Strange Pets in History. Support Animals gone too far?
We have all seen the stories of bizarre so-called “support animals” brought (or attempted to be brought) onto airplanes or into public places such as restaurants. A rapid Google search yields dozens of reports and photos of reptiles including snakes, potbellied pigs, assorted birds (ducks and turkeys seem popular), miniature horses, kangaroos, various rodents, monkeys, and others that owners classify as an essential-to-life companion. No offense intended as I love all animals (yes, even reptiles and rodents, many species of which I have owned over the years). I do believe animals of all kinds can bring us great joy and entertainment. That said, I confess to not comprehending how a cold-blooded snake, as awesome as they are, can be so necessary to one’s emotional stability as to not be parted from for a few days!
Leaving the what-is-a-support-animal debate aside, the inclusion of unusual animals as a devoted pet does seem to be a modern phenomenon.
Or is it?
Dogs have been domesticated for millennia, of course. Dogs in the past were mostly utilized as working animals rather than pets. Depending upon the situation, the master-dog bond varied in intensity and it was rare for larger, working dogs to be brought into the house as a companion. Smaller dogs could also be put to work, most notably terriers and spaniels as retrievers when hunting. These working small dogs were kept with the other working dogs in the kennels maintained by the estate gamekeepers.
Some smaller breed canines, even if useful in some capacity, do have a long history of being chosen as strict in-house pets for pleasure and comfort. As a proud mom to my two miniature poodles, I can fully relate to how these furry canines burrow into your heart and soul. While my sweet Olivia and Audrey are not registered support animals, they have dramatically improved our lives. For us, that is purpose enough, although if either of them sniffed out truffles in our Kentucky backyard (as poodles were originally bred for), that would be quite cool!
To answer the question I posed in the title, I did a bit of digging and found that today’s generation is not unique in picking odd animals as pet companions. Sorry to burst any bubbles for those who like to be trend setters, but here are a few names from history with their unusual pets.
GEORGE GORDON BYRON, known famously as the romantic poet Lord Byron, was a deep lover of animals. Over his lifetime he kept a countless number of dogs and cats, as well as a variety of exotic animals, including a monkey, a crocodile, a fox, peacocks, and a number of badgers.
His favorite pet was a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. When Boatswain got sick from rabies, Byron personally nursed him back to health without any fear of becoming infected himself. Byron loved Boatswain so much that when he prepared for his years at Trinity College, Cambridge (from 1805 to 1808) he wanted to bring his companion along. Unfortunately, according to the college rules, dogs were not allowed on the grounds. Angry with the rules and out of sheer rebellion, Byron acquired a tame bear since the statues only mentioned dogs as forbidden. An argument ensued, but without concrete rules to back them up, Trinity College authorities had no legal right to expel the bear or Byron. It is unknown where Byron got the bear, and its name is not recorded, but the bear went with him everywhere, walked as a dog with a collar and chain. When Byron left Cambridge in 1808, the bear retired to his estate in London where it roamed free with several other exotic animals, including a wolf!
“I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.” ~Lord Byron to Elizabeth Pigot in a letter dated October 26, 1807
EMPRESS JOSEPHINE, wife of Napoleon I of France, was also a collector of exotic animals. Amongst her menagerie kept at Versailles were black swans, emus, and kangaroos.
Josephine’s favorite was an orangutan she named Marie-Rose (the Empress’ name before she married Napoleon). Affectionately called Rose, the orangutan shared a special relationship with the Empress. Josephine dressed Rose in white frilly dresses, and taught her to use a knife and fork so she could sit at the dinner table as a guest. It is said that Rose had excellent table manners and a particular fondness for turnips. There were also rumors of Rose sleeping in bed with Josephine and Napoleon! Sadly, while pampered and loved, Rose did not adapt well to the climate of France and indulgent lifestyle. Within a year of residence in the Bonaparte household, Rose died.
Josephine mourned the death of her companion, but desiring to aid in the understanding of the species, she donated Rose’s body to French scientist Georges-Frederic Cuvier. He published Description of an Orangutan and Observation of Its Intellectual Faculties based upon his examination of little Rose’s body. Unfortunately, there were never any portraits of Rose commissioned.
Rulers were frequently gifted exotic and priceless items, including animals. GEORGE III of England, known for his eccentricities, was no exception. In 1764, Sir George Pigot, the outgoing Governor of Madras in India, returned to the United Kingdom with a collection of “wild beasts and curiosities.” Tragically, most of the animals perished during the eight-month sea voyage, but a gorgeous mature female cheetah survived and was presented to King George. The cheetah was named Miss Jenny and while not a “pet” in the typical definition of the word, as the first of her species seen in the UK, she was very special.
George III’s uncle, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (a victor of the Battle of Culloden and known as “Butcher Cumberland”) was especially fascinated by Miss Jenny and the tales of cheetah’s used as hunting animals by Mogul Emperors for hundreds of years. The king gave the cheetah to the duke, who arranged a demonstration of the animal’s prowess at Windsor Great Park. A stag was placed within the royal paddock while the cheetah was “hoodwinked” with a scarlet blindfold, similar to how falcon’s are hooded. When ready, the two Indian servants holding Miss Jenny released the blindfold. The story is related fully at this link: Cheetah and the Stag but in summation, the stag proved stronger than the cheetah, however, a nearby herd of deer were not so fortunate!
George Stubbs, the famed Georgian Era painter of animals, was commissioned by Pigot for £120 to immortalize Miss Jenny and her encounter with the stag. The painting (see below) was completed in 1765, and while not precisely correct (for instance, the stag was not literally standing a few feet away) Stubb’s detailed precision captured the fine figure of the “she-tyger” and her two Indian handlers, one of whom is known to be an Indian Lascar named John Morgan. In fact, the painting is praised for “rendering without a trace of superstition or European condescension” the two Indian servants.
“They are perhaps the finest rendering of Indians in British painting and reflect the deep sincerity of Stubbs’ own nature free from all preconceived… notions of the Indian character.” ~Mildred Archer, 18th Century English Art Historian
The three above are the most famous exotic pet stories from the Georgian/Regency Era, but there are many others from history. Honorable mentions–
- The alligator pet of the French Marquis de Lafayette, who ended up a joint pet of American President John Quincy Adams, living for a time at the White House.
- French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster named Thibault, who wasn’t confined to an aquarium but was walked around the public gardens of Paris on the end of a blue silken leash.
- It is believed that Romans were the first to domesticate dogs as household pets, but the ancient rulers were also very fond of moray eels. Consul Licinius Muraena (who got his name from the fish he reared) is said to have kept around 6000 of them in special pools on his property. Quintus Hortensius and Lucius Licinius Crassus were said to have wept upon the deaths of their fishy friends, with Crassus having apparently adorned his favorite eel with a necklace and earrings “just like it was some lovely maiden”.
- US President Andrew Jackson, a rather colorful character, had a gray-colored pet parrot named Polly who had a notoriously foul personality. Those up on their history can easily deduce from whom she learned her vocabulary of sailor-worthy swear words, many of which she loudly let loose at her master’s funeral.
Amongst the English royals of the past, the list of unusual pets is long. Here are a few of several known examples–
- Elizabeth I had a pet guinea pig
- King Henry III (1251) had a pet polar bear gifted to him by the King of Norway
- King Henry VIII owned a marmoset
- Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, had a beloved pet monkey that was painted with her in several portraits (see one below)
- Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s seventh and final wife, kept several parrots