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Sniffing the Past is proud to present its first guest contribution. Andy Flack recounts a fascinating and surprising history of dogs at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

From the day the Bristol Zoological Gardens opened in July 1836, dogs have been entirely prohibited from accompanying their owners around the Zoological Society’s presentation of the animal world.

The exclusion of dogs shouldn’t surprise us since it is standard practice to prevent pets from entering tourist attractions, particularly when the attraction contains captive creatures. One might expect that the potential for inter-species agitation would become somewhat heightened by the presence of excitable hounds in and around places where exotic creatures reside.

William Hunt, Engraving of the Entrance Lodges at Bristol Zoological Gardens (c. 1840) © Bristol's Museums, Galleries & Archives

Canine exclusion does not, however, tell the whole story. Whilst most domestic dogs were barred from the Zoo, others formed integral elements in its operation as an arena of science and spectacle.

The oldest catalogue of the Zoological Society’s animals still in existence (1843) reveals the presence of an enclosure for exotic dogs. Labradors, St. Bernards and Alaskan Huskies (the latter were referred to as ‘Esquimaux’ dogs in 1867) were kept captive in kennels as part of the Zoo’s core exhibition. Dogs were also donated to the zoo by mariners returning from their travels throughout the British Empire. They were presented alongside animals we would consider to be staple zoo exhibits: monkeys, apes, big cats, colourful birds and reptiles.

The presence of dogs in the collection tells us something important about the way in which we look at, and react to, strange and unfamiliar creatures. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, none of these breeds were commonplace as pets in the UK. The Kennel Club believes that the Labrador originated on the coast of Newfoundland and was only introduced into the UK in the late 1800s. The St. Bernard, meanwhile, was ‘developed’ in the eighteenth century in the vicinity of the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland and gained a legendary reputation as an alpine mission dog, rescuing walkers who encountered trouble traversing the pass. The breed was ‘perfected’ in the UK as the nineteenth century wore on. Finally, Alaskan Huskies (or, more accurately, Malamutes), were domesticated through contact with the Mahlemut tribe in Alaska in the 1750s. In the nineteenth century the breed was taken up by the American fancy. This animal was perhaps emblematic of the Arctic wilderness and evidently an object of admiration. These breeds were unusual in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century and thus were worthy of exhibition alongside the Zoo’s other rarely seen species.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, both the Labrador and St Bernard had disappeared from the collection and in 1950 the Zoo got rid of its last Huskies. By the early decades of the twentieth century these breeds had been increasingly integrated into British culture as pets. No longer emblematic of the strange and unusual, those essential qualities of the exotic, their allure had faded. The dogs were novelties no longer and so were replaced by more exotic animals. The rise and fall of dogs as exotic spectacles sheds some light on the incessant search for unusual animals to exhibit. These once unseen dogs became “seen” and therefore less attractive as zoo spectacles.

As well as forming part of the zoological collection, dogs have also been displayed in other ways. Dog shows were part of the Zoo’s events calendar at various times during the nineteenth century. For instance, on 14 and 15 June 1893, the Clifton Foot Beagles and the Stanton Drew Harriers, two local hunting packs, were displayed and accompanied by the music of the Zoo band. A Grand Parade of prize winners was also staged on the afternoon of the 14th. In addition, the Zoo was once the platform for one of Bristol’s famous dogs, the ‘Bristol Baron’, otherwise known as the St. Bernard Collecting Dog, who usually resided at the Bristol Dogs’ Home. At the 1905 Bristol Royal Infirmary Carnival held at the Zoo, the ‘Bristol Baron’ was deployed to collect money for the hospital. Unlike dogs permanently on display at the Zoo, these dogs were not foci of zoological or touristic observation. Instead, they were objects of fetishistic and sentimental gazing. Those at the dog show were put on display so that their bodies and behaviours might be appreciated, whilst the sight of the ‘Bristol Baron’ in his kennel was supposed to inspire warm feelings towards the dog and “his” cause.

Finally, dogs in the Zoo often performed nurturing roles. They became surrogate mothers and the supposed companions of other animals. A Pointer bitch was used to suckle a leopard cub in 1843, whilst the Zoo placed an advert in the Bristol Mercury in 1870 to find dogs capable of providing milk for its animals. This practice seems to have continued until at least the middle of the 1930s. The illustration below, published in the Sunday Express in 1933, shows what looks like a Border Collie with a lion cub at the Zoo.

24 October 1933, Courtesy of Express Newspapers

It seems probable that dogs were used when the natural mothers rejected their young, though this is never explicitly stated.

As well as mothers, dogs were companions to other animals during the nineteenth century.  In 1841 a ‘little puppy dog’ was given to a male chimpanzee who had gone ‘mad with grief’ after its mate had died. The dog was supposed to console the chimp. One newspaper reported that the strategy succeeded as the chimp took to carrying the young animal around on its back. Later, a spaniel was spotted by a visitor chained at the back of a cage containing a black panther and a number of lions. It had been put there in order to keep the panther company.

The history of dogs at Bristol Zoo, then, presents a certain paradox. They were firmly excluded and yet simultaneously integral to the functioning of the Zoo as a space concerned with the welfare of animals and the provision of amusement. They were looked at as exotic specimens, as well as objects of admiration and sympathy. The instrumental role of dogs in animal entertainments has been vastly understudied. I hope that this blog entry has highlighted some surprising parts that dogs have played in nineteenth and twentieth century Zoos.

About the guest blogger:

Andy Flack is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, working in collaboration with the Bristol Zoo Gardens. His thesis is concerned with uncovering some of the animal histories of the Zoo over its 175 history, thinking about the various ways in which animals have thought about and interacted with by humans in a variety of contexts. Past work has dealt with exotic animals in different cultural contexts. His website is: http://bristol.academia.edu/AndyFlack