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Nigel Rothfels
Savages and Beasts

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

From International Zoo News 50.8 (December 2003). http://www.zoonews.ws/IZN/329/IZN-329.htm

SAVAGES AND BEASTS: THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN ZOO by Nigel Rothfels. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2002. xii + 268 pp., 50 illus., hardback. ISBN 0–8018–6910–2. US$34.95 (c. Euros 30 or £21).

Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913) has been the subject of more biographies than any other single person associated with zoological gardens, and every book, it seems, published within the last century discussing the development of zoos, devotes at least a paragraph or two, if not a chapter or more, to the `King of Zoos' (Bernard Heuvelmans) and the `King of Animal Dealers' (James Fisher). So it was a brave student indeed who a decade ago chose to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Hagenbeck and the creation of his new zoological park in Hamburg. Doctoral theses, after all, can be expected to offer original research and concepts. But as Nigel Rothfels points out in Savages and Beasts, the updated, edited and published version of his thesis Bring 'em Back Alive (1994), virtually all of the half-dozen biographies on Carl Hagenbeck published to date (more on or by various kin) were more or less authorized, uncritical histories, promoted one way or another by the now 155-year-old firm of Hagenbeck itself. Nevertheless, the story of Carl Hagenbeck's innovations in displaying animals is well known, the establishment of a zoo that first introduced on a large scale such ubiquitous features as moated, bar-less enclosures and artificial rockwork and gardening that suggest a natural landscape, as well as the less widespread but widely recognized panorama and immersion principle offering uninterrupted views of whole groups of predators and herbivores spread over several enclosures.

Does Nigel Rothfels really have anything new to say on all that? Surprisingly, he does. His title, Savages and Beasts, gives a first hint of what he argues was a vital yet largely overlooked influence on the design of Hagenbeck's zoo opened in what was then a suburb but now a ward of Hamburg in 1907: his thirty-year tradition of staging ethnographic performances by visiting troupes of indigenous peoples from exotic countries and colonies. It was in 1874 that Hagenbeck first engaged Lapps – Nigel Rothfels insists on the politically correct term Sami – from Norway to accompany a herd of reindeer he had acquired, bringing with them traditional clothing, tents, weapons and other gear. A glut in the wild-animal market and an overstock of specimens for sale (although not of reindeer, apparently) had brought Hagenbeck's business – he was always first and foremost an animal dealer – close to bankruptcy. New ideas to save the company were obviously welcome, and Heinrich Leutemann, a friend and Hagenbeck's first biographer, was credited by Hagenbeck for suggesting that a show of performing Lapps amongst the reindeer marked for later sale, doing whatever Lapps do (or were assumed to do), could prove to be a money-maker. Which it was. Until his death almost four decades later, Carl Hagenbeck alone would stage over 50 anthropological-zoological exhibitions, as he preferred to call his shows, and brothers and competitors hundreds more. These spectacles, enormously popular throughout Europe a century ago, are now largely forgotten. Hilke Thode-Aurora wrote an excellent history on them published in 1989, entitled Für fünfzig Pfennig um die Welt, but that book was hardly a best-seller. An ethnographic show as a highlight of a visit to the zoo would nowadays be considered an aberration, and on the road to the modern zoo they have always, it's fair to generalize, been considered a cul-de-sac. It is Nigel Rothfels' great service to show how Hagenbeck's growing experience in mounting his ethnographic spectacles, and his observation of the public's reception of them, led to ideas culminating in a new kind of zoological park. He is also the first to give the concept of the cyclorama its due as an influence on Hagenbeck's designs for a zoo.

In a recent book review (of Robert Dallek's biography of John F. Kennedy) for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the historian Hans-Peter Schwarz reiterated the four golden rules of a biographer. First of all, be diligent, read everything you can get your hands on with reference to your subject. Secondly, don't believe anything your subject ever said or wrote; very likely he was a compulsive liar, so question everything. Thirdly, narrate your story well, keep your reader interested from the first page to the last. Nigel Rothfels, whether he was aware of them or not, certainly heeded these first three rules. Access to the Hagenbeck archives was limited, so at times he quotes secondary sources where original records might have been preferable, but who would want to blame him for that? He plainly took the second rule to heart: convinced that too many zoo historians have crowned Hagenbeck with a halo, he rarely misses an opportunity to cut him down to size. And he is a very good writer. It is Schwarz's fourth golden rule of the biographer that Nigel Rothfels would have done well to respect more: explain things, but don't moralize.

Those unfamiliar with the true character of ethnographic shows nowadays seem to have the impression that `savages' from faraway places were dragged to Hamburg in chains and thrown behind bars next to the monkey cages. In fact, as Nigel Rothfels does explain, they were hired in their homelands in Africa, Asia, America or wherever, given legally binding contracts (for both parties), brought to Europe, went on tour performing on stage or in the arenas provided for their shows, were paid for their work and sent back home. Many came again and again – willingly and happily. Still, the shows were controversial as well as popular in their time. A cartoon published in the Fliegende Blätter in 1885 depicts `Hagenbeck's Upper Bavarian Caravan in Nubia': a horde of beer-drinking Bavarians in Lederhosen in an arena in the African bush, doing their thing in an ethnographic show for the benefit of amazed black African onlookers. In hindsight, the shows may seem to be degrading those who performed them, and many thought that way a century ago, but Nigel Rothfels shows a tendency to word his dislike of them in a way that is neither historical nor fair to the Hagenbecks. The German term for an ethnographic show or spectacle is Völkerschau, a word not easily translated gracefully into English. Nigel Rothfels insists on calling them `people shows', conjuring up an image of freak shows or peep shows. (The author, whom I'm privileged to consider a friend, at least until he reads this review, assured me in e-mail correspondence that he had never realized that `people show' rhymes with `peep show'.) He goes on to write, on page 195 for example, that Hagenbeck's company `was based on the capturing, trading, and exhibiting of animals and people'. On page 202 he repeats that Carl Hagenbeck `made a considerable fortune organizing the capture, purchase, and sale of tens of thousands of animals and people.' Hagenbeck was an animal dealer, yes, but at no time ever did he, as Nigel Rothfels seems to insinuate, even think of capturing, purchasing, selling or trading in people. If for no other reason, it would have been quite illegal. At least `people trade' is no longer in the subtitle of Nigel Rothfels' book, as it was of his Ph.D. dissertation.

Making up, apparently, for all the past biographers who have piled too much praise upon Hagenbeck, Dr Rothfels takes him to task for his animal business as well. The animal trade as Hagenbeck knew and ran it is unthinkable today, and again, it was controversial enough in his time. In his own memoirs Hagenbeck reprinted another cartoon headed `Hagenbeck's coming!' showing a cage-wagon driven by animal trappers in the middle of the jungle, away from which all animals flee in panic. Nigel Rothfels writes that Hagenbeck tended to downplay the character of his new zoo as an entrepôt for his animal trade, emphasizing the `Noah's ark' character he would have preferred to give his `invention', but when one reads the old Tierpark guide-books, one notes in fact that Hagenbeck actually used his dealership as a selling point for visitors to come again: who knows what interesting animal will be here next time you come?! Considering the losses animal transports suffered, not to mention animals killed in the process of capturing others, it's legitimate to ask if an animal dealer can really sell himself as a modern-age Noah. But then, must all farmers be condemned as being cruel to animals by nature, as they always know too well what will happen to their lambs and calves come winter? The animal-rights people think they have the answer, but to judge the zoo community of a century ago by the moral standards of today is, again, hardly historical. Suggesting that Hagenbeck may not have been quite the animal lover he claimed to be even by the standards of his own time, Nigel Rothfels quotes him (on page 185) from his autobiography, writing about a walrus hunt, that `the largest bull. . . fortunately killed, had a weight of approximately 3,000 kilograms' (emphasis added). He then scolds Hagenbeck for having been `explicitly pleased that the largest bull in the herd had ``fortunately'' been killed. . .' Thankfully, he is very meticulous in giving his sources. He always quotes from the first German edition of Hagenbeck's memoirs published in 1908, not the abridged English translation (although oddly he always gives the wrong publisher and place of publication for that edition). Now when comparing what Hagenbeck really wrote in the passage quoted, it becomes obvious that Nigel Rothfels, who I know does have a good command of German, is not yet quite fluent: Hagenbeck wrote that the walrus was `glücklich erlegt', that is, successfully hunted. If he had wanted to say that the poor walrus was `fortunately' killed, he would have written `glücklicherweise erlegt'. But he didn't.

Nigel Rothfels' critical look at an important historical figure is certainly refreshing, although it's unfortunate that he lets his own moral standards occasionally get in the way of his scholarship. He has written a genuinely important book for anyone interested in zoos, his perspective is new and convincing, and he has also heeded what many would consider the fifth golden rule of biography: keep it short. What's important for his thesis he has kept to 200 pages of narrative; the rest are his useful endnotes. The book is also nicely illustrated, largely with pictures that make a point. Although two excellent books on Carl Hagenbeck and the Hagenbeck firm respectively were issued in Germany in 1998, the year of the company's sesquicentenary [reviewed in IZN 46 (2), 102–105], Savages and Beasts deserves a German edition. The book's few kinks can surely be ironed out in translation – and, hopefully, in a second English edition as well. Strictly speaking, it is not a biography, it's a history of Hagenbeck's Tierpark in the making. One learns little of Carl Hagenbeck as a man, a human being; it's what he represents that concerns the author. The picture that emerges of Carl Hagenbeck, nevertheless, even through the critical pen of Nigel Rothfels, is the fascinating figure of the man who did, more than any other single personality, give birth to the modern zoo.

Herman Reichenbach

Last updated by ntr:
November 2, 2009