The Awesome History of Bizarre Animals (and other ancient oddities)

For some reason, nothing makes me happier than finding an anecdote about exotic animals. My friends and I in college used to try to outdo each other with obscure references that we’d drop in conversation. These two pursuits combined for what I can only describe as a ‘race to the bottom.’ I’ve got books and books tabbed up with funny animal anecdotes from throughout human history. And if you’ve ever spent anytime with me, you’ve probably heard me use one. But just because this is fun for me doesn’t mean it’s not important. Almost every single example I have intersects with power, politics and violence. So clearly there is something to be taken from the majestic and strange world of animals and their influence over us. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. When giraffes were first seen in Rome during Caesar’s triumphs, they was considered to be freakish, hybrid marvels. Puzzled citizens attempted to make sense of it, given their limited exposure to African beasts. Coming to the logical conclusion, they called it “camelopard” assuming that it was half of both. And just to prove that science is based on initial impressions just as much as religion, the scientific name is still Giraffa camelopardalis. By the way, the beast that Caesar imported half across the world – it was promptly fed to the lions just to see what would happen.

2. Dachshunds were bred to kill badgers. Their name translates, literally, as “badger – hound” in German. Gameness, the scale used to measure the fight in dogs, is off the charts in dachshunds. They dive ferociously into specially-made badger boxes attacking until they’re pulled out and then diving back in with equal fever. And that is why if you leave your belly exposed, they’ll try to dig a hole in it.

3. In addition to having a wonderful and beloved white elephant named Hanno, Pope Leo the X also had a pet cheetah who was trained to hunt AND RIDE HORSES. Given to him by the King of Portugal, the cat was as docile and as well trained as a common hunting dog – in fact, it rode into Rome on top a steed alongside the procession of princes and noblemen. And as incredible as this sounds, it wasn’t especially uncommon. King Rudolf II had one too.

4. You’ve probably heard of cock-fighting, but have you heard of cock-throwing? In Medieval Europe, crowds would often gather for the simple pleasure of pelting a rooster with sticks. Often, the bird’s bodies would give out long before life expired (which I’m sure could not come soon or sweetly enough) so they were propped up or tied to a pole to make the sport even easier. Economist Gregory Clark has an explanation for why such wanton violence seems laughably foreign to us. These games were commonly played by the lower working classes, who happened to be massively out-reproduced by the wealthy in Europe from the 13th to the 19th centuries as society was stuck in what is called a Malthusian Trap. And so their violent tendencies were basically bred out of practice. But just to blow your mind though, “Utopia” author Thomas More – the man too pious to recognize Henry VII’s divorce and marriage to Ann Boleyn – was a renowned cock thrower.

5. The offspring of great men often rival their father’s virtues with vice. Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, is one of the worst examples. While Marcus was quiet and withdrawn, Commodus craved attention and pomp. He would fill the Colosseum with excited crowds and parade for them the wonders of the Roman Empire. On the dusty floors of the amphitheater, they’d see lions, panthers, an elephant – things that had never been seen outside of paintings. And then to their horror, he would systematically slaughter all of them, one after another. A rhinoceros, gazelle, tigers – he once killed 100 lions in a single day. The Roman citizens soon realized they weren’t there to witness normal games, but the the personal holocaust of Commodus . They knew this when he decapitated a running ostrich with a specially designed dart. He killed a giraffe with his own hands- an animal that Gibbon for some reason dubbed “the most useless” of large mammals. The crowds gawked in horror and disgust, agape that it was even possible to be so cruel. Growing addicted to the rush and oblivious to the disapproval, he fought gladiators, personally, in the arena. And finally, he in turn was killed by one. An elephant didn’t grace Rome again for over a thousand years.

6. Theodore Roosevelt probably killed as many animals as Commodus, although under slightly different pretenses. An avid hunter and botanist, he actually dreamed of becoming a taxidermist as a child and grew out of it only when he learned they were all poor. After leaving the at the end of his second term, he safaried for months in Africa, killing some 3,000 different animals. Before politics, he’d headed West on multiple trips aimed at taking a Grizzly or buffalo. In Dakota, his diary states that he killed 119 animals in less than 30 days, including a grizzly bear “right through the brain” and a jack rabbit “cut nearly in two.” Somehow he managed to pry himself from the massacre to write 28 books during his lifetime, the first of which was published before he was 18 and became the definitive textbook on American bird life.

7. In the mid-1500’s an Englishman created a breed of dogs to do household work. Nothing worthwhile really, like helping the disabled or protecting the sleeping residents – instead they turned meat on a stick. Long and slender, these “turnspit dogs” ran like hamsters in a wheel. The wheel powered a rotisserie loaded with slow-roasting meat and slowly spun it over an open flame. These rather disturbing dogs are now extinct, but their influence is not. Almost all dogs were bred for a specific purpose and the ones that didn’t do it well were disposed of. To think that this intense, genetic focus will disappear because you gave it a toy or don’t put it to work is asking for trouble.

8. Although we don’t often think of it, the Americas were once home to all sorts of awesome mammals. Things like giant capybaras, giant sloths, huge armadillos, and “anteaters the size of horses” were all here as recent at 10,000 years ago. And because they’re never seen humans before, they were comically stupid and naive. In Australia, one early explorer tells of walking off the boat and literally beating large birds to death with a stick. They never even tried to fly away.

9. One of Europe’s greatest historical disappearances – which like a ghost appeared in Vatican art and was never seen again – is of all things, a stuffed Rhinoceros. Sent as a gift to the Pope on board a great ship, its journey was ravaged by horrible storms. The ship struck rocks off the coast of Italy and was quickly shredded and sunk. As the crew swam to safety, the rhinoceros drowned, fighting at his chains the entire way down. When it later washed to shore, the captain had it stuffed with straw and sent to the Pope anyway. It arrived just as Leo learned of his brother’s brutal stabbing in a church service in Florence. For the most part, the rhino was ignored aside from obscure cameos in papal art. For instance, the rhinoceros is seen grazing behind Joesph, Jesus’ father in a Granacci painting. From there, no one really knows what happened to this enormous beast – it could have been as big as 13 feet long – except for that it is not in Rome. The Lisbon rhino was likely transferred to the collection of Duke Francesco but no one is sure. And yet, it continued to haunt museum inventories for almost 500 more years, making an appearance in a footnote in the Smithsonian’s annual report in 1982.


1. The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya

2. Wikipedia: Badger Baiting; Gameness; Dachshunds

3. The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio Bedini

4. Wikipedia: Cock throwing; A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark

5. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

6. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris; some American History textbook I read in high school.

7. Cesar’s Way by Cesar Milan; Wikipedia: Turnspit dog

8. The Origins of Virtue by Mattt Ridley

9. The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio Bedini, April Blood by Lauro Martines

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