Pandas and politics

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.”

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