Vivent Les Animaux

Comparing the animal panic of 18th-century Paris with Zanesville, Ohio.

Animal artists at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. From the magazine "L'Illustration", 7 August 1902.
Animal artists at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. From the magazine L’Illustration, 1902.

In 1790, the Conseil de Ville of Parisordered that wild animals held by private citizens be removed from public places for fear they would “devour the spectators.” Two days later, the police reported that the order had been carried out, and the offending animals had been removed. This week, the escape of 56 wild animals in Zanesville, Ohio, raised the same concerns on the part of local authorities. Once again, the police intervened in the name of public safety, and the government took action to forbid citizens from owning certain kinds of wild animals. The major difference was that in revolutionary France, the animals’ lives were spared; in Ohio, 49 of the escapees were killed.

The wild animals in Paris were no less ferocious than those in Zanesville, but they were less numerous. Among those taken to the Jardin des Plantes, where they became the core of what would become the first public zoo, were three polar bears, two panthers, three macaque monkeys, a lion, a civet cat, and several quadrupeds now extinct, including the couagga, a creature that resembled a zebra in front and a horse in back. The Zanesville menagerie included one wolf, one baboon, two grizzly bears, three mountain lions, six black bears, 17 lions, and 18 Bengal tigers, all killed in one evening. This last species is classified as endangered, and thus the tigers’ deaths are especially lamented.

Why were the authorities of 18th-century France, with far fewer tools and implements at their disposal for the control of animals, less inclined than today’s Ohioans to kill on sight? First, the obvious: The animals were transferred from one place of captivity to another, so they were never running amok. But there may be more to the story. A few years before the revolution, the rhinoceros at the ménagerie at Versailles killed two men on separate occasions, and the duc de Noailles  reported that the animal was likely to “bust out” again. There was no call to destroy the rhino. It merely increased the effort to try to contain him more effectively. At the time, pet-keeping was a privilege of the aristocracy that had begun being emulated by the bourgeois. Conventional pets were typically small songbirds such as canaries, whereas cats were largely despised. Exotic animals, including elephants and lions, were kept either in private menageries as symbols of political authority (as was the “very hostile” rhino), or by gypsies, who showed them in public for money. It wasn’t uncommon to see large carnivores, dancing bears, and performing monkeys on Parisian streets; these animals, though still considered “wild” in nature, had been domesticated in the imagination. Moreover, wrote novelist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre in 1792, in the few instances in which such animals had broken free of their owners—not in France, to be sure, but in England—no human injuries had ever resulted. “A ferocious beast in the streets of a city is as astonished to see people as people are to see a ferocious beast,” he claimed, and the frightened beasts were always recaptured easily.

To shoot and kill large, wild carnivores running loose in a small town after dark strikes no one today as being unreasonable. Yet that fatal option suggested itself only once to the revolutionaries, about the same time that they voted to chop off the head of the worst wild beast of them all, the king. At that point, some began calling for the heads of the actual wild animals in the city, since they, too, were likely to devour the helpless people of France. They changed their minds rather quickly, though, on account of a dramatic shift in the political climate after the death of Louis XVI. Soon thereafter, the Committee on Public Safety made the unprecedented decision to create a ménagerie in Paris, where, in the name of public instruction, exotic animals were displayed to a delighted public. These included the animals that had been confiscated by the police four years earlier, as well as a lion, a domestic dog, a golden pheasant, and everything else that remained of the ménagerie at Versailles. (The angry rhinoceros had died of its own accord a few days after the king.) 

The wild animals in Zanesville must have seemed much wilder by comparison. The circumstances were themselves extraordinary. A man named Terry Thompson liked to collect things—guns, guitars, and wild animals. Struggling with heavy debts, he covered himself with chicken parts, set the animals free, and killed himself. Evidently, he was hoping that the animals would eat him. He did not get his last wish, because authorities interceded. The police in Zanesville blame the law for the animal carnage, because it was the law that made it possible for Thompson to collect so many exotic animals in the first place. But there’s a difference between what’s exotic and what’s dangerous. There are manifold wild creatures in our cities and towns, such as mice, crows, and feral cats—and they don’t bother most people because they belong there. They are integral parts of a cultural ecology, and so they aren’t feared,

What about the monkey, though? It was believed to be infected with herpes B, and the police have stopped looking for it. The local sheriff says it might have been eaten by one of the other animals. But this monkey virus could be far more dangerous to humans than any of the lions or bears that were destroyed. It’s the epizootic transmission of disease from animals to humans (such as swine flu, bird flu, and HIV) that can kill people in huge numbers. Animals we tend to consider thoroughly benign—such as the cat, the mouse, and the deer—can infect us with toxoplasmosis, hantavirus, and Lyme disease. Yet nobody seems too worried about this missing monkey, because it may have already been eaten (as a surrogate for the humans that were not). Instead, we are told, six animals survived: three leopards, two monkeys, and a grizzly bear. They are now living happily at the Columbus Zoo.