One of the three story strands in Captivity is set in the old menagerie in the Tower of London — where young Clara Gill, a zoological artist, meets the beast keeper Will Cross — on the eve of the zoo’s demise.
Like many royal menageries, the one in the Tower began as a private collection, a display of power and wealth. It evolved over 600 years and at various times displayed a rhinoceros, a giraffe, zebras, kangaroos, llamas, ostriches, alligators, and a hardy spaniel that one of the Tower lions adopted as a pet. During the realm of Henry III, a polar bear swam from a leash each day, fishing for its supper in the Thames.
By the eighteenth century, the menagerie was open to the public. To get in, you paid three half-pence, or you parted with a dog or a cat (i.e., lion food).
John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist Church, once brought a flutist in to play for the lions. Do animals respond to music, he wondered; do they have souls? William Blake also visited the Tower menagerie to paint one of two resident tigers, which may have inspired his poem, “Tyger, Tyger.”
In England, animals had been displayed at carnivals and fairs since medieval times. Exhibits were often pits or boxes with metal bars, and by the nineteenth century — an age of imperial conquest when nature and the wild, like faraway nations, were there to be subdued —conditions had hardly improved.
After a beloved Indian elephant named Chunee was brutally killed during a bout of musth in London’s crowded Exeter Change menagerie, news stories, poems, plays, and engravings about the giant’s grim death (and life) finally got a newly scientific public talking about animal welfare.
By 1835, the year Clara and Will meet in the menagerie, the animals of the Tower were already being relocated to the new Zoological Society of London’s scientifically enlightened enterprise in Regent’s Park.
Deborah Noyes, author of Captivity, writes for adults and children, and is also an editor and photographer. She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has taught writing and literature at Emerson College and Western New England College, and was a Visiting Writer in Lesley University’s MFA in Writing for Young People program. To Read more about the author and the book, please click here.
IMAGE: The Menagerie at the Tower of London, circa 1820.
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