Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
funky lil badger child
Or, a tour of what could apparently be a pet 200 years ago.
This newsletter is again a potpourri of sorts, because I’m trying very hard to get some serious writing done and my brain is not functioning on all cylinders, narrative-wise.
Even so, I’m excited about this one, because I get to talk about one of my very favorite topics in history…
Animals That Used to Be OK to Keep as Pets if You Were Rich and Eccentric!
We already touched on this once in passing (looking at you, attack bears), but the field of wacky historical pets is a vast one, and I’m going to walk you through just a handful of my favorites today.
Before I do, though, obligatory disclaimer: do not keep any of these animals as pets. Do not keep any wild animals as pets. For fuck’s sake. You all know better. Do not make me come over there.
OK then. First off…
Lord Byron’s Pet Bear
I’m a sucker for a good pet bear, as you know. So was the famous British Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who took it one step further and kept the bear as a pet in his dorm at Trinity College Cambridge in 1805. This, apparently, was his way of getting around the “no dogs in the dorms” rule.
If you don’t want Byron to do something, you’ve gotta be very, very specific.
Being Lord Byron’s RA must have been like being the parent of an incorrigible toddler. He falls squarely into that category of “fun to read about, absolute hell to have known in person.”
Next, there’s one that’s probably not real, but which I love with all my heart:
Tycho Brahe’s Drunk Moose
Guys, Tycho Brahe is a fucking loose cannon. Maybe you heard about him briefly in a science class once, as the discoverer of the supernova, or the guy who fought with Galileo, blah blah blah, science stuff. But there’s so much weirdness in this 16th-century Swedish astronomer’s backstory that I hereby solemnly swear to make him the subject of a future newsletter all on his own.
For now, though, we’re just going to focus on the fact that he allegedly had a tame moose. Who followed his carriage down the street as he traveled from place to place. But then that moose got drunk. (Somehow.) Fell down the stairs. And tragically perished.
Obligatory 72-point-font on the “allegedly” on this story, obviously. The internet doesn’t seem to have any fact-checkers calling this story out that I can find, but, like, the internet is notorious for forgetting how big moose are. Do you know how big a moose is? How big were Tycho’s stairs? I have follow-up questions.
Even so, you all know the motto of this newsletter by now: if you can believe in a drunken moose, by all means, do.
All righty, next on the list is:
Calvin Coolidge’s Pygmy Hippo
Did you know that almost every pygmy hippo in American zoos today is a direct descendent of Calvin Coolidge’s pet pygmy hippo Billy? To be fair, Billy lived in the National Zoo, not in the White House, for obvious reasons (firstly, he was a hippo). But apparently Coolidge went to visit Billy all the time, and Billy was well cared-for, which makes this one of the least fucked-up exotic historical pet scenarios in this newsletter.
Moving on to the most shocking part about this story, though: I didn’t know about Calvin Coolidge’s pygmy hippo until yesterday. I have surrounded myself with history nerds, some of whom I have explicitly told how much I love pygmy hippos, and none of you told me about this. It feels like a personal insult. Have I not made my brand clear.
Anyway, moving on…
Pope Leo X’s Elephant
What would this list be without a weird pet of a weird pope? I have a reputation to uphold here. In 1514, the Portuguese ambassador to Rome presented the pope with Hanno, a spectacular Asian elephant, and it was love at first sight. (On the pope’s part, anyway. No one recorded Hanno’s opinion.)
Pope Leo X lavished attention on his elephant buddy for two years, and he even had poetry commissioned about him. Unfortunately, the elephant died not long after. I won’t tell you the details, but Wikipedia’s version does include the phrase “gold-enriched laxative,” which is…not something I wanted to think about today.
Anyway, Hanno is still buried under the Vatican, which is a fun piece of trivia you can break out at Christmas to alarm your grandmother.
Next up, we have…
Teddy Roosevelt’s Family Badger
Now, yeah, if you were to ask “Which US president do you think had the weirdest pet?” I wouldn’t have guessed Coolidge. I’d have said Teddy Roosevelt, hands-down, no question. Teddy Roosevelt has the vibes of the Crocodile Hunter, except without any of the affability. Just pure chaos and khaki. So this isn’t like wildly surprising.
The reason I love this story, though, is that Teddy Roosevelt’s son Archie adopted Josiah the badger when he was nine. Which, like, sure is a parenting choice, Ted.
The website of the official Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace records this exchange:
“When it was suggested by [Teddy Roosevelt] that the badger might take advantage of [being held] to bite his face, Archie, seeing this as an ‘unworthy assault on the character of Josiah,’ replied: ‘He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces.’”
He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces.
Nine years old, and Archie Roosevelt was already a better dialogue writer than I will ever be. You go, you funky lil badger-child, you.
Rounding out our tour of Weird Pets of Yore, we’ll stick with the woodland creature theme and end with:
King Henry I’s Porcupine
By all accounts, King Henry I of England (1100-1135) had a pretty remarkable royal menagerie at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. The porcupine was apparently a main attraction, and it’s mentioned in several surviving records of his reign.
That’s…sort of all I know about the porcupine. No one has any fun stories about it, as far as I can find. It didn’t have a cute name or anything.
But LOOK AT HOW THEY DREW PORCUPINES BACK THEN.
It’s incredible. I saw this drawing and retconned this entire newsletter so I could include it. I’m going to order a print and have it framed in my living room. A+, five stars, no notes. Straight-up king shit, this porcupine.
I’m currently sitting on several exciting things I can’t tell you about yet, so for now I’ll simply leave you with the usual reminders:
A Tip for the Hangman is still available to purchase and/or review at your bookseller or review engine of choice! All the buy and review links are here for easy access.
And finally, the traditional call of newsletter and fanfic writers from time immemorial: like, comment, subscribe, share! Maybe tell me about a weird historical pet you love that I don’t know about yet!
Til next time, do not pick up a badger like that Roosevelt child who looked death in its fuzzy little face and laughed,