- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

THE MEDICI GIRAFFE: AND OTHER TALES OF EXOTIC ANIMALS AND POWER

By Marina Belozerskaya

Little, Brown, $24.95, 414 pages

Tai Shan, the panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington, celebrated his first birthday on July 9. It was a bash befitting a Hollywood star. As thousands of fans decked out in green party hats watched his every move, the cub enjoyed his presents: a pool filled with ice water and a fruitsicle shaped like a cake.

In “The Medici Giraffe,” Marina Belozerskaya reminds us that the worship of exotic creatures like pandas is nothing new. In a series of entertaining vignettes, she reveals how animals such as the giraffe and dodo bird influenced the lives of seven significant political leaders and public figures — and changed history.

Books about the historical importance of subjects such as coffee and screwdrivers — which at first glance deserve only a historical footnote — have proliferated of late. Notably, Mark Kurlansky gave us new appreciation for the importance of salt and cod.

But it can be difficult to avoid this genre’s looming pitfall: overstating one’s case. (Whether the plumber truly “saved civilization,” as one recent book’s subtitle claims, is certainly debatable.)

Ms. Belozerskaya, who has taught at Harvard, Tufts and Boston universities, avoids that trap. Her research is impeccable and her anecdotes convincing. We’ll never look at pandas the same way again.

Ms. Belozerskaya begins her book with Ptolemy Philadelphos, who became the ruler of Egypt in 282 B.C., and ends with William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who died in 1951.

In ancient times, the author reveals, no exotic animal mattered more than the elephant. For centuries they were used as makeshift tanks in India and the Persian empire, capable of crushing enemy soldiers underfoot.

Ptolemy Philadelphos, caught up in a power struggle with a ruler named Antioches over the region of Coele-Syria, needed to enhance his military might. Elephants were the answer.

In fascinating detail, Ms. Belozerskaya describes how hunters captured and tamed wild elephants. The hunters first built a circular dirt wall around a ditch and constructed a bridge for access into the enclosure. Then they stocked the pen with tame female elephants. After wild bulls, enticed by the smell of the females, entered the enclosure, the hunters removed the bridge and left the captured animals to languish in the sun.

When the wild elephants were sufficiently tired, the hunters reinstalled the bridge and entered the enclosure aboard domesticated elephants. The hunters then ordered their mounts to attack the wild elephants, which eventually surrendered and allowed themselves to be trained.

As Ptolemy Philadelphos acquired elephants for war, he simultaneously “developed new trade centers and caravan routes, diplomatic links and territories, and wealth and learning.” As a result, writes Ms. Belozerskaya, the Egyptian capital of Alexandria became “the queen of the Mediterranean world.”

Exotic animals served not only as purveyors but also symbols of power. When Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence and member of the Medici family, wanted to enhance his standing in Italian politics, he set his sights on a giraffe. His inspiration? Caesar, the Roman emperor who brought the first giraffe to Europe (Romans called it a camelopard, because it resembled a cross between a camel and leopard).

Lorenzo acquired a giraffe from the sultan of Egypt and on Nov. 11, 1487, paraded it with other exotic animals through Florence: “What took the spectators’ breath away was a sixteen-foot-tall creature that looked at once bizarre and beautiful, muscular and dainty … its eyes were magical: dark brown, large and lustrous … The Florentines were dumbfounded and beguiled.”

Lorenzo’s political fortunes rose. His son was named a cardinal and eventually became Pope Leo X. After Lorenzo’s death, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici had the court painter Giorgio Vasari portray the leader’s greatest feats. Vasari painted Lorenzo’s son (the cardinal) and a giraffe beside Lorenzo himself.

In her last few chapters, Ms. Belozerskaya explores the roots of our fascination with exotic beasts. Rudolf II, the king of Hungary and Bohemia who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1576, used his Royal Garden to house an impressive array of pets. He was the first European to own a cassowary, a large flightless bird that lived in the forests of Australia and New Guinea. And he acquired a dodo bird before the species went extinct.

The emperor’s obsession with exotic pets, the author writes, was an antidote to his depression. “The more he sank into melancholy, the more he apparently hoped that being surrounded by his marvelous pets and his natural history collection would ease his mental anguish … Rudolph tried to create an alternate world where he could be well.”

The story of William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration behind Orson Wells’ film “Citizen Kane,” has similar themes. Hearst gathered antelopes, kangaroos, leopards, a tiger, a cheetah and chimpanzees at his castle in San Simeon, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When Winston Churchill visited, a stubborn giraffe refused to budge from the road and delayed his arrival by an hour.

“Hearst did care for his beasts, but in truth his zoo was less about the animals than about his own needs and dreams,” writes Ms. Belozerskaya. “Having begun to collect objects as a ten-year-old boy in search of security, he now gathered animals at San Simeon in part as a bulwark against disappointments and a means to make up for what he lacked.”

What he had lacked were parents who doted on him. As a student at Harvard, he kept a live alligator in his suite, foreshadowing his future obsession.

Ms. Belozerskaya’s writing is occasionally uninspired. She often digresses, delving too far into the lives of the figures she profiles. There are, however, some gems to be found in her many tangents, especially in the chapter on Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s first wife. She was obsessed with exotic creatures and filled her grounds with kangaroos, emus and king parrots from Australia. We learn this about her honeymoon with Napoleon:

“[It] lasted two days and was spent in her house. Bonaparte was getting ready for a campaign in Italy and passed most of the time poring over maps and plans. When he at last joined his wife in the bedroom, her pug Fortune bit his leg. And with that Bonaparte was off to war.”

Indeed, there is much here to savor. Ms. Belozerskaya concludes her book with an epilogue about the history of pandas. Ruth Harkness, a 35-year-old New York socialite, captured and brought the first live panda to the West in 1936. “Pandamonium” ensued.

In 1972, when First Lady Pat Nixon told Chairman Mao Zedong how much she liked pandas, he sent two of them to the National Zoo as symbols of the friendship between the United States and China. Politics by way of pandas.

“We have come a long way from treating wild beasts as war machines … and collecting them in the course of empire building,” writes Ms. Belozerskaya. “In our modern, prosperous, but emotionally needy society, we often make animals into our children or closest friends — we think of them as little people in furry suits.”

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