Romantic Rhinos and Victorian Vipers: The Zoo as Nineteenth-Century Spectacle

by Ashton Nichols


If you could have seen what it was like when I was a boy–half zoo and half museum, my father let us do anything we wanted. For a while we had a big tree in the corner, with live birds roosting in it. Aquariums, and an ant colony, and turtles and salamanders; and jars of preserved specimens everywhere, big slabs of fossil-bearing rock and mastodon bones and a plant press, books open on all the tables. A wonderful, fertile clutter. (260)

I begin with a fictional passage from Andrea Barrett’s evocative 1998 novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal. Barrett’s description of her main character, Erasmus Darwin Wells, reflecting here on his childhood memory of the natural history repository his father had created in the early years of the nineteenth-century, captures the mood of a moment that was particularly important in the history of humans relations to the animal kingdom. Natural history cabinets, like zoos and other forms of live or dead animal display, emerged out of precisely the combination of scientific curiosity and fascination with spectacle that is captured in the rhetoric of Barrett’s fictional imagining; to see something new and amazing was to learn something new, but the experience was also about being excited, titillated or amazed by captive animals or the remains of their capture.

Only in recent years have zoos come in for much sustained scholarly attention. But zoological gardens in the nineteenth century developed as cultural sites with important implications for our understanding of the material aspects of imperialism, the various discourses of domination, and the relations between ideas of spectacle and our treatment of other species, as well as our own. The zoo chronicles an important history about the way humans seek to dominate their environment, often under the guise of gaining knowledge. The first monarchs and potentates who assembled royal parks, menageries, and pleasure-gardens filled with living creatures made no pretense about their purposes. To fence or cage other creatures was to control them for a number of related reasons: hunting, food, entertainment or mere diversion. The power of possession was justification enough for collections of lions, tigers, monkeys, giraffes, eagles, serpents and other exotic creatures that date at least to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs. Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” was just such a menagerie. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, scientific knowledge became the primary justification for private, and eventually public, gatherings and displays of a wide variety of creatures from around the world.

Henry I began the first royal British menagerie; his collection found its way eventually into the Tower of London where it remained until 1831. Stamford Raffles founded the Zoological Society of London in Regent’s Park in 1826, but the grounds were not formally opened to visitors until 1828 and not to the general public (that is, without invitation or subscription) until 1846. The immediate success of Raffles venture, however, was indicated by a report from the government council indicating that 112,226 people visited the zoological garden during the first year of its operation. William IV soon closed the Tower of London menagerie and presented the royal collection of creatures, along with those from Windsor Great Park, to the Zoological Society (Altick 317). This royal act suggested an important transfer of cultural authority; the collecting of captive animals by the 1830s was no longer a sign of the wealth and power of a single monarch but an added symbol of the domination of an imperial nation over the far corners of the earth from which these animals originated.

In addition to zoos, of course, animals had been exhibited in a variety of carnival, fair, and “freak” show settings since the Middle Ages. The first rhinoceros, for example, arrived in Restoration London aboard an East Indiaman ship in 1684 and was exhibited in numerous locales (at “Bartholomew Faire,” at the “Bell Sauvage Inn at the foot of Ludgate Hill“ and elsewhere) until its untimely death two years later. As Richard Altick notes, “much of the charm of these show beasts resided in the aura of mystery or romance in which the showmen diligently wrapped them” (37). The curious–if not terrifying–sight of a rhinoceros was, of course, linked to the myth of the unicorn from the moment of its first arrival in England. Such “sideshow” animal exhibitions continued unabated into the nineteenth century. Indeed, the ostensibly scientific objectivity of zoos shades over in important ways into these and other even less savory forms of animal exploitation: menagerie displays, circus performances, bear and bull baiting, cock fighting, dog racing. As Randy Malamud says, “the Renaissance age of imperialism made it economically, historically, and morally possible to amass animals and squeeze them into the compartments people created for them. The Victorian Age accelerated, institutionalized, and sanctified the processes of zookeeping and zoo spectatorship” (15).

Zoos have had a special status in the history of humans relations to animals because they offered not only the frisson of live animals on display but also the satisfactions of imperial conquest (representatives of the spectators’ culture had collected these creatures from every corner of the globe) and of scientific advancement (these specimens would be useful for taxonomic, anatomical, and even breeding purposes). Zoos, unlike other animal spectacles, helped to track and preserve records of the vast expansion of knowledge that accompanied exploration of the globe and the subsequent return of living specimens to European and later American cities. One way of proving the importance of the voyage or journey you had just completed was to bring back specimens, alive or dead, that confirmed the exotic aspect of the locales to which you had traveled. Thus an officer of the East India Company like Raffles might return with  “Sumatran animals” at the end of his tour of duty, or “great white” hunters and collectors like Carl Hagenbeck and Frank Buck might trade in animals the way others traded in ivory, spices, or slaves. In fact, the trade in living animals was not as independent of the early trade in human flesh as we might imagine; the same ships that trafficked in human cargo often transported “creatures” of other varieties as well. As a result, zoos participated throughout the century in the spectacle of animal capture, transportation, and exposition that was part of the larger discourse of domination that characterized nineteenth-century European imperialism.

As Harriet Ritvo notes of early nineteenth-century visitors to Regent’s Park Zoo,

“there was ample opportunity for visitors to enjoy simultaneously the thrill of proximity to wild animals and the happy sense of superiority produced by their incarceration. Only the exceptional visitor, such as the critic Leigh Hunt, found this relationship other than pleasant. He was struck by the animals’ ‘quiet . . . and the human-like sort of intercourse into which they get with their visiters [sic]’ and ended his tour of the London zoo feeling melancholy about their captivity” (Ritvo 219-20).

Hunt would eventually write movingly about the wrongs of animal captivity, “Why can we have Acts of Parliament in favor of other extension of good treatment to the brute creation, and not one against their tormenting imprisonment?” Animals’ lives under such conditions, he concluded, “turned into lingering deaths” (Altick 318). But Hunt’s reaction to caged animals was clearly the exception.

For most people, the spectacular aspect of the zoo–the experience of merely looking at wild animals–was innocent and entertaining. Before the Regent’s Park Zoo opened to the general public, there were times when tickets for members and their guests were reputed to be as hard to get as those to the opera. Sophisticated Londoners–like their counterparts in Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam–might travel to the zoo whenever a new animal had arrived from some far-flung destination. Exhibited creatures formed the basis for conversation, public lectures, scientific research, and artistic expression. Spectators were particularly drawn by those animal activities, such as feeding time, that were likely to produce the most active and energetic exposition of the animal’s wildness or strangeness. In addition, of course, the zoo created a satisfying illusion about human control over nature. If authorized representatives of the forces of social order could capture and cage creatures from the wild, then perhaps humans also had the power to tame the natural world in more general terms. During the century that saw the ravages of the Industrial Revolution, and the first sustained assault on natural resources from South America to South Africa, the artificiality of the lion enclosure and the reptile house suggested another way that humans might transform “nature” for their own purposes.

A number of the motives for animal collection and display were legitimately scientific, taxonomic, and economic, but there were clearly more sinister sides to this activity. Blake had reminded his society as early as 1803 that “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”  Indeed, the attempt to keep wild animals in captivity produced an immeasurable amount of disease, suffering, and death among the captives. The average large mammal lived for only two years in captivity by the middle years of the century. Live animals were treated in ways that suggest the deep psychological undercurrents of all animal capture and display. When Queen Victoria visited the lion-taming act of Isaac Van Amburgh, the animals “had been kept purposely without food for six and thirty hours” so that the Queen might see them “in their more excited and savage state during the operation of feeding them” (Ritvo 224). The sense that humans might create their own versions of animal savagery with the help of deprivation or outright torture was confirmed by a London journalist in 1870 who reported “how true the animals are to their savage instincts, even in confinement”: the evidence for this “natural” savagery derived solely from the description of  feeding time as the “crowning point of the show,” remarking on the “bellowing, roaring, and growling” of the carnivores in conjunction with the excitement produced by the way “they drag and tear the big bone or lump of raw meat” (Ritvo 224). The apparent “wildness” of many of these creatures could thus be directly tied to the conditions produced by the humans in charge of their captivity.

Perhaps the most public example of cruelty to caged animals during the nineteenth-century was the execution of Chunee, a five-ton Indian elephant. Chunee began his captive life as a performer on stage and then had gone on to become a leading attraction at the Exeter ’Change Menagerie in the Strand in London. Chunee was described as being tame to the point of docility for years, but as he matured he became increasingly violent during periods of “musth,” outbursts of male sexual excitement that were eventually seen as a threat to his keepers and even to the general public. Chunee’s execution in 1826 was not accomplished easily. When he refused to ingest the poison that had been prepared for him, his death required, by one account, 152 musket balls and over an hour, with the coup de grace finally being delivered by a sword. One witness reported that the sound of the elephant’s “agony had been much more alarming than that made by the soldier’s guns” (Ritvo 226); in addition, witnesses reported that the elephant’s profuse quantities of blood had flowed deep on the floor of his cage. Chunee’s death was followed by illustrations in the popular press of the massive creature kneeling behind bars while volley after volley was fired into his bleeding chest and legs. Letters filled the Times in protest not only at Chunee’s death but at the conditions of his life in captivity. Poems appeared with sentiments on the order of “Farewell, poor Chunny! Generous beast, farewell!” (Altick 314). The sad saga was even the source of a successful play at Sadler’s Wells, Chuneelah; or, The Death of the Elephant at Exeter ‘Change.

An additional aspect of animal captivity by this time was precisely the extent to which animals like Chunee might be anthropomorphized into figures worthy of comparison with humans. Here is Lord Byron, recording a visit to the Exeter Change in his journal for 14 November 1813:

Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter ’Change. Except Veli Pacha’s lion in  the Morea,–who followed the Arab keeper like a dog,–the fondness of the hyaena for her keeper amused me most. Such a conversazione! — There was a “hippopotamus,” like Lord L[iverpoo]l in the face; and the “Ursine Sloth” hath the very voice and manner of my valet–but the tiger talked too much. The elephant [probably Chunee himself] took and gave me my money again–took off my hat–opened a door– trunked a whip–and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler. The handsomest animal on earth is one of the panthers; but the poor antelopes were dead. I should hate to see one here:–the sight of the camel made me pine again for Asia Minor.

As in Byron’s descriptions, numerous other writers praised chimps, orang-u-tans, and comparably “sagacious” beasts for their intellect and for the strong appearance of emotion that often characterized their behavior. Such humanization of captive creatures was part of a larger attempt to explain similarities between the animal kingdom and human life without the scientific evidence that would soon be provided by Darwin’s theory. Caged creatures, according to Byron and other writers, might look or act like prime ministers or presidents; these similarities could be instructive about both the animals and their human counterparts. By the time evolutionary models began to have widespread influence in the Victorian era, this anthropomorphism would be reversed and Darwin himself could be depicted with the head of an ape in the popular press. Thomas Hardy expressed another version of this anthropomorphism in his astonishment that modern humans could “tolerate such useless inflictions as making animals do what is unnatural to them, to drag out life in a wired cell”(Malamud 17).

Zoos represented a form of living natural history (while also housing subjects for research and scientific study), but they also offered continuing records of the forms of control exerted by “dominant” cultures over the rest of the world. Sophisticated Londoners or Parisians could thus feel edified while observing captive animals from around the globe, while at the same time experiencing a sense that their societies had subdued the far-flung destinations from which these remarkable creatures originated. By midcentury, as Ritvo notes, “as the emblem of British domination over its colonial empire, the London Zoo also inevitably came to symbolize Britain’s competition for preeminence with western rivals” (231). If Paris and Moscow had a panda, then certainly London needed one. If you could see “Royal Bengal” tigers on the Indian subcontinent, then surely you should be able to see one not far from the banks of the Thames. Indeed, possession of creatures from distant parts of the world served at best as a shorthand and at worst as a substitute for actual understanding of the “unknown” places from which these creatures had come. For countless well-to-do middle and upper-class Europeans, visits to zoos became a vicarious means of actually participating in the process of empire building.

E. F. Benson, in an essay entitled “The Zoo” (1893), suggests a deeper, and ultimately more psychological source for the spectatorial attraction (and repulsion) often associated with zoo going. He is describing his own Victorian visit to the Reptile House (the world’s first) in Regent’s Park, and he does so in vivid and memorable terms:

I once saw the snakes fed; the public are no longer allowed to see it, and quite rightly. There were about a dozen people in the snake-house, at the time, and I think we were all silent as we went out, when the feeding was over. The snake I watched was a live python from South America . . . and he was given a live rat, for they will not eat the dead food . . . it was horrible.
It was many years since I saw that sight. It was, I think, the most terrifying thing I ever beheld. In sleep, the horror of it sometimes still reaches me. I am in a dim unfamiliar room, alone at first, but as I sit there, something wakes into existence which is horrible, evil, not understood, and I cannot get away. (158-60)

Randy Malamud comments on the power of this passage and links it to a wider discourse of animal domination: the point “is not that animals eating is disgusting; obviously it is a fundamental facet of natural behavior. But something seems askew, inappropriate, about feeding rituals as they occur at the zoo, and about spectators’ presence . . . what happens in zoos is essentially not about animals but about people . . . it is about us in disturbing ways” (233). What disturbs us in this image is a sense of things that should not be seen, or at least of things that should not be seen in the way that captivity allows for, that is, unnaturally. Our desire to see snakes or lions eating, however, has something to do with our desire for certain sorts of knowledge, or certain sorts of self definition.

The nineteenth-century tradition of animal display grows even more sinister when we realize, quoting Malamud again, that “zoos, carnivals, freak shows and other traditions of human displays represent a continuum of spectatorial attractions with a related heritage” (85). Richard Altick lists numerous human exhibitions that blurred the distinction between humans and animal species: a Botocudo Indian exhibited as “the Venus of South America” in 1832 as well as the more famous “Hottentot Venus” before 1820, groups of Laplanders (1822), African “Bushmen (1847), American Ojibbeway Indians (1843) and “Aztec Lilliputians” (1853). The desire for spectacle led to the exhibition of humans “intertwined with captive animal displays” in which all of the “creatures” from distant locales might be exhibited together. Altick, in The Shows of London, devotes an entire chapter to forms of human display and “captivity” that were often linked to animal exhibition. The “Hottentot Venus” was a South African woman named Sartje, later baptized Sarah Bartmann, who was displayed in a variety of inhuman conditions between 1810 and 1815: she was, in the horrified words of the secretary of the African Association, “produced like a wild beast, and ordered to move backwards and forwards and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear in a chain that a human being” (quoted in Altick 270).  The comparable “Venus of South America” was exhibited in Bond Street in 1822; as Altick notes, “she seems to have aroused no humanitarian emotions on the part of her beholders, only morbid (and latently sexual) curiosity and disgust” (272). During the first half of the century Laplanders were displayed with reindeer and elk at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Ojibbeway Indians with horses at Vauxhall Gardens, and two bushmen children (15 and 8 years old) from South Africa, along with “the great ursine baboon” and “some exceedingly rare varieties of the monkey tribe” (280). Robert Bogdan notes the link between human and animal display in the rise of the “freak show” in America; he points out that the phrase “living curiosities” was often used during the nineteenth century to refer both to animals and to humans on exhibition (26).

This notion of exhibiting exotic humans along with animals suggests precisely the link between the privileged position of spectator (who is the looker? who, or what, is the subject of the looking?) and the very definition of words like “primitive,” “savage,” “native,” and “natural.”  My definition of the things I see depends on the settings in which I see them. A lion in a cage is a different creature than a lion on the African savannah. A person in a cage is no longer fully human. If I am the spectator, then I get to say what it is that I see; the subject of my observation does not have the same privilege or authority, particularly if that subject is not human, or is not defined as human. “Spectacle,” in this sense, is often about self definition (“who am I in relation to this spectacle?”) and about my definition of the other (“who is this other [person, animal, or in our own day this putative space-alien perhaps?] in relation to me”). Zoos catch human beings in acts of self-reflexive spectating with important implications for our definition of the “other.” Creatures in cages exist, in some sense, for human “consumption.” Creatures in the wild, by contrast, and importantly for my argument, do not necessarily exist for anyone’s benefit.

By the end of the century (1897), Bram Stoker leaves us with an image of zoos that links humans with animals in a way that can serve as a close to the present reflections. Count Dracula, in the guise of a wolf, liberates an actual gray wolf (appropriately named Berserker) from his pen at the Regent’s Park zoo, in the telling words of Stoker’s cockney zoo-keeper: “when I kem opposite to old Bersicker’s cage I see the rails broken and twisted about and the cage empty . . . it seems to me that ’ere wolf escaped–simply because he wanted to get out” (178). Dracula needs the strength of this animal to help him break into the house of his next victim: a wolf aiding a vampire, what a spectacular mix! Even before the age when animal liberationists would free captive animals for ethical reasons, Stoker leaves us with the shuddering sense that if the animals in the zoo ever get out . . . well . . . I will leave it to others to consider the ways that animals–caged or otherwise–continue to be used as forms of titillation and spectacle in our own “humane” and “civilized” century.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D. The Shows of London. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1978.

Malamud, Randy. Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

___________. “The Order of Nature: Constructing the Collections of Victorian Zoos,” in New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century, ed. R. J. Hoage and William A. Deiss Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Wolf, Leonard, ed. The Essential Dracula. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1993.

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