College of LAS « Illinois


A Class Menagerie

Life was a zoo for the proprietors and inhabitants of the Paris menagerie.

Richard Burkhardt

What do you do when the police show up at your gate with a polar bear, a panther, a civet (a catlike mammal), and a monkey?

You could do what the extremely surprised professors did in 1793 at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. They took in the animals and established what is now considered the first public zoo of the modern era.

Richard Burkhardt, an LAS professor emeritus of history, explains how it all came to pass. "During the French Revolution and for decades before it, some people had made a living by exhibiting exotic animals on the streets of Paris," says Burkhardt, who specializes in the history of biology. These outrageous and often dangerous street displays included much more than just the stereotypical dancing bears. The streets were a regular zoo.

However, Burkhardt says, on November 3, 1793, the Paris police department, "citing public safety," ordered that such animals be confiscated and conducted to the Museum of Natural History, where the professors gave them a new home. Two days later, he adds, "the professors found themselves confronting another polar bear, two mandrills, two agoutis, a tiger, a vulture, and two eagles."

Opening the Menagerie to the Public

Until the 18th century, zoos—or menageries as they were called then—were primarily the property of royalty, for whom the possession of exotic animals served as a source of amusement, as well as a display of wealth and power. For instance, Burkhardt says that just before the French Revolution, while citizens struggled for food, the dromedary kept at the palace of Versailles allegedly was treated to six bottles of burgundy every day.

But all that changed with the opening of the menagerie at the National Museum of Natural History. Keeping in line with the fervently anti-royalist sentiment of the day, the Paris menagerie was meant to be a utilitarian institution, open to the public.

"From the beginning, the new menagerie was a great attraction to the public," Burkhardt says. "For the professor-administrators of the museum, however, it was an ongoing headache. Both the animals and the animal keepers seemed to need a full-time supervisor."

The most troublesome of the animal keepers was Felix Cassal, who was fired in 1803 when he was discovered plotting to have a fellow worker killed. To maintain order, the professors eventually decided to appoint Frédéric Cuvier as the superintendent of the Paris menagerie—a man whom Burkhardt has paid special attention to in his research.

"Frédéric Cuvier got the position," Burkhardt says, "because his brother [Georges Cuvier] was the most famous zoologist in France at the time" and was one of the professors at the museum. The appointment was nonetheless a propitious one, he says, because Cuvier was convinced that live animals were worthy of study.

The First Modern Zookeeper

"All at once," Burkhardt says, "Frédéric Cuvier found himself occupying a place that had never before existed in the world of natural history: scientific superintendent of a national, public zoo."

According to Burkhardt, Cuvier's post also complicated an ongoing disagreement between two camps over who was "best situated to speak authoritatively about the processes and products of nature." On one side were the field naturalists, who studied animals in the wild; and on the other side were the "cabinet naturalists," who studied dead animals that had been preserved.

Cuvier didn't fit into either camp. Unlike the field naturalists, his animals were kept in cages; but unlike the cabinet naturalists, his animals "were alive and kicking—and in some cases quite dangerous."

Although many naturalists doubted that much good could come from studying living animals in captivity, Burkhardt says, Cuvier was convinced that "menageries could be for zoologists what laboratories were for chemists."


Cuvier was also significant because he believed animals developed best when they were treated with kindness and given good nutrition. This was a radical idea in an age in which the training of animals typically involved punishment and where a form of popular entertainment was to watch animals fight to the death.

However, cruelty sometimes followed the animals into the menagerie. Burkhardt says that some visitors to the zoo threw poison pills at the animals, and others hid hooks in balls of bread, which they tossed to the animals.

Over time, the Paris menagerie came to house as many as 400 species of mammals and birds. But after Frédéric Cuvier's death in 1838, the Paris menagerie ceased to be an institution with strong scientific aspirations; and other zoos, such as the London Zoo, founded in the 1820s, eventually surpassed the Paris zoo in size and splendor. Today, the Paris menagerie is "kind of old and shabby," but Burkhardt says it remains a historical icon.

Cuvier also remains a historical icon, for he essentially stands out as the first modern zookeeper. So it's ironic that he remained in the shadow of his more famous brother Georges, even to the very end. On his deathbed, Frédéric Cuvier requested that his tombstone say nothing more than "brother of Georges Cuvier."

Clearly, Frédéric underestimated himself. For as Burkhardt puts it, "no other naturalist in the first half of the 19th century studied mammalian behavior with the same care and breadth."

By Scott Spilky
Fall/Winter 2006-07