Wild About Wild Animals
Exotic shows in New Orleans
Photographer John Laughlin captured this image of a fantastic bandwagon, used by Ringling Brothers Circus after 1890, at the Circus World Museum in Milwaukee
According to The New Orleans Item, November 12, 1904, the Ringling Brothers Circus’s “menagerie is the finest in the country. It contains the only rhinoceros with any traveling show; two giraffes, a real baby elephant, a hippopotamus, …and a nursery of baby wild beasts. There are 108 cages in this department of the show.”
Ringling Brothers Circus was founded in 1884, and had been visiting New Orleans regularly by the time this report appeared. The circus parade, possibly including the bandwagon above, was three miles long that year and the big tent show featured 375 performers.
The 1907 circus again featured numerous animal offspring: “The families include Mrs. Alice Elephant and Baby Boo, named for Baraboo, Wisconsin, her birthplace; Mrs. Peruvian Llama and Miss Llama; Mrs. Kangaroo and Baby Kangaroo; Mrs. Leopard and babies; Mrs. Tigress and kittens….” Naming the animals after their birthplace was apparently an established circus custom. According to the November 3, 1907 issue of The Picayune, since one “cute little tiger cub… was born in this section of the country, it was decided to give him a name that would identify him with Louisiana. After much discussion, his sponsors burdened the poor, inoffensive little kitten with Tchefuncte….”
Audubon Park was the site for a 1898 performance, but the Ringling Circus had also appeared at the corner of White Street and Canal, far from the business district.
In 1838, however, St. Charles Avenue near Poydras Street (across from the St. Charles Theatre) was the site chosen by the proprietors of a “Mammoth Exhibition of Wild Animals” for their January showing. “The World of Wonders Embraces All the Specimens of NATURAL HISTORY!!!” including “a full grown African Lion and Lioness, a Leopard and Jaguar, a full grown pair of Royal Bengal Tigers.”
Mr. F. Word “the celebrated conqueror of the Brute Creation” would “handle and caress them with fearlessness” the advertisement promised. Besides that spectacle, visitors could also tour “The New York Travelling Museum and Exhibition of Fine Arts,” This exhibit, in “an adjoining pavilion” included “wax figures, paintings, birds, fish shells, minerals, corals, fossils, insects, etc., etc.”
In 1829, the New Orleans Bee published an advertisement for “A Grand Menagerie” – which had been in the French Quarter across from the Orleans Theater but had moved to Tchoupitoulas and Poydras Streets. The proprietors promised “a zebra, the most beautiful animal in the world,” plus two panthers, a leopard, an African emu, and even “a Shetland pony.”
Furthermore, “there is another curiosity which has never been seen here: a monkey with her little one, which she nurses with all the tenderness of a mother.”
Even domestic animals could perform for New Orleans audiences. On March 20, 1818, the Orleans Gazette carried an advertisement for the Olympic Circus, a venue associated with the St. Philip St. Theater, which offered “Equestrian Exercises” performed by “Edward, aged five years and a half, who will spring round at full gallop, and perform many new and surprising feats for a child of his age.”
Following this, “Mlle. Herminie will make some surprising leaps, spring over four bars, and conclude by a number of new feats on a single horse at full gallop.” After that, “the elegant horse Apollo will jump through a hogshead with his rider on his back.”
Apparently, all those travelling animal shows were an inspiration to the New Orleans public. The Picayune of January 20, 1894, headlined a story: “New Orleans to Have a “Zoo” Garden: Proposition submitted to the Audubon Park Commissioners.”
The proposal was presented by a Mr. A.J. Miller, one of the editors of the Southern Trade Journal. In fact, he offered to head an expedition to Central America for collecting animals for exhibit. And, he suggested that he knew an ideal addition to his crew: a naturalist, someone who is “generally also a taxidermist,” an ideal source for Mr. Miller’s other idea for the perfect zoo addition: “an interesting museum into which could be placed the ornithological and zoological stuffed specimens.”
Patrons might be warned not to expect any performances from those exhibits. (The Audubon Zoo dates its beginnings to twenty years later, 1914.)