BOOKS: The Tower Menagerie
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2004:
The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the
Royal Collection of Wild & Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London
by Daniel Hahn
Tarcher/Penguin (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2003. 260
pages, hardcover. $26.95.
Before city-hosted nonprofit zoos existed there were
for-profit menageries. Before there were menageries, there were
spectacles, featuring fights to the death among captive beasts whose
ferocity was tested on dogs and prisoners.
Centuries before the modern history of England began with the
Norman Conquest in 1066, before William the Conqueror began building
the Tower of London as his royal residence, spectacles and
menageries emerged and evolved in almost every civilization. As only
monarchs could afford to acquire much more than a single dancing
bear, presenting spectacles and menageries reinforced royal status
from ancient times onward.
The Tower Menagerie, the most enduring of menageries and
spectacle venues, was reputedly begun by King John (1199-1216).
Written records of it date from the 1235 arrival of several gift
leopards, followed by lions and a polar bear, who fished in the
Best known today as a former royal prison, the Tower was a
palace for much longer than it was a place of confinement. The
animals, at first, appear to have been treated with relative
privilege. Ill-informed care appears to have been a much more
frequent problem than cruelty. The first elephant, for instance,
died after the keepers gave him wine to help him cope with cold
The monarchs who were most interested in the menagerie,
unfortunately, included the notoriousy sadistic James I, Henry III,
and Elizabeth I. Only the small size of the site appears to have
held the bloodshed in their regimes to less than was spilled in the
Efforts to reform either spectacles or menageries into
educational institutions do not appear to have begun anywhere before
the 16th century regime of the Indian mogul Akbar the Great. In the
next century Oliver Cromwell deplored the Tower Menagerie and tried
to close it, but the approach to zookeeping introduced by Akbar
remained unknown in England until 1822, when British military
officers who had served in India made cleaning up the Tower Menagerie
a first priority of the newly incorporated London Humane Society
(which became the Royal SPCA in 1840).
Their first victory came with the hiring of Alfred Cops, the
only professionally trained keeper that the menagerie ever had, and
10 years later won the transfer of most of the animals to the then
just opened London Zoo–by order of the Duke of Wellington, who
appears to have been less motivated by the prospect of improving the
animals’ care than by an obsession with restoring the Tower to some
semblance of military usefulness.
In summarizing a wealth of findings that have emerged from
recent scholarship and an archaeological dig in 1999-2000, Tower
Menagerie author Daniel Hahn makes a few mistakes, detailed in the
July/August 2003 edition of International Zoo News. Yet they are of
minor note. The Tower Menagerie is a lucid and provocative volume
which should be of gripping interest to anyone concerned with the
past, present, and future of animals in zoos and entertainment.