We 21st-century types are dedicated pet-lovers – the UK pet industry alone is worth an estimated £4bn – but we shouldn’t think this is a recent obsession. The bond between human and animal has often been a close one, and some of history’s most famous people were keen pet-owners. Greg Jenner writes.
This article was first published in February 2014
1. President Andrew Jackson and his foul-mouthed parrot
President Andrew Jackson (in office 1829–37) was a hard-edged war hero, renowned for fighting lethal duels and once even incapacitating his would-be assassin by battering him with a walking stick. But by the time he died in 1845, Jackson had become a quiet and deeply religious man, which is why mourners at his funeral were so surprised when his pet grey parrot, Poll, began blurting out offensive swearwords. Clearly, the bird had picked up some of Jackson’s saltier language in the ex-soldier’s heyday, and had chosen the worst possible moment to showcase it.
2. John Quincy Adams’s pet alligator
The Marquis de Lafayette wasn’t just buddies with George Washington. In 1825, after a mammoth tour of the States, he arrived at the White House clutching a variety of gifts bestowed upon him by a grateful nation. The oddest of these was a live alligator, which the aristocratic Frenchman immediately re-gifted to the current president, John Quincy Adams. We’re not sure quite how Mrs Quincy Adams reacted to this news, but the president apparently took great delight in keeping the alligator in the East Room bathtub, where he used it to prank terrified guests.
3. George Washington and his dogs
Like many an 18th-century gentleman, George Washington was a devoted dog-lover, and kept many hunting hounds at his Mount Vernon estate, including spaniels, sheepdogs, terriers, Newfoundlands and spotted dalmations. His affection for his pet pooches can be seen in the charming names he gave them – Sweet Lips, Truelove, Tipsy, Drunkard and Madame Moose. But he wasn’t just some old fool with a heart of gold, he was also fascinated by animal husbandry. When the Marquis de Lafayette – the French hero of the American War of Independence – sent him some French foxhounds, Washington quickly realised he could breed them with English foxhounds to produce an American variety: “a superior dog, one that had speed, sense and brains.”
4. The Maharaja of Junagadh and his dogs
India’s Maharaja of Junagadh, the Nawab Sir Mahabet Khan Rasul Khan, owned 800 pet dogs – each lavished with its own room, private telephone and butler – and he frequently dressed them in evening jackets and had them driven around in rickshaws. But in 1922 he surpassed even himself in doggy ostentation by organising the wedding of one of his hounds to a golden retriever called Bobby. The ceremony cost £22,000 (about £1m today), and the invited guests included some of India’s most powerful royals and politicians, as well as his numerous other pets, and an elephant for good measure.
5. Queen Victoria and Looty
Queen Victoria was a devoted animal-lover whose royal patronage added the R to SPCA in 1840. She owned many dogs, but the most notorious was probably Looty, a Pekingese gifted to her by Captain Hart Dunne of the 99th Regiment during the Second Opium War. Pekinese were the sacred dogs of the Chinese imperial court – an ancient breed with a 2,000-year heritage, and indeed Looty had been plucked from the Summer Palace in Beijing after British and French forces stormed the complex in 1860, as revenge for the deaths of some diplomats. The court had been evacuated, but the emperor’s elderly aunt had chosen suicide. She left behind five mournful dogs, of which Victoria received one – much to her delight.
6. Anne Boleyn and her lapdog
As Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn was given a little lapdog by Lady Lisle, wife to the Governor of Calais, which she named Purkoy (medieval French for ‘Why?’) on account of its quizzical expression. Sadly, it died falling from a great height, and everyone was so scared to upset the queen that it was King Henry who had to break the bad news.
Some 150 years later, King Charles II had to contend with a different problem. His famous spaniels weren’t dying, they were being kidnapped, forcing the annoyed king to post grumpy adverts in newspapers demanding the return of his pet pooches.
7. Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Boye
During the Civil War, the royalist commander, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, owned a much-beloved white hunting poodle called Boye, who was trained to cock his leg and urinate on cue whenever the name of the enemy commander, Pym, was spoken. Boye’s reputation was widespread, not just due to his Pavlovian piddling powers, but because Puritan propagandists claimed he was Satan in disguise, and therefore immune to bullets! Sadly, Boye definitely wasn’t the latter – he was killed at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644.
Pet-loving poets and politicians
8. Lord Byron and his entourage
The famed poet and aristocrat surrounded himself with a variety of animals, including a half-tamed wolf called Lyon and a fully-grown bear that he brought with him to Cambridge University. His most beloved pet was a dog called Boatswain, a black and white Newfoundland he memorialised in marble when it died of rabies. He clearly believed in keeping extensive animal company – when Percy Shelley visited his friend in Venice, he wrote: “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.”
9. Lucius Licinius Crassus and his eel
Strangely, Roman aristocrats didn’t just enjoy their cats and dogs, they also seemed to have kept pet moray eels in garden ponds. Both Quintus Hortensius and Lucius Licinius Crassus were said to have wept upon the deaths of their fishy friends, with Crassus having apparently adorned his favourite eel with a necklace and earrings “just like it was some lovely maiden”.
10. Gérard de Nerval and his lobster
The French Romantic poet, Gérard de Nerval, had a pet lobster called Thibault, who wasn’t just confined to an aquarium, but was walked around the public gardens of Paris on the end of a blue silken leash. Lobsters can survive out of water for a few days, so this regular airing was no problem. For the eccentric poet the crustacean was the perfect pet, because “lobsters are peaceful, serious creatures, who know the secrets of the sea and don’t bark”.