Clara, the 18th-Century Rhinoceros Who Became a Sensation

Johann Dietrich Findorff after Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Johann Dietrich Findorff after Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Wikimedia // Public Domain

For over two centuries, Europeans pictured the rhinoceros as more of a battering ram than an animal. The misconceptions are somewhat understandable, since there were no living rhinos around, and the widely distributed 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer largely defined the beast for the European imagination. The print, created from a written description only, showed a rhinoceros in profile, seemingly dressed for war and with a misplaced horn on its back. A German inscription atop the work was based on an account by first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder, and claimed that the "fast, impetuous, and cunning" rhinoceros was "the mortal enemy of the elephant."

Albrecht Dürer's 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros
Albrecht Dürer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

Everything changed in July of 1741, when a real rhinoceros arrived in Rotterdam. Miss Clara, as she was eventually nicknamed, was an Indian rhinoceros who caused almost two decades of "rhinomania" as she traveled throughout Europe. She delighted nobles in the great European courts, and wowed ordinary citizens in small towns. In France, Italy, Germany, England, Switzerland, and Austria, artists captured her tough skin and gentle eyes; she was immortalized in clocks and commemorative medals; poets wrote verses to her, and musicians composed songs. In Paris, women styled their hair à la rhinocéros, with ribbons or feathers simulating a horn atop their heads. Everywhere she went, Clara caused a sensation.

Her journey began in 1738, when her mother was killed in India. As a baby, she became a house pet of Jan Albert Sichtermann, a director of the Dutch East India Company, at his estate near modern-day Kolkata, until she got a bit big for such domesticity [PDF]. In the 2005 book Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Glynis Ridley describes how Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer acquired Clara in 1740. Following a long voyage from India to the Netherlands, Van der Meer kept her alive for years beyond the then-average lifespan for captive rhinoceroses (despite feeding her a diet that included large quantities of beer). He became her caretaker, manager, and tireless hype man.

“Had Van der Meer left behind a journal, generations of readers could have looked over his shoulder as he wrestled with the practicalities of owning and transporting the heaviest land animal on the planet,” Ridley writes in Clara’s Grand Tour. “The nature of his problems can be gauged, however, from an account of the attempted transportation of a rhinoceros within France in 1770. For a single journey transporting a male rhinoceros from Lorient to Versailles, the French government paid for two days of work by carpenters, 36 by locksmiths, 57 by blacksmiths and 72 by a team of wheelwrights. (Despite all this, the resulting wagon still collapsed en route and many more man hours were required to get the male rhinoceros back on the road.)”

In other words, most rhinos traveling Europe did not fare well. The animal on which Dürer based his woodcut drowned in a 1516 shipwreck off the Italian coast; a rhinoceros brought to Lisbon around 1579 lived only a few years. By some reports, its eyes were gouged out after it tipped a carriage of royal guests in Madrid. Yet Van der Meer accounted for rest in Clara’s busy schedule, and although he was entrepreneurial with the media blitz of posters that preceded each of her stops, he took the utmost care with her travel. For instance, she was never led by a ring in her nose, as was long practiced with large animals like bulls, and she was transported from city to city in a huge wooden coach pulled by eight horses.

A 1747 etching of Clara the rhinoceros
H. Oster, Wikimedia // Public Domain

From bronze sculptures to porcelain curios, Clara was celebrated in art at a level usually reserved for royalty. In a life-size 1749 portrait by French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry, she stands regally in a rustic landscape; a 1747 etching (above) presents her against a sprawling background where dark-skinned figures, palm trees, and a scene of a rhino goring an elephant all reinforce her exoticism. A 1751 painting by Pietro Longhi, now at the National Gallery in London, has a crowd of masked Venetians watching Clara. One woman wears a Moretta mask, known as a “mute mask” as it has no mouth, and seems to be regarding the viewer instead of this celebrity creature, perhaps asking who is being exhibited.

Clara even appeared in an influential 18th-century anatomical atlas: Bernhard Siegfried Albinus’s 1747 Tabulae Sceleti et musculorum corporis humani. Its illustrator, Jan Wandelaar, was among the earliest artists to depict Clara, and thus one of the first to represent an anatomically correct rhinoceros. In two engravings, she appears behind flayed corpses, both the rhinoceros and the dissected humans representing the cutting edge of anatomical understanding.

A print of Clara the rhinoceros and a skeleton by Jan Wandelaar for Albinus's atlas
Jan Wandelaar, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Clara died in April 1758 in London, 20 years after being captured in India. While wild rhinos often live into their thirties, and captive ones a bit longer, Clara had lived far longer, and traveled much farther, than was usual for an exotic animal in the 18th century. Oddly, with all her fame, there’s no clear cause of death, or record of what became of her remains. There are also no reports of public mourning for this international star. Yet through the surviving Clara memorabilia and art, we can still witness how she radically transformed Europe’s idea of what a rhinoceros could be.

Goat Your Own Way: In North Wales, a Herd of Goats Is Taking Advantage of the Empty Streets

"We gon' run this town tonight!" —These goats, probably.
"We gon' run this town tonight!" —These goats, probably.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

While residents stay indoors to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the deserted streets and flower gardens of Llandudno, Wales, have become a playground for a people-shy herd of wild Kashmir goats.

The animals live on the Great Orme, a nearby stretch of rocky limestone land that juts out over the Irish Sea, and they’re known to sojourn in Llandudno around this time when rainy or windy weather makes their high-ground home more treacherous than usual. This year, however, the goats are being especially adventurous.

“They are curious, goats are, and I think they are wondering what's going on like everybody else,” town councilor Carol Marubbi told BBC News. “There isn't anyone else around, so they probably decided they may as well take over.”

The goats have spent their jaunt balancing atop stone walls, trotting through the town center, and munching on flowers and hedges in people’s yards. But nobody seems to mind—Marubbi told BBC News that the locals are proud of the animals and happy to watch them gallivant through the streets from their windows.

While the herd has been living on the Great Orme for more than a century, the goats aren’t native to the region. According to Llandudno’s website, Squire Christopher Tower bought two goats from a large herd in France that had been imported from Kashmir, India. He then used them to breed his own herd in England. Sometime during the 18th century, he gifted two of them to King George IV, who developed another herd at Windsor. The goats’ wool was used to produce cashmere shawls, which became particularly popular during Queen Victoria’s reign in the mid-19th century. She then gave two goats to Major General Sir Savage Mostyn, who took them to his family estate, Gloddaeth Hall, in Llandudno.

It’s unclear why or how they were eventually let loose on the Great Orme, but they managed to acclimate to their new environment and thrive in the northern wilderness.

Today, there are more than 120 goats in the herd, and it certainly looks like they’re enjoying their all-inclusive vacation.

[h/t BBC News]

The Tiger Who Came to Tea … In the Middle of Rural Yorkshire

If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
photoguru81/iStock via Getty Images

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. This is especially true in the United States, where backyard zoos and cub petting operations are successful—if controversial—businesses. Big cat ownership is more heavily regulated in the UK than it is in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. More than 70 years ago, there was at least one pet tiger living in England.

To the people of Britain, Holmfirth, 20 miles outside of Manchester, is probably best known as the picturesque setting of Last of the Summer Wine, the BBC show that ran for a staggering 37 years from 1973 to 2010 and is now appropriately credited as being the world’s longest running sitcom. But back in the early 1940s, the village was known locally as the home of Fenella the Holmfirth Tiger.

Fenella’s story actually begins more than 8000 miles away in South Africa, where she was adopted by a family of circus performers and acrobats from Yorkshire, the Overends, in the late 1930s. While touring South Africa with a traveling circus in 1939, the Overend family was offered two newborn circus tiger cubs to rear and eventually incorporate into their act. One of the cubs died barely a week later, but the other—given the name Fenella, or “Feney” for short—survived.

The Overends were forced to return to England after the outbreak of the Second World War. They took Fenella home with them to live (albeit after a brief stay in quarantine) in the back garden of their house in Holmfirth. Although she had a specially built hut and enclosure, the tiger eventually began spending just as much time in the family house as she did in the garden, and according to her owners, soon became extraordinarily tame.

The family would take her for walks through the village, including past the local primary school, where she became a firm favorite among the pupils. When the local council began to raise questions over just how tame Fenella really was, the sight of her walking calmly while being petted by all the schoolchildren as they returned from their lunch break was all it took to quash their worries.

Holmfirth viewed from the cemetery
Holmfirth in the 21st century, with nary a tiger in sight.
Tim Green, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fenella was sometimes permitted to run in the fields around the village, where she reportedly made friends with a local cart horse—which is surprising, given she was raised on a diet of horse meat and fish (fish and chips were one of her favorite treats). She apparently also had a fondness for climbing trees to take a nap, and supposedly had a habit of dropping down from the branches and, fairly understandably, surprising passersby. But soon the sight of a fully grown 9-foot Sumatran tigress casually idling her way through the village’s cobbled streets became the norm for the people of Holmfirth.

Fenella was intended to be a performing tiger. Similar to the cub petting operations that still exist in the U.S., visitors could pay sixpence to sit and pet her while the family was on tour. She was also worked into the family’s circus performances by staging a mock wrestling match with her owner. But though the Overends put the big cat to work, they considered her a beloved family pet rather than just another part of their act.

Sadly, Fenella died of a kidney infection during one of the family’s tours in 1950 when she was just over 10 years old. She was buried in the neighbor’s garden, which was said to be one of her favorite hunting grounds. Fenella is still remembered fondly in and around Holmfirth. In 2016, she was a highlight of the Holmfirth Arts Festival, which celebrated the cat’s life with an exhibition of photographs and archival footage of her and the Overend family. Exotic pets might not have remained as popular in the UK as they once were, but Fenella’s popularity at least remains intact.

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