In my last two posts, I wrote about Charles Dickens and his pet raven, Grip. Upon Grip’s death in 1841, Charles Dickens couldn’t bear to part with his beloved pet so he had him stuffed and mounted in a glass case to display in his study. Dickens was one of many Brits caught up in the pet preservation craze popularized by King George IV of England (1762-1830).
George IV is credited with establishing a private zoo at the Sandpit Gate at the Windsor Great Park at Windsor Castle. His menagerie consisted of such exotics as “wapiti, sambur, zebus, gnus, quaggas,…’corine’ antelopes, llamas, wild swine, emus, ostriches, parrots, and waterfowl. There was also an ‘enormous tortoise.’” (1) The showpiece of his collection, however, was a female Nubian giraffe, or “cameleopard,” as it was sometimes called. A diplomatic gift from Mehmit Ali, Pasha of Egypt, this young specimen arrived in London on August 11, 1827, along with several cows that provided her with milk. The gift giraffe was only 18 months old yet ten and a half feet in height. She was the first giraffe ever seen in England. Till she arrived, “there was a general belief that descriptions of the giraffe were partly fabulous.” (2)
From the beginning, there was trouble. An artist commissioned to paint the giraffe’s portrait noticed that her lower limbs seemed deformed from injuries. Investigation revealed that, on part of her journey from Senaar to Cairo, she was borne on the back of a camel, the wounds being caused because her legs were lashed together under the camel’s body. (1) At Windsor Castle, she was much doted on and continued to live on cow’s milk. After two years, though, she became very debilitated from those early wounds and exercise became painful and hard. Someone came up with a plan to keep her moving. A gigantic triangle on wheels was constructed in which “the creature was somehow secured each day and trundled round her paddock, the hooves just touching the ground.” (1)
Despite the kind treatment, giraffes are accustomed to the warm, open savannahs of Africa, not the cold and wet confines of a British zoo. Two years after her arrival on the continent, the giraffe died, having only grown 18 inches while in captivity. It is said that King George IV had been obsessed with his giraffe and was distraught over her death. He commissioned the taxidermist John Gould to stuff his recently deceased pet giraffe.
The stuffer to the Zoological Society, Mr. Gould, has had the performing of his duty…Soon after the giraffe expired, De Ville, the modellist, was ordered down to Windsor, by His Majesty, and took a cast of the animal. From this cast a wooden form was manufactured, on which the skin of the animal is now placed, and which preserves its beauty in an extraordinary degree.
The Times, April 15, 1830
Pet preservation is still alive and well in the twenty-first century – stuffed is out, though, and freeze-dried is in.
(1) Kisling, Vernon N. From Zoo and Aquarium History.
(2) Thomas, William John: White, William: Doran, John; Turle, Henry Frederick. Notes and Queries.