Sunday, 22 November 2015

Philadelphia zebras: Six great animal escapes of the Victorian era

Social media was captivated this week by two zebras that escaped from a circus in the American city
Tuesday 17 November 2015

Nothing beats a good chase sequence, particularly when an animal is involved. Most recently, social media was captivated by two zebras that escaped from a Philadelphia circus. Rest assured, the two rogue performers are now safe, having been captured by local police.

The ghostly ape  Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge,
The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1870.
Thankfully, exotic animal escapes are relatively rare today, and usually end reasonably happily. But in the 19th century, when travelling menageries and circuses traversed Britain and the US, such break-outs were far more common. Menageries toured widely from the late 18th century, bringing exotic animals within reach of even the poorest members of society. Health and safety was not a priority for exhibitors, and it wasn’t unheard of to find an orangutan in your bedroom or a tiger loose in the street.

Just like today, the newspapers of the time jumped on these stories with relish, revelling in the horror of a predator on the prowl. Drawing on these valuable (though not always entirely trustworthy) accounts, here are six of the most notorious animal escapes from the Victorian era.

In 1821 “a nocturnal apparition” caused the death of a man in the Rue de Monnaie in Paris. The “apparition” – in reality a “large ape” – had escaped from a neighbouring menagerie. It had “groped” its way along the rooftops and “descended through one of the chimney pots” into the victim’s bedroom, causing the man to die of fright. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), in which two women are brutally murdered by an escaped orangutan.

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