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Royal Moments: When a Polar Bear lived at the Tower of London

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The UK is famous for being a nation of pet lovers, which usually means owning a dog, a cat or – if you’re very lucky – a horse. Some of us may even know an animal enthusiast who has taken things to the next level by getting themselves a veritable pack of dogs, or accumulating a clowder of cats.

Few – if any – however, will be able to match the British Monarchy for the sheer volume and variety of animals that were kept in the Tower of London’s Royal Menagerie over the course of approximately 600 years, from the early 13th century until 1835.

The menagerie had comparatively humble beginnings, when King John is believed to have first kept lions at the Tower in around 1210 – most likely as a nod to the lions pictured on the Plantagenet coat of arms. It’s rare that owning a pride of lions could be described as ‘humble’, but this small collection would pale in comparison to what the Royal Menagerie would soon become.

The animals took a turn for the exotic under the reign of King John’s son, Henry III, fuelled by the practice of medieval dignitaries attempting to impress each other with the most extravagant gifts imaginable. In 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II presented Henry with three ‘leopards’, later established to have probably been more lions. The king was nevertheless taken with them, to the point that he decided to start a zoo at the Tower.

A polar bear joined the collection in 1252, courtesy of King Haakon IV of Norway, and Henry decreed that it be taken down to the River Thames every morning to swim and catch fish. In 1255, the King of France dispatched an African elephant to the Tower, this spectacularly unusual animal drawing crowds from all over London to gawk at.

The downside to medieval zookeeping was the Tower’s distinct lack of understanding of the conditions needed for animals from so far afield to survive, and a disregard for what today would be considered animal cruelty. Many of the animals were chained and muzzled for the safety of the Tower’s human occupants, kept in cramped enclosures and fed inappropriate diets. Two years after its arrival, the African elephant was dead. A Sumatran monkey’s inability to adapt to the cold London climate proved fatal too.

The collection continued to grow under subsequent monarchs, however. Edward I built a new permanent home for the Royal Menagerie in an area that became known as the Lion Tower; even this may have been a display of status, as it meant visitors arriving by the western entrance would have had to cross a drawbridge that took them over a truly foreboding assemblage of creatures. Around 300 years later, James I would refurbish the lions’ den, so visitors could more clearly see them skulking in their circular enclosures.

By 1622, the Royal Menagerie had expanded to include a tiger, a jackal, two pumas and three eagles – as well as several more lions and leopards. An early edition of Feltham’s Picture of London guidebook published in 1809 featured a fairly comprehensive list of the Menagerie’s inhabitants – along with their surprisingly unimposing names. There was Miss Fanny, a notoriously aggressive lioness; Master Bobby, a leopard from the East Indies; an Algerian panther named Traveller. The Ant Bear (an anteater, presumably) was given no name, but described as “a curious animal, and… extremely gentle.”

A significant portion of the Menagerie’s inhabitants tended more towards the ferocity of Miss Fanny than the peaceable nature of the Ant Bear, however – and it was not uncommon for visitors to find that the true cost of entry could be significantly higher than the shilling they had paid to get in; there were a number of cases of visitors getting too close to the animals and losing a good chunk of flesh – and sometimes their lives.

The head keeper of the Royal Menagerie, Alfred Cops, was almost killed when a snake he was feeding launched at him and coiled around his neck – only to relinquish when prised off by two passing members of staff. As for unfortunate members of the public, there was a sailor named Ensign Seymour who found his arm trapped in the fangs of an irate monkey, and another occasion when a lion attempted to eat a particularly appetising soldier.

In the light of seemingly newfound concerns about public safety – not to mention the founding of the RSPCA in 1824 – the decision was taken to wind down the Royal Menagerie, and in 1830 the animals were transferred from the Tower to the Zoological Society of London in Regent’s Park, later to become the world-renowned London Zoo.

With nearly 300 animals moved out of the Royal Menagerie, all that remains at the Tower of London today are its ravens – and the galvanised wire statues of animals created by artist Kendra Haste in 2010 to commemorate some of the Tower’s most illustrious inhabitants.

(Polar bear and elephant images courtesy of Dun.can on flickr.)

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