The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power by Marina Belozerskaya, Little, Brown, $24.99
The airport in Madrid sells little plush bulls as souvenirs, which may be as close as many tourists ever come to real bulls in the ring. Marina Belozerskaya’s The Medici Giraffe follows essentially the same trajectory: from the beast fights in ancient Roman arenas (the direct forerunner of Spanish bullfighting) to the present-day obsession with pandas as what she calls “little people in furry suits”; from full human participation in nature, “red in tooth and claw,” to the phenomenon that one writer for The New York Times recently called “nature deprivation.” The picture painted by this fascinating, compulsively readable book is not a pretty one. By the time she writes “Giant pandas are wild and dangerous animals,” she has shown in abundant detail that the wildest and most dangerous animal in the jungle is the primate that styles itself, with precious little justification, Homo sapiens.
It is hard to choose what is more chilling: the clever choreographies by which ancient Romans killed off whole North African ecosystems in the Colosseum; the Aztecs’ blood-soaked pyramids, on whose vertiginous stairs men and beasts were sacrificed to the ravenous Left-Handed Hummingbird Huitzilopochtli; or Hernán Cortés conquering the Aztecs. As often as not, the exotic animals of Belozerskaya’s story are human: the title of one chapter minces no words: “Human Animals in the New World and the Old.”
Fortunately, this story of our historical interaction with exotic beasts is not unrelentingly dark, although it is dark enough. Running with the wild beasts has long been taken as proof of nobility. Napoleon’s Josephine consoled herself with black swans long after “the Emperor” had left. Europe, no less than India and Persia, was richly populated with lions and tigers and bears. King Rudolph II of Bohemia kept in his castle in Prague a pet lion, which padded around among the terrified courtiers and curled up next to His Majesty like an extra-large housecat. The Medici giraffe of the title was a pet of Lorenzo de’ Medici, one more proof of the charisma and political acumen that turned the son of a Florentine banking dynasty into “Il Magnifico.” Lorenzo’s son, elected pope in 1513, took the name Leo X and stocked the Vatican with lions, leopards, and for a year and a half, a white elephant named Hanno, this last a diplomatic gift from King Manuel of Portugal. (Ganda the rhinoceros, also shipped by Manuel to the pope, was shipwrecked just off the Italian coast and drowned. Leo had to make do with the stuffed carcass, which was still stored in the Vatican Museums into the 19th century.) William Randolph Hearst, in more recent times, stocked San Simeon with marvelous acquisitions, which included works of art, his mistress Marion Davies, and a menagerie dominated by a resilient tapir named Squeaky.
Ironically, of course, as we have come to understand both exotic and domestic animals better, we have been resolutely destroying their habitats. Most wild animals do not thrive in any kind of captivity, least of all the cages that have been the characteristic feature of most zoos from ancient Rome to the Hearst castle. (The resulting vulnerability to depression and disease applied equally to the human animals brought from the New World for display in European courts; many died within a month or so.) In a revealing epilogue, Belozerskaya uses the case of the giant panda—a fierce, wild creature despite its cuddly shape and attractive markings—to show how our own culture has responded to its exotic animals (neurotically, of course). “Dear Hsing Hsing,” Chris from Washington, D.C., wrote in 1999 to the ancient panda in the National Zoo, who was by then clearly dying, “You will never know how much I love you. Even though you are a wild animal and never would be able to return my affections physically.”
And yet Chris from Washington understood, more acutely than most, that the death of an ancient panda in a zoo is the death of much more than one creature to whom we can give a name. Belozerskaya shows with her pointedly chosen examples that our ancient relationship to our environment has changed just as we come to grasp how complex and sensitive our surroundings really are, and with that change, something in us is dying. All over the planet, unnamed pandas struggle to find the bamboo shoots that have fallen to cultivation, polar bears swim desperately to find ice floes melted by global warming, tigers fall to poachers armed with guns, shoals of fish are scooped up in trawlers’ nets to feed the increased number of human mouths. For most of human history, nature has in fact returned our affections physically, in food, shelter, and, not least, the perception of beauty. When we faced our surroundings in a constant state of awe and alertness, the power of exotic animals over our imagination was the power of nature itself. In seeking to dominate nature, we continue to discover that nature remains as wild, potent, and unpredictable as ever; it is the same lesson the Roman Empire learned when the Visigoths came to town and put an end to the gory shows in the Colosseum.
As The Medici Giraffe shows in telling detail, the power of human institutions and human engineering has always worked against a background of powers greater still, embodied for us by creatures whose strangeness, perfection, and uncanny independence have always beggared our imagination. Belozerskaya concludes: “Perhaps we sense that our fates are inextricably intertwined—that without them there would be no us.” This excellent book provides a great deal to savor and to ponder, and makes it seem just about feasible to have a lion around the house.
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