The Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness may have become a hit due to its lurid true-crime details and eccentric cast of stranger-than-fiction characters, but it also brought to the fore the lucrative, illicit, and largely obscured global market of exotic pets - one that has a legacy going back decades among the rich and eccentric.
In 2009, a video of an illegally transported pygmy slow loris became a YouTube sensation - at which point the species' representation on the black market boomed, while its population in the wild dwindled. The pygmy slow loris is just one of many species exploited for profit on social media, which experts now consider to be the epicenter of the United States' $15 billion exotic pet trade.
Researchers studying Facebook's underground market in 2017 found the average price to import a smooth-coated otter from Thailand was just $78, and even though chimpanzees are an endangered species, they are common across social media. Tiger King seems ridiculous now, but for centuries, keeping exotic animals as pets was a trendy lark for eccentrics with deep pockets, regardless of the consequences.
Sir Stamford Raffles Kept A Menagerie Of Exotic Animals Gifted By Sultans And Rulers
Around 1811, Sir Stamford Raffles sent four men into the jungle to search for specimens of natural history. His curiosity extended far beyond shells and beetles; Raffles sent for exotic birds, scorpions, deer, and small quadrupeds to join his garden collection. While serving as secretary to the Prince of Wales, Raffles acquired his first siamang in 1805 and grew especially fond of the arboreal gibbon. After moving to West Sumatra, Raffles began his menagerie with a second siamang, along with a young elephant, two deer, a young tiger, and two orangutans that stayed in his house. The siamangs are said to have occupied more of his time than his children.
In 1826, Raffles established the Zoological Society of London with its menagerie at Regent's Park. Two years prior, he brought a Malaysian Sun Bear to stay with him in Bengkulu. The bear dined at the table and acquired a taste for champagne, but was described as "excessively voracious and disposed to eat without cessation." One day, the bear was said to have gorged itself to death at the breakfast table, and its remains were stuffed in the Zoological Society's museum. In 1830, Lady Raffles wrote that Sir Raffles's love of nature was such "that a mountain scene brought tears to his eyes," while "a flower would call forth a burst of his favorite poetry."
In The Early 1900s, Technological Advances Made Shipping Animals Much Easier, And The Exotic Animal Trade Boomed
Ornamental goldfish imported from China were a blossoming trend in 17th-century Europe, but without access to natural spring water, many Westerners struggled to keep their fish alive. In the early 19th century, Robert Warrington built the first modern aquarium, which he modeled with the ecosystem in mind.
While introducing plant oxygen improved water quality and gave goldfish a fighting chance, ornamentals remained a rare and expensive treasure in North America until the Industrial Revolution. Many birds now considered common - such as canaries, zebra finches, and parakeets - were first brought to America in the early 1900s. Expanded trade routes sent fish, birds, and other small game from Europe to North America.
In the US, aviculture became popular among hobbyists, while Belgian hares were viewed as both companion animals and a source of food.
Harrods Department Store In London Began Selling Elephants, Panthers, And Lions In 1917
For Christmas in 1951, actress Beatrice Lillie purchased an alligator for her lover, the playwright Noël Coward, from the pet store in Harrods of London. The famed department store opened its 11,000-square-foot Pet Kingdom in 1917. To make sure only the most well-heeled patrons could reach it, the store installed England's first moving staircase and implemented a ritzy dress code.
For more than 50 years, Harrods sold tigers, panthers, camels, elephants, pedigreed dogs and cats, and a vast array of exotic animals that rivaled the London Zoo in both number and presentation. Pet Kingdom stopped selling most exotic animals in 1976. The department was replaced with more womenswear; but in 2007, Harrods hired an Egyptian cobra to guard a pair of Caovilla ruby-, sapphire-, and diamond-encrusted sandals worth $120,000.
In The 1950s and '60s, An Economic Uprising Led To Increased Demand For Exotic Pets, And It Became A Chic Trend
Around the turn of the 20th century, a handful of societies had been established in Great Britain and the United States to advocate for animal rights. Among them circulated a chilling novel by American journalist Upton Sinclair, who depicted "squeals and life-blood ebbing away together" in the Chicago meat-packing district. The exotic animal trade continued to grow in America. For Thanksgiving dinner in 1926, a raccoon, Rebecca, was transported from Mississippi to the White House to serve the Coolidge family's dinner plates, but when the First Family met Rebecca, they refused to hurt her. The Coolidge White House was nicknamed the Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo, and rightfully so: The family kept a pygmy hippo, two lion cubs, and a bear.
Many of the era's greatest artists were inspired by their exotic pets. Considering the despair that riddled Frida Kahlo's lifetime, it's no wonder she centered her spirits on painting and caring for those monkeys, deer, and exotic birds often depicted alongside her. During WWII, burlesque dancer Josephine Baker brought her pet cheetah on stage for a performance. Baker unleashed Chiquita on the unsuspecting audience, causing everyone in sight to scramble.
Even Elvis bought into the exotic pet trend; after purchasing Graceland, Elvis transformed the estate with his own menagerie of pigs, monkeys, peacocks, and a flock of geese to help trim the lawns.