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university of wisconsin-milwaukee
Nigel Rothfels
Savages and Beasts

Reviews of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

From Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society 94.2 (June 2003): 406. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/Isis/journal/issues/v94n2/940214073/940214073.html

Nigel Rothfels. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. (Animals, History, Culture.) xii + 268 pp., illus., index. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. $34.95 (cloth).

The German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck (18441913) is best remembered as a designer of early twentieth-century zoo exhibits that restrained animals behind moats and hedges rather than in cages with bars. Zoo professionals today often look back to Hagenbeck's "panoramas," as he called them, as the point of origin for the naturalistic style of exhibition that has become common in zoos in recent years.

Hagenbeck's displays, however, were only one product of an unusual enterprise that flourished in the late nineteenth century alongside the rapid international growth of other German businesses that also made use of the resources of Germany's colonies. Hagenbeck built his famous Tierpark outside Hamburg in 1907, at the end of his career. During the sixty years leading up to the opening of this zoo and animal holding facility, capturing and trading exotic animalsparticularly African faunaformed the core of the Hagenbeck business. The volume of wildlife that passed through Hagenbeck's hands conveys a sense of that business's scope: between the 1860s and the 1880s he sold a thousand lions, three hundred elephants, and hundreds of tigers, antelope, and camels. His financial success paralleled that of German traders in other natural resources such as guano, sugar, and coffee. As supply and demand for animals fluctuated, Hagenbeck turned to other means of making a profit, including organizing traveling anthropological "people shows," developing methods for training animals, and touring these trained animals in circuses.

Savages and Beasts is the first book-length history of the Hagenbeck company in English since Carl Hagenbeck's autobiography was translated in 1909. In this lucid and detailed account, Nigel Rothfels focuses on three aspects of the Hagenbeck enterpriseanimal catching, showing people, and the displays at the Tierparkand Hagenbeck's role as an interpreter of nature to the public in each of these realms. Hagenbeck's animal catchers, for example, wrote many popular books in which they portrayed their work as more humane than hunting. Central to the success of Hagenbeck's displays of people and animals, Rothfels argues, was his claim to authenticity in representing the natural world. In crude terms, authenticity meant that, compared with contemporary displays of indigenous peoples, Hagenbeck's shows were relatively unscripted. His animals, unlike in zoos of the period, were exhibited in groups, in settings with rocks and shrubbery. These efforts won Hagenbeck support in academic circlesfor example, from anthropologists such as Rudolf Virchowand they helped him craft an image of quality and integrity for his company. Just as important, these displays represented a natural world of order and happiness that appealed to the ticket-buying public.

Rothfels's project is to complicate two entrenched stories, the Hagenbeck company's century-long portrayal of its founder as a simple friend of animals and the tale of progress told by present-day zoo professionals who discount the efforts of their predecessors as amateurish. Rothfels situates the Hagenbeck story in the larger history of zoological parks, arguing that it provides insight into present-day public ambivalence toward zoos and the stories about nature that they display.

Historians of science will wish that Rothfels had explored more deeply the notion of authenticity in representing nature and made more reference to the secondary literature on the popular display of nature and peoples at fairs and in museums and films. That said, Rothfels has made good use of the Hagenbeck company archives and of personal papers held by descendants of Hagenbeck's animal collectors. Savages and Beasts should appeal to the broad audience for which it is intended. The book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the interpretation of nature and the relationship between humans and animals in Western culture.


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November 2, 2009