Chameleon Trickster


Chameleons would be cool creatures even if they didn’t have the ability to mimic the color of their environment. Have you ever felt one walking on you? Little scaly feet, moving extremely sloo-o-o-owly as it finds its next foothold across your shoulders—up your head if need be.  

But, really, it’s their magical morphing that we’re fascinated by. In a culture that hinges on the visual, we would obviously be mesmerized by something that can change its appearance so dramatically. It brings to mind racial passing. There’s a sense of not just deception, but really good deception—so good, it’s frightening. Our admiration is intertwined with distrust.    

I would like to read Peter Sahlins’ work on chameleons in 19c France, but it’s not available on the usual databases. He does have an article on Louis IV’s royal menageries as a manifestation of the move to a sovereignty based on discipline (being civilized and restrained, requiring self-policing) rather than terror.  (I look forward to reading it.)

Here’s a nice 19c photograph from the Library of Nineteenth-Century Photographs. 


One Bad Elephant


Gunda, a wild-caught elephant from India, offers the young readers of St. Nicholas an illustrative reformation story.

From the moment he was taken from the crate Gunda was sullen, fierce, wickedly inclined, and considered dangerous… For the first month, Gunda’s only mission in life seemed to be the destruction of everything within reach of his trunk. He wrecked his stall, threatened his keeper, and gave many evidences of being genuinely bad elephant.

 A young trainer Frank Gleason took over the training of Gunda the bad elephant, and in just two days time, [t]he wicked young elephant had become not only good, but really obedient, for he obeyed Gleason’s commands with an accuracy and willingness that made the Bronx officials marvel…. Now he is as gentle and lovable as one could wish. Pawned out for pricey fifteen-cent rides and freely-offered for petting to visitors, Gunda seems to have become a beloved fixture of the Bronx Zoo.


Yet it is difficult for me to find much pleasure in this uplifting story of a “bad” elephant’s reformation. What, exactly, makes for a bad elephant? What wild animal, captured and transported thousands of miles into a lifetime of confinement, could be expected to behave? The article goes on to make mention of Central Park Tom and others who became murderers and met a murderer’s fate; alas, I havent found anything on this infamous Central Park Tom, but there is, of course, the infamous case of Topsy, the bad circus elephant who was electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1903.

There’s a atatue dedicated to Romeo, a serial killer elephant, in Delavan, Wisconsin, some sort of “circus capital.” This site, Road Side America, also links to many other such ghastly memorials across the country. As recently as 1994, an elephant in Honolulu was shot for going “berserk” and killing its trainer. (No memorial).

As I poked around the web further, I just started feeling ill. The stills from the 2001 footage of the abuse of Britain’s last circus elephant, Anne, make me sick to my stomach. When can we announce our last?



Van Eaton, Helen D. Gunda. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks 32 (May-Oct. 1905). Ed. Mary Mapes Dodge.1090-1093

The Wild Effects of the Bronx Zoo

Inspired by my visit to the Bronx Zoo this past Sunday, I did some poking around for interesting nineteenth-century tales of the 113-year-old institution, and will posting on these all week. While not the first zoo in New York Citythe Central Park menagerie, established decades earlier, bears that honorthe Bronx Zoological Park quickly became known as the New York zoo. As a 1913 visitor from London jealously put it,

[w]ithin the two hundred and fifty acres of land and water comprised in the Bronx Zoological Park the visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European zoos (Aflalo).  

This writer praises in particular the zoos emphasis on wide open spaces ([p]erspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries) that effectively mimick a natural or wild effect: It is wild Nature, so cunningly adapted to the semi-artificial requirements of a menagerie. (Aflalo).

Given American investment in accessing the reinvigorating, masculinizing wild during the turn of the century, the Bronx zoo could have been expected to quickly supplant the Central Park zoo in popularity, but in fact attendance at the midtown location spiked, proving conclusively the growing folly of the suggestion heard occasionally, that the Central Park animals be transferred to the Bronx Zoological Gardens (Dept. of Parks report). Then, as now, the Central Park menagerie is of great service, being available to many thousands who could not afford the time nor the carfare for a visit to the Bronx (Dept. of Parks report).

There is one function that the Central Park menagerie fulfilled then that it no longer does: raise sheep for sale. In Central Parks annual sheep sale (held in June, most likely on the aptly-named Sheep Meadow lawn that today is pebbled over with suntanning loungers on any fair-weather day), the Zoos stock were “recognized as the first in the country” (Dept. of Parks report).



Aflalo, F.G. The New York Zoo. Zoological Society Bulletin 2.24-60 (Oct. 1906-Nov. 1913): 324-6.

Report for 1904. City of New York. New York: Martin B. Brown Co., 1905. 37-9.

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