Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Pets, Exhibits, Symbols

Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots – Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris - Louise E. Robbins
New Worlds, New Animals – From Menagerie to Zoological Park in Nineteenth Century - Edited by J. R. Hoage and William A. Deiss

“Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots” and “New Worlds, New Animals” are both published by Johns Hopkins University Press but are very different: the first, by author Louise Robbins is a highly enjoyable book disguised as a boring, thick, academic volume; the second “New Worlds, New Animals” is a thin book written by academics for a 1989 symposium on the history of zoos, and most of them couldn’t help but be academic in tone.

If you find French history, before, during and after the French Revolution fascinating and also enjoy reading up on the history of exotic animals in western societies, “Elephant Slaves” might seem like a gift from heaven. Then you might wonder if this isn’t actually a very dry academic thesis. It’s not. It honestly reads like a good novel only (to my mind) more interesting because it actually opens a door onto the past in order to glimpse a little researched topic.

When we picture French society of the XVIII century, with all its excesses and injustices we probably have to inkling of how pervasive animals, we still today, think of as exotic, were in that society, specifically Paris. Little girls were endlessly devoted to their parakeets, while their mothers might dote on a pet monkey and their fathers on large outside, aviaries filled with parrots and other exotics.

But even if we shrug our shoulders at the excesses of the aristocracy, it is surprising to discover that parrots and parakeets were so popular at the time, and so widely available, that café-owners and all sort of small business owners had and doted on their colorful birds. Even for those unable to afford an exotic pet at the many pet stores of the time, far-away animals were only as far away as the next fair. Here, big cats, lions, wolves, snakes, monkeys, rhinoceros (the rhinoceros that came to Paris at this time, was undoubtedly Clara of “Clara’s Grand Tour”) were paraded for the curious. And as Natural History became a popular past time, the aristocracy and the poor would probably rub shoulders at these outings.

Robbins finds several interesting points of view to analyze the exotics presence in French Society: from their origins which illustrate France’s colonial territories and alliances, to the way in which the king used them to bolster his prestige (and was much imitated by courtesans) and how they were publicly available, not only in fairs, but also in weekly fights. She then takes a look at the Oiseleurs Guild, whose members were the only ones authorized to catch native birds and sell exotics (not only birds, but also monkeys and some felines). Through letters and the fascinating “lost parrot” advertisements in the publication Affiches de Paris the author explores what parrots and monkeys meant to their owners. It may be unexpected to see how similar their feelings were to our modern ones for our pets: they lavished attention on them, suffered immensely when they went missing – there were even manuals published on how to care for bird different species!

Of course, we humans tend to place meaning on just about anything and animals are prime subjects. The way in which we portray (or distort) them to fit any ideology is politic philosophy at its most interesting. In the last chapters Louise Robbins takes a look at how exotic animals were portrayed in press and art and how they served the budding revolution’s imagery.
Ideology and imagery are, of course, complex, evolving beasts and if on the one hand, “slave” animals and the value of “free birds” might have bolstered the Libertè ideals, the royal menagerie ended up being attacked by revolutionaries because those exotics also stood for the depraved luxuries of the rich.

About “New Worls, New Animals” what can I say? Most articles manage to be either too long or too short, despite the fact that actual length is more or less the same. They are either interesting and in that case you could probably read a book on the subject: “Menageries and Zoos to 1900”, “Zoos in the family: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Clan and the three Zoos of Paris”, “The Order of Nature: constructing the collections of Victorian Zoos”, “The Value of Old Photographs of Zoological Collection” and the intriguing “Ram Brahma Sanyal and the establishment of the Calcutta Zoological Gardens”, while others are quite boring, to tell the truth. A lot of the article I didn’t enjoy spoke of more modern zoological gardens: in Germany, Australia and America, so maybe that was why. Part of my dislike was also the academic tone of some articles which manage to make even the most interesting subject dry as bone. Frankly, this nearly put me off Zoo history.

No comments: