BOOKS: The Medici Giraffe And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:
The Medici Giraffe
And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power
by Marina Belozerskaya
Little, Brown & Co. (1271 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY
10020), 2006. 412 pages, paperback. $24.99.
Marina Belozerskaya has given us a diverse collection of mini
histories beginning in ancient Egypt. She examines exotic
animal-keeping in the Roman Empire, Renaissance Florence, Aztec
Mexico, Bohemia, Napoleonic France, and the early 20th century U.S.
Through time and across continents, Belozerskaya reveals the
use and abuse of exotic animals by powerful people.
A postscript about the sale from China to the U.S. of two
giant pandas, at an exorbitant price, in order to cement relations
between the two global powers, shows that when it comes to using
animals to advance the goals of ambitious people, nothing has
changed in two and half thousand years.
Nearly 300 years B.C., the Roman general Ptolemy
Philadelphos kept a magnificent menagerie of captive wild animals at
his palace in Alexandria. He spent a fortune on capturing wild
elephants, the battle tanks of the ancient world, for military
Roman rulers frequently bought political popularity with the
blood of captured African and Asian wildlife. But according to
Pliny, the emperor Pompey once misjudged how even brutal Roman
spectators would respond to a group of some twenty elephants at the
infamous Circus Maximus.
“When they had lost all hope of escape,” Pliny wrote, “they
tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures
of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much
to the distress of the public that they forgot Pompey and his
munificence, carefully devised for their honor, and bursting into
tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey, for
which he soon afterward paid the penalty.”
We learn how Lorenzo de Medici, the powerful Florentine
merchant who wished to attain royal status, kept a menagerie of
exotic animals, whom he habitually traded for political favours.
In Mexico the 16th century Aztec King Montezuma maintained a
marvellous collection of captive wild animals at his prosperous
capital city. The conquistadores under Hernando Cortes set fire to
the zoo, burning all the animals to death, in order to advance
their colonial goal of terrorizing the natives.
And so on. The reader discovers how Rudolf XI, the Emperor
of the Holy Roman Empire in early 17th century Europe, neglected his
affairs of state, with dire consequences for all of Europe, because
of his obsession with wildlife and the study of flora and fauna. We
learn that while Napoleon Bonaparte was off butchering millions of
Europeans, his wife Josephine assiduously acquired, from as far away
as Australia, a large collection of animals for her private
zoological park. In early 20th century America, news magnate
William Randolph Hearst burdened his huge publishing empire with the
cost of purchasing exotic animals from all over the world to stock
his 60,000 acre private zoo at San Simeon, California.
For the most part the stories end badly for the animals, and
continue to have bad endings in our own time. Belozerskaya, for
example, might have mentioned Cecil John Rhodes, the English
colonial who annexed Southern Africa to the British Crown at the turn
of the 20th Century.
Like so many potentates, Rhodes imported exotic animals for
his private zoo, located on the slopes of Table Mountain, looming
over Cape Town. Among the exotic imports were a few Himalayan tahrs,
who escaped, adapted well to Table Mountain, and by 2004 had
reached a population of several hundred. In that year the South
African National Parks Board decided that all “alien” animals would
be exterminated. The killing took several weeks of military-style
assault, using ground troops and helicopter gunships.
No doubt Hernan Cortes and his arsonist conquistadors would
have applauded the bloodshed.