Brow Beat

Meet a Man Who Spent Nineteen Years Training Alligators to Sing

A 1902 lithograph depicting M. Pernelet sitting in water surrounded by crocodiles.
This time, with feeling! Adolph Friedländer

From the humble flea circus to the mighty King Kong, humans have a long and not particularly proud tradition of putting other species on display for our own edification and amusement. But for all the mathematical chickens and educated pigs that populate the history of carnivals, circuses, and sideshows, there’s one animal act that almost never appears: the singing alligator. This curious absence arose for a very good reason, which is that alligators cannot sing. But at the turn of the last century, one man dared to ask, “Can alligators sing?” The answer, as noted previously, was no. Nevertheless!

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An old photograph of a man standing in a concrete tub filled with alligators. The man is holding a baton, as if conducting.
Pernelet in 1902. The Royal Magazine
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By now, you’re probably wondering if there is a contemporary account of Pernelet’s act that is jam-packed with misinformation about alligators and crocodiles. You’re in luck: Here is an unbylined profile of alligator and crocodile singing-master M. Pernelet, which was originally published in the Philadelphia North American, as reprinted in the Salt Lake City Herald, Feb. 23, 1902.

The Singing Alligator

“Now, then, all sing!”

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At this command, uttered in a tone of incisive authority, there came from the yawning mouths of fourteen monster alligators and crocodiles such a chorus of discordant and blood-curdling roars as never before affronted the human ear.

Those who heard it from a secure distance shuddered and trembled, shuddered with horror, trembling with fear for the safety of the man who had started the uproar.

He was standing to his waist in water, in a great tank full of ferocious saurians, whose backs, lashing tails, enormous heads and immense mouths, lined with teeth of razor-like sharpness, made a spectacle to daunt even the bravest.

But the singing master seemed entirely unmoved. He familiarly tapped a ten-foot crocodile over the snout, pushed aside a big fellow who was trying to climb on him, and then, one by one, calling each reptile by name, he actually fed the entire fourteen from his hands.

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Then he climbed nonchalantly from the tank, removed his coat and long rubber boots and smilingly acknowledged the enthusiastic congratulations of his guests.

The man was M. Pernelet, the distinguished French naturalist and explorer. All Paris is marveling at his audacity, for he alone has accomplished the incredible feat of mastering and taming these terrible beasts.

M. Pernelet is not, as one might naturally think, a professional trainer, a pupil of Hagenback or Pezon. He is practically an amateur.

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An ardent sportsman, hunter, and trapper, he has several times circled the globe in his expeditions, and has turned his home at Ardennes into a veritable zoological garden.

From his collection he supplies museums and menageries with beasts, wild and domestic, and schools and lyceums with animal skeletons, skins, and other objects for the study of natural history.

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It was while seeking gorillas and chimpanzees that, having captured several small crocodiles, the naturalist conceived the idea, through scientific curiosity, of finding out to what extent it was possible to train and educate these animals.

This was in 1882. He gathered fourteen crocodiles and alligators from the everglades and swamps of Florida and Louisiana, the streams of the Amazon, the wilds of Senegal and the muddy marshes of old Nile.

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This collection represented a great outlay of money, and a considerable personal risk. Some of the huge lizards were caught by running nooses and hauled ashore by natives; others were captured in nets with tough and unbreakable meshes.

Eleven years of hard work was put in before M. Pernelet made the slightest impression on his pupils.

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“I felt inclined to despair,” he commented to a representative of the North American. “I began to believe that the ugly beasts were only made to eat, sleep, and kill, and could not be rendered amenable to human instruction.

“I had not only to contend with natural stupidity—the brain capacity of all reptiles is very small—but with the ferocity and sullen temper that made a crocodile tank a much more dangerous place than a cage full of lions.

“At last, however, Fathma, Negro, L’Enfant, and one or two others learned how to take food from my hands without biting me. Then I trained each to answer to his name, to roar at my command, and to perform a number of other tricks that at first I would have deemed impossible.

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“It is now nineteen years since I started, and in that time I have learned many interesting things about these feared and despised creatures. I have found them much better than their reputation.

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“To arrive at my results, two things were necessary. I had to love the beasts, and I had to make an exhaustive study of the intelligence and disposition of each. To know one was not to know all. They differed as widely in their characteristics as human beings do, and what one could be taught was often entirely beyond the comprehension and powers of another.

While referring in such flattering terms to his pets M. Pernelet did not mention, as he might well have done, that he carries on his body from head to feet the scars of wounds dealt him by their sharp teeth.

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Sometimes these bites have been the result of accident, sometimes of temper; many of the escapes have been very narrow. An infuriated crocodile caught M. Pernelet’s hand one day at feeding time and bit off two fingers before its hold could be broken.

And even for this offense Mr. Crocodile was not severely punished, for the trainer doesn’t believe in cruelty—a sharp rap on the snout is about the worst the most recalcitrant offender ever gets.

They take their punishment without the furious resentment that one might expect of creatures with their appearance and capacity for retaliation. Some of them sulk a little after a chastisement, but the wonderful thing is that all seem to realize just what it means. Indeed M. Pernelet has instilled into the minds of these strange pets a certain definite idea of right and wrong—a rudimentary code of ethics. Perhaps he has developed native saurian characteristics which made the crocodiles sacred to the ancient people of Egypt and which have fallen latent and unsuspected since the Ptolemies ceased to hold sway over the land of the Nile. Patience has certainly had its reward, and in this instance the outlay warranted an ample return, for so unpromising a task in the animal training field as was M. Pernelet’s probably never before confronted any man.

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In a wild state crocodiles and alligators do not eat at regular intervals. Sometimes they lie dormant for weeks at a stretch. M. Pernelet, however, does not follow this method in the care of his saurians: he feeds them every day with from ten to twenty pounds of horse meat: the amount is varied according to the seasons and the temperature.

It is worthy of remark that in rainy weather the reptiles are very restive and sulky. This weakness they share in common with another unruly beast—man.

Of all the animals, crocodiles are the longest lived; those of M. Pernelet range from 8 to 200 years old. The monster of his collection is Fathma, who measures ten feet seven inches in length and weighs 418 pounds.

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