness of his own dogs did
not extend to all dogs.
Washington allowed his dogs to
roam indoors long before most dogs enjoyed
house privileges, but was most interested in
dogs as hunting companions, and was an
avid breeder in the era when dog pedigrees
first became established.
In 1787, trying to stop predation
on sheep, Washington ordered that all stray
dogs around his farm should be killed, and
forbade his slaves from keeping dogs.
More might have been done with
the animal aspects of General Howe’s Dog,
but––apparently aiming at the school library
market––Tiger avoids any discussion that
might be controversial. The result is that
Tiger’s analysis is as thin as the factual basis
that inspired the book.
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