Today, we tend to speak about the animal kingdom with a certain reverence. How times have changed! A century ago, some people didn’t think twice about taking cheap shots at our fellow creatures. Neither did their forebears 100 years before that. Even Charles Darwin relished in demeaning the marine iguana, which he said were “most disgusting, clumsy Lizards.” If that burn makes you feel bad for the iguanas, just wait until you read Ernest Hemingway’s anti-hyena rant.
1. “I HAVE NEVER SEEN SUCH AN UGLY ANIMAL OR ONE THAT IS MORE USELESS.”
Who Said It: Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557)
The Target: Sloths
A Spanish historian and adventurer, Oviedo was among the first Europeans to ever encounter these sluggish mammals. Apparently, they didn’t leave a good impression on him. In his 1526 book, The Natural History of the West Indies, Oviedo called sloths “the stupidest animal that can be found in the world."
Ironically, Oviedo kept a pet sloth during his travels in South America. Feeding it wasn’t easy. “No one can find out what this animal eats,” he complained. “I had one in my home, and from my observations I have come to believe that this animal lives on air.” Of course, we now know that sloths mainly subsist on plant buds, shoots, and leaves—along with the occasional insect or small vertebrate.
Oviedo wasn’t the last one to throw shade on sloths. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), one of the greatest zoologists in history, wrote that in sloths, “nature seems to have amused herself by producing something imperfect and grotesque.”
2. “RHINOCEROS ARE TRUCULENT, BLUSTERING BEASTS, MUCH THE MOST STUPID OF ALL THE DANGEROUS GAME I KNOW.”
Who Said It: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
The Target: Rhinos
Roosevelt was one of those animal lovers who also liked shooting them. In his autobiography, he offers plenty of advice for bringing down everything from grizzlies to elephants.
While Roosevelt “personally had no difficulties with lions,” he recounted several close calls with angry rhinos. “Generally, their attitude is one of mere stupidity and bluff,” he wrote. “But on occasions, they do charge wickedly, both when wounded and when entirely unprovoked.” He would know. After leaving the White House in 1909, Roosevelt and his son Kermit went on an African hunting expedition on which they killed a whopping 512 animals—including 11 black rhinos and nine white ones.
Roosevelt's safari was sponsored by the Smithsonian—which he rewarded with more 23,000 valuable specimens, 11,000 of which were animals.
3. “THAT STRANGE LITTLE ANIMAL OF ZOOLOGICAL PERVERSITIES.”
Who Said It: Ernest Scott (1867-1939)
The Target: Platypuses
You don't need to be a biologist to appreciate how the platypus's discovery confounded animal experts. In January 1939, Ernest Scott, head the Australian and New Zealand Society for the Advancement of Science, gave a lecture on the platypus, “that strange little animal of zoological perversities.” In his words, “the platypus is an historical character. It set the anatomists all agog when specimens were first examined in Europe.”
Scott wasn’t exaggerating. In 1793, South Wales governor John Hunter had written a paper on the strange beast. Among other things, he theorized that the platypus must have been created by “a promiscuous intercourse” between several different animals.
4. “HE IS A BIRD OF BAD MORAL CHARACTER. HE DOES NOT GET HIS LIVING HONESTLY.”
Who Said It: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
The Target: Bald Eagles
Did Franklin really want the turkey to be America’s national emblem? No. (In fact, the symbol he proposed was of Moses at the Red Sea.) Franklin didn’t think much of bald eagles, either.
Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. At its center is a bald eagle soaring with patriotic pride. Two years later, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache, with a scathing critique of the raptor’s personality.
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen,” he wrote. “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.” He accused bald eagles of stealing prey from ospreys (which is true) and being easily scared off by smaller birds (also true—crows sometimes gang up on the eagles to chase them away).
5. “IF ANYONE DESIRES TO SEE A BLACKER, UGLIER, MORE SAVAGE, AND MORE UNTAMEABLE BEAST THAN OUR ‘DEVIL,’ HE MUST BE DIFFICULT TO PLEASE.”
Who Said It: Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895)
The Target: Tasmanian Devils
This marsupial has been vilified for ages. During the 19th century, rumor had it that the creatures could even skeletonize unwary travelers. Soon, popular Aussie writers bought into the hype—including Meredith. In 1880, she penned the above sentence to defend the killing of 150 devils by a local shepherd. “We don’t show the brutes any mercy; they do too much mischief,” Meredith wrote.
In reality, Tasmanian devils don’t prey on humans and usually won’t attack unless threatened. Furthermore, despite Meredith’s concerns about their taste for full-grown sheep, the devils mainly kill sick or young ones.
6. “IT IS AN ANIMAL NO LESS MISCHIEVOUS THAN IT IS DEFORMED.”
Who Said It: Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
The Target: Vampire Bats
Other mammals with terrible reputations include the three known vampire bat species. Natives of Central and South America, these blood-sippers predominantly feed on cows, chickens, and other livestock. And, yes, one of these bats—the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus)—does occasionally bite humans. For that to happen, the victim is usually asleep and the bite tends to occur on the big toe.
Buffon described the bat in volume seven of his encyclopedic Natural History series. The animal’s nose “is deformed, its nostrils resembling a funnel, with a membrane at the top which … greatly heightens the deformity of its face,” he wrote.
7. “[THEY HAVE] A SINGULARLY STUPID AIR, NOT AT ALL BELIED BY THEIR MANNERS.”
Who Said It: Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
The Target: Snipes
Yes, snipes are real. The long-beaked wading birds poke around for worms and other invertebrates on warm or temperate beaches all over Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Ornithologists currently recognize around 20 species—the largest of which can be 19 inches long from beak tip to tail tip.
Buffon mocked their appearance in another installment in his multi-volume Natural History. “A character peculiar to these birds,” he wrote, “is a compressed head and large eyes placed considerably behind, which give them a singularly stupid air not at all belied by their manners.”
8. “THERE IS NO DEPTH OF MEANNESS, TREACHERY, OR CRUELTY TO WHICH THEY DO NOT CHEERFULLY DESCEND.”
Who Said It: William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937)
The Target: Gray Wolves
The American bison had a powerful friend in Hornaday, a hunter-turned-naturalist who set up a captive bison breeding program, founded the National Bison Society, and helped establish protected ranges for them in Kansas and Montana.
Yet his attitude towards wolves was far less accommodating. In 1904, Hornaday opined that every single one was not only “deadly dangerous to man,” but “a black-hearted murderer and criminal.” Moreover, there was supposedly “no depth of meanness, treachery, or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend.”
Since colonial times, American farmers had been at odds with wolves, which frequently killed livestock. In the late 19th century, the government established bounty programs—some of which lasted until 1965—that would pay private hunters anywhere from $20 to $50 per dead wolf.
By 1960, only about 300 wolves remained in the lower 48 states. Then, in 1973, Congress granted them formal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, gray wolves have been steadily recovering—with roughly 5500 now roaming the contiguous United States.
9. “TORPID, SENSELESS CREATURES.”
Who Said It: George Perry (1771-?)
The Target: Koalas
A stonemason by trade, Perry’s real passion was natural history. From 1810 to 1811, he published The Arcana, a monthly illustrated magazine dedicated to the study of life.
In one 1811 issue, his readers were greeted with the first painting of a koala in a European publication. Perry’s caption called it “the Koalo, or New Holland Sloth.” And, just as Oviedo didn’t know what to make of real sloths, Perry was befuddled by this arboreal weirdo. Arcana subscribers were told that the “torpid, senseless creatures” were “supposed to live chiefly on berries and fruits.”
Perry added, “Whether we consider the uncouth and remarkable form of its body, which is particularly awkward and unwieldy, or its strange … manner of living, we are at a loss to imagine for what particular scale of usefulness or happiness such an animal could by the great Author of Nature possibly be destined.”
10. “A HERMAPHRODITIC SELF-EATING DEVOURER OF THE DEAD.”
Who Said It: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
The Target: Hyenas
These mammals were getting bad press long before The Lion King opened. Teddy Roosevelt said they were “too cowardly ever to be a source of danger to the hunter.” He did give them some credit: “The hyena is a beast of unusual strength, and of enormous power in his jaws and teeth ... the creature is fraught with a terror all its own.”
Ernest Hemingway had an even less flattering outlook. In The Green Hills of Africa (1935), which chronicles a safari he took two years earlier, Hemingway called the hyena a “hermaphroditic, self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain.” (Incidentally, it was Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition that inspired Hemingway to take this trip.)
Hemingway was semi-correct: Female hyenas do have pseudo-penises (more or less a weirdly-shaped clitoris), but they're not hermaphrodites. And while they’re not above scavenging, hyenas actively kill 95 percent of their meals. Lions are far more likely to munch on a hyena’s leftovers than vice versa. Sorry, Hemingway.