Everyone’s heard of Mike Tyson’s tiger, but have you heard of Josephine Baker’s cheetah? Since the dawn of time, historical figures have acquired exotic animals as pets. From lobsters and alligators to bears and eels, no creature was considered to be too rare. Read on to learn more about these historical figures who had insanely wild animals as pets.
Welcome to the jungle
As the president of the United States in the mid-1800s, Andrew Jackson was known as a man of few words. A hardened soldier, his tough exterior gave him an aura of mystique. When he died, funeral goers were surprised to find out that he had kept an exotic parrot as his pet. Not only that, but the bird Poll had a fondness for swearing. He had allegedly picked up on Jackson’s rough military dialect and cursed like a sailor for the entire procession.
Another president with a penchant for wild animals was President John Quincy Adams. In the year 1825, the French nobleman Marquis de Lafayette received a wild alligator during his tour of the United States. Oddly enough, he decided to gift the alligator to John Quincy Adams. Supposedly, Quincy Adams adored the alligator and kept him in a bathtub in the White Houses’ East Rooms. The whimsical president even loved to prank visiting guests with his wild animal!
Fans of Napoleon Bonaparte might be amazed to find out that the French dictator’s first wife Josephine Bonaparte was also a collector of exotic animals. Apparently, she was fond of keeping a female orangutan around the house for company. She even permitted it to dine at the table with her for mealtimes, feeding it turnips. The orangutan was dressed to impress in a lovely white slip and acted like a lady when guests were at the table.
Born to be wild
Celebrated English poet Lord Byron was also a fanatic for bizarre pets. His private zoo included a partially trained wolf, as well as a giant bear that he actually took with him to Cambridge University. His love of wild animals was not lost upon his contemporaries. When fellow poet Percy Shelley paid a visit to Byron in Venice, Italy, he penned: “Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of 10 horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon… I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.” Looks like someone heard the call of the wild!
One of the craziest instances of a historical figure with a crazy wild pet was the French poet Gérard de Nerval. His pet lobster Thibault was his pride of joy, and it even enjoyed the privilege of taking long walks with its owner. In fact, he literally put the sea crustacean on a blue silk leash for walks around the Parisian gardens. Since lobsters can live outside of water for several days, its time in the outdoors wasn’t an issue. Reportedly, de Nerval enjoyed the sea crawfish as a pet due to the fact that “lobsters are peaceful, serious creatures, who know the secrets of the sea and don’t bark.”
Even Roman aristocrats Quintus Hortensius and Lucius Licinius Crassus enjoyed maintaining their own exotic animals. Shockingly, they both kept moray eels as pets in their charming garden ponds. And when their aquatic pets inevitably passed on, they both wept for them. But Crassus took it one step further when he allegedly made his eel don a beautiful necklace and earrings “just like it was some lovely maiden.”
In 1514, Pope Leo X was presented with the proverbial “white elephant” gift. Except for this time, it was a real albino elephant. The great white behemoth named Hanno was given to Pope Leo X for his coronation by King Manuel I of Portugal through his connections in India. Before the albino elephant was given to the Pope, it was kept in the villa of an Italian cardinal. The public’s excitement to see the animal was so great that they even tried to break into the cardinal’s home just to catch a glimpse of it. Once the Pope received Hanno, it became his fave animal and he enjoyed marching it in Roman parades.
Unfortunately, Hanno did not adapt to his new environment very well. After three long years in the Roman climate, the white elephant became very sick. Even though the Pope had his best doctors try to save it, their archaic medicinal practices actually made the elephant even worse and led to its demise. Buried in the Cortile del Belvedere, the Pope commissioned the legendary artist Raphael to paint a fresco of Hanno. He even dedicated a poem to his beloved albino pet.
However, Josephine Baker’s cheetah “Chiquita” definitely took the cake for the most bizarre historical pet. As a prominent French musician in the 1930s, Baker had the privilege of using her lavish paychecks to purchase extremely wild animals. Although she already had a snake named Kiki, a chimpanzee named Ethel, and a pig named Albert, her most loved pet was her cheetah Chiquita.
Astonishingly, Baker even took Chiquita on stage with her during various performances in Paris. Donning a collar full of expensive diamonds, the cheetah would shine brightly next to the star. Things were going incredibly well until the mischievious cheetah decided to jump into the orchestra pit, horrifying the musicians. It was a concert that the audience was sure to remember forever!