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.