Sunday, February 19, 2012
Friday, July 8, 2011
|Platypus by Frederick Nodder published in Naturalist's Miscellany 1799|
In 1798 the Governor of New South Wales John Hunter made possibly one of the first observations of the platypus by a European. He saw an Aborigine spearing 'a Small Amphibious Animal of the mole kind' in a lake near Sydney. He obtained this strange animal, preserved it in spirits and sent it back to England.
This sample reached Newcastle in 1799 and was recieved by Thomas Beswick. Beswick wrote in his General History of Quadrupeds (1800) that 'it appears to possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird and a quadraped, and is related to nothing that we have hitherto seen.'
 Moyal A, Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, Allen & Unwin. 2002
 Anon, Duckbilled Platypus, museumofhoaxes.com, last checked on 08/07/2011
All quotes from Chapter 1 of: Moyal A, Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, Allen & Unwin. 2002
For more infomration also see Ritvo H, The Platypus and the Mermaid: and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, Harvard University Press, 1997
Sunday, July 3, 2011
This book gives an intimate insight into the chimpanzee community that Goodall so entwined her life with. As readers we follow the real-life dramas of birth, death, learning, war and love. It follows on from the famous In the shadow of man which traced the first 10 years of the community. In Through a window Goodall updates the story. She creates portraits of several of the key chimpanzees (Figan, Gigi, Gilka, Melissa, Jomeo and more), following their struggles for power and a place in the community. As well as this she focuses in particular on key relationships between the chimpanzees, including between mothers and daughters and sons and fathers.
There is also a significant portion of the book taken up with the importance of preserving areas for chimpanzees in the wild. Goodall imparts the message that we should all feel shame and horror at human exploitation of them. This is an important message and Goodall is skillful and getting it across in an engaging and heart-wrenching manner.
In through a window is a wonderfully entertaining book, with compelling information on chimpanzee behaviour. I strongly recommend it to all.
(See the Jane Goodall Institute if you're interested in reading more on Goodall's work)
Saturday, July 2, 2011
The Brent Museum in Willesdon Green (London) is currently running a wonderful exhibition of Louis Wain's cat illustrations. It's called 'Communicating through cats: The art and mind of Louis Wain', and is open until the 29th of October. I popped in on Monday to have a gander. It's being held in a fair-size room next to the main museum (which itself is situated inside Willesdon Green library). There are a reasonable number of Wain's illustrations and paintings spanning his career. They nicely illustrate his experimental approach to style in his work and there are well-balanced information boards about the work and Louis Wain throughout.
|A cat in "gothic" style. Gouache by Louis Wain, 1925/1939.|
What Louis Wain is now most famous for is perhaps his mental illness and eventual incarceration in mental asylums. He continued to draw and paint his beloved cats in these asylums and in the '60s and '70s some of his more experimental images were used as proof of his mental decline.
|A cat standing on its hind legs.|
One of the things I liked most about the exhibition was the balanced way it dealt with these theories about Wain's cats and his mind. It pointed out that the series of illustrations used to prove this theory were not in fact dated and therefore it is inconclusive to use them as proof of mental disintergration over time.
A large collection of Louis Wain's art is normally held at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum. Whilst the exhibition is still on at the Brent Museum I highly recommend you go and see it. Especially if you love cats.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Chimps' Tea Party Newsreel, British Pathe
Chimpanzee tea parties used to be a popular form of entertainment in zoos. These 'parties' involved dressing the chimpanzees in human clothing and having them sit at a table whilst their keepers served them food and drink. To enhance the theme the drink was even served out of giant teapots. The public payed for the privilage of watching. These parties were held in the summer time and were very popular. The public enjoyed watching the chimpanzees antics and it was remarked that they acted like children'. In a recent BBC Radio 4 program (which I have unhelpfully forgotten the name of, I will update if I can find out) an expert pointed out that the reason the chimps acted like children was that in chimp terms they were children. The chimpanzees that got used were only a few years old. After they have gone through puberty it can be harder to control chimpanzees, they are especially reluctant to have tea parties on demand.
The first tea party was served in London Zoo in 1926. 
Interestingly, it was argued that by observing chimpanzee tea parties useful information could be determined about natural chimpanzee behaviour. An article in The Times in 1931 stated:It is of psychological interest that almost any young chimpanzee learns table manners in a few days, partly by imitation of his or her fellows and partly by seeming to try to understand what the keeper wishes done. There are individual differences in quickness, as Darwin pointed out in the 'Descent of Man'... 
The tea parties at London zoo as an attraction continued until 1972, when animal rights concerns caught up with the zoo and they were stopped.
 Henninger-Voss Mary J., Animals in human histories: the mirror of nature and culture, Rochester, 2002, p.281
 Anon, The Times, 5 December, 1931, as quoted in BBC Home article 'The Chimps Tea Party'
The academic Nicolaas Rupke wrote that "the place allotted to animals in human society is to a certain extent a mirror to our beliefs and values."  The fact then that in our historical accounts the stories of animals are largely silent is significant. It suggests, at best a forgetting, skimming over and at worst a deliberate erasure of animals from historical analysis. Having said so I must acknowledge that this is a rather unfair statement. There are many historians who at present are very interested in addressing this historical blank. Also, histories involving animals do exist (Keith Thomas' Man and the Natural World  is an excellent example of such). However, there is no comprehensive resource exploring the history of animals (that I am aware of).
I am starting this blog as an informal way to collate my research into the history of animals. I plan to cover an extremely wide range of time periods and topics. In the future I may hone in on a particular area of interest, who knows.
So, lets go and explore the history of animals....
 Rupke N, Vivisection in historical perspective, Guildford, 1987, p. vii
 Thomas K, Man and the Natural World, St. Ives, 1983