“Zebras, wild horses, a tame wolf, wild asses, emus, rheas, cassowaries, wild turkeys, a marabou stork, cranes, a dingo and pups, a capybara, pangolins, several species of deer, a flock of kiwis, a spiny anteater, giant tortoises, a monkey […] and a number of less exotic species…” (1)
Anyone reading this list might assume that it was some sort of animal index for a Zoological Gardens. However, it is in fact a list of live animals kept at one time or another on the estate at Tring Park by Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), a prolific nineteenth-century naturalist and collector of natural history.
It was not unusual for well-off people in Victorian society to possess ‘pets’ of a more exotic nature. Take for example Dante Gabriel Rossetti who had a menagerie including ‘Top’ the wombat, and naturalist Richard Bell whose collection boasted emus, tortoises and monkeys, and is the subject of Luke Kelly’s recent blog for this site. Rothschild can be counted amongst those who possessed this type of collection and alongside his extensive specimen collection, which was housed in his purpose built museum in Tring, Rothschild is renowned for having possessed some weird and wonderful live animals. The extent to which these can be regarded as pets however, is somewhat questionable! Just because it was a live animal specimen does not mean it can necessarily be classed as pet.
So then, how far did Rothschild’s collection of live animals resemble pets, or should they more accurately be remembered as live scientific specimens? Let’s consider some of the animals he acquired…
One of the earliest ‘pets’ Rothschild seems to have acquired was a dingo, which he details in a series of letters written in 1886 to Albert Günther, Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum. In one particular letter Rothschild described how he took the female dingo ‘out in Brighton by a chain’ and commented how ‘she is very troublesome but attracts universal attention’. He then goes on to describe the ancestry of the dingo and his plans to breed it:
‘I am afraid you received a false account of my Dingo it is ¾ bred – the ½ spaniel having put to a dingo again. My animal is now on heat so I shall put her to a dingo at the Zoo & I hope to be able to present you with a 7/8ths pure dingo pup before long. My animal is moderately tame but unreliable & very destructive & bites the horses in the stable. It cannot be distinguished from a pure Dingo except that it is rather smaller.’(2)
Rothschild appears to have succeeded in his plan and writes to Günther again in early February to inform him of the arrival of a litter of seven pups. Rothschild commented on how his dingo had since become ‘very fierce’, the new mum looking to protect her litter, while in a further letter Rothschild himself sounds like a proud parent, describing how:
‘…My dingo’s pups are the handsomest and most level lot of pups of any canine breed I ever saw, there are 7 of them 3 dogs and 4 bitches. I wish to dispose of 4 of them 2 dogs & 2 females can you find out if any of your friends will pay £7 each for any of them… ’.
It is interesting that Rothschild does not appear to have named the dingo, but the way he describes placing it on a chain and walking around town, together with orchestrating breeding to produce a ‘pure’ dingo is somewhat typical of a dog owner/breeder and by extension, is indicative of Rothschild viewing the dingo as a pet.
After the dingo, came the kiwis. In 1887 Rothschild had entered Magdalene College, Cambridge to study the natural science tripos and moved into his rooms accompanied by a flock of kiwis. They were a species which fascinated Rothschild owing to their peculiar appearance and quiet nature. Ruffling the feathers of the university administration the kiwis were subsequently removed and placed in the custody of F. Doggett, a Cambridge based taxidermist who looked after them for the duration of Rothschild’s studies. Sadly we know little else about what happened to them during this period, except that they were later relocated to Tring Park once Rothschild’s time at Cambridge came to an end. (3)
Having left Cambridge Rothschild began rapidly acquiring material for his museum in the form of natural history specimens, but he also expanded his live animal collection. This included a number of more exotic species, those which unlike the dingo and kiwis could not easily occupy the same domestic spaces as Rothschild and which push us beyond the realms of what could reasonably be classed as a pet! As Karl Jordan remembered:
‘Besides the aviary of his father, there were already Kangaroos of various kinds and Emus and Rheas in Tring Park, and now enclosures were built in a paddock for a small number of mammals and Cassowaries, the beginning of a zoological gardens.’ (4)
Overtime this grew to include a large number of tortoises, cassowaries and other ratite birds, as well as the infamous zebras, which Rothschild trained to pull a carriage about London and which he once drove up to the gates of Buckingham Palace. However, these were not pets and in reporting for the Windsor Magazine in 1895, Louis Wain remarked that the ‘only pet at Tring is a giant tortoise, who is known to be a centenarian twice over, weighting 300 pounds’. (5)
In fact, as Wain remarked, beyond Alfred Minall’s taxidermy workshop, there were a number of additional wired-in huts and cages in which further species of live animals were kept ‘exclusively for the study of their habits’(6); Wain having observed ‘two white cranes who dig and trench the whole of the turf over and over with unremitting industry, using both beak and claws to clear the ground’ (7).
A scientific tool…
This is important for it highlights how Rothschild was just not accumulating animals for his own pleasure or for companionship, but they were gathered in order to support his scientific research. Breaking in the zebras to pull a carriage and driving to Buckingham Palace for example, was not necessarily a piece of showmanship (for this contrasted greatly with Rothschild’s shy disposition) but was a publically conducted scientific experiment which demonstrated that contrary to popular belief, zebras were tameable.
Meanwhile, the huge sum of money Rothschild invested in bringing species of cassowary over to England from areas in and around Papua New Guinea and North-eastern Australia, was done to provide him with the material to prepare his monograph on the genus Casuarius. Having access to the live animals was an important part of Rothschild’s scientific work for it enabled him to observe the whole animal and its habits first hand, and not just the anatomical and taxonomic information that a specimen would provide.
It is also possible to find evidence that this same principle underlined his possession of some of his earlier animals too. In the case of the kiwis for instance, we find that in 1893 Rothschild published an article in the Bulletin of the B.O.C. titled Notes on the Genus Apteryx where he comments on observations he had made about species variation, making a point of the fact that he possessed ‘a large series of skins, and examples of no less than five species in a living state’, upon which he had based his conclusions (8).
Rothschild might therefore often be remembered for having an assortment of exotic pets, a menagerie or even a zoological gardens, but this isn’t a true reflection of his activities. The ambitious plan to keep live animals on the estate was short lived and those that remained served a purely scientific purpose. When thinking about Rothschild’s ‘pets’ it seems to me that that status can only legitimately be given to the dogs owned by Rothschild throughout his life, including his Pyrenean hound, Monné, who became his trusted companion in later life and throughout Rothschild’s final illness; for even the tortoises, once deemed by Wain to be the ‘only’ pets at Tring, later became the subject of scientific interest for Rothschild.
(1) Miriam Rothschild, Walter Rothschild: The Man, the Museum and the Menagerie (2008), p 102.
(2) A Günther Collection, Natural History Museum, London. Box 25.
(3) Rothschild, Walter Rothschild, p. 70 & 206.
(4) Karl Jordan, ‘In Memory of Lord Rothschild’. Novitates Zoologicae 41, no. 1 (1938): 1–16.
(5) Louis Wain, “The Hon. Walter Rothschild’s Pets: A Visit to the Tring Museum”, The Windsor Magazine (1895), p. 661-670.
(8) Walter Rothschild, “Notes of the Genus Apteryx” Bulletin of the British Ornithologist Club vol. X (1893), p lix. – lxii.