Have a drink with: Carl Hagenbeck
Ask him: But do you sing country ballads?
Like many other people, I spent the first chunk of my home confinement (thanks, coronavirus) plowing through Netflix’s hot documentary series “Tiger King” whilst eating an inordinate number of Girl Scout cookies. And the show is so relentlessly bananapants that it’s hard to believe that it could be a product of anything but the current moment in history. But no! The 19th century animal entertainment landscape also involved a cluster of larger-than-life figures jockeying for notoriety and revenue, and the birth of menageries in Western culture can tell us a lot about private zoos today.
There had certainly been exotic animals in the West going back far earlier, as part of private collections meant to demonstrate the owner’s status and ability. (Think Mike Tyson owning a tiger.) But where at the turn of the 19th century there were an isolated few animals in private hands, during the 1800s the menagerie emerged as a structured public entertainment. At first this was a matter of novelty: OMG COME SEE AN ELEPHANT. But as time went on, zoos had to embrace a sense of place in the world, and replaced brutal colonialism with an idea of moral purpose – the idea of participation in education, science and conservation.
Read on at Slate for my full take on Joe Exotic and his historical counterparts.
Have a drink with: Jumbo
The Children’s Giant Friend
Ask him about: bath time in the Thames
There’s one conspicuous problem with the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo and Tim Burton’s remake, released last week: the elephant’s name is not, in fact, Dumbo.
The little elephant with the big ears is, in fact, given a family name when he is born, and Mrs. Jumbo’s baby is christened Jumbo, Jr. (The mocking nickname comes about when his giant ears are discovered.) This establishes Dumbo in the lineage of a real circus animal – the mighty Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prize African elephant. In 1941, when the original Disney film came out in theaters, Jumbo was still within fifty years’ living memory – and indeed, a fair swath of adult audience members were likely to have remembered seeing Jumbo as children on circus day, as the Greatest Show on Earth wound its way across America.
When P.T. Barnum secured him from the London Zoo, where he was known as the “children’s friend” for the rides he would give to young zoo visitors, Jumbo became the undisputed star of the circus, elevating the Barnum shows to an even greater level of cultural prominence.
Here are a few things you may not know about Dumbo’s famous patriarch.
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals
Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*
Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.