Interesting Animal Tales in France of the 19th Century

Animals were an integral part of people’s lives in the 1800s and there were plenty of interesting animal tales in France to share. For instance, while Englishmen were busy being amazed by the “Learned Pig” called Toby, people in Montpellier, France, were being entertained by a learned dog. One gentleman traveler saw the dog firsthand and wrote that the dog’s intellectual skills were “baffling.” One demonstration of the dog’s skill involved cards where the the dog would bring back to his master any card thrown on the floor that anyone in the room called by name after “his master showed him the fellow to it, which he held in his hand.”[1] Another demonstration with cards involved cards painted various colors that were also thrown on the floor and then the dog’s master “directed the dog’s attention to the gown of some lady present, and the animal immediately sought out, and brought the card of the same color.”[2] But the demonstration that had everyone speechless was the dog’s “arithmetical performance.” Anyone present could write any mathematical problem — addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division — on a slate. “Each time going up to the slate, for a minute to study his lesson, he successively brought up the figure which made the difference.”[3]

The Learned Pig, Animal Tales of France

The Learned Pig. Public domain.

Another story about a dog involves Jean-Jacques Ampère, a French philologist and man of letters. He befriended the famous French socialite Madame Récamier. One story that Ampère told her was how he spent much of his time with the de Jussieu family in his youth. The father, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, was a professor of botany at the Jardin des Plantes, and, his son, Adrien-Henri and Ampère would often take walks in the family’s garden in the morning, but somehow every time they noticed fine fruit that would soon be ripe, the next morning they found it missing. They knew the servants had not gathered it and realized they had a thief on their hands. Upset about the thefts, Adrien-Henri let everyone in the neighborhood know that he was bringing a dog from the Jardin des Plantes that had been reared with the most ferocious of lions.

“He returned in the course of a few days with a fine large Pyrenees dog, the mildest and most inoffensive of creatures, who was thereupon installed in the barn-yard. The poor dog would not have harmed or bitten any one: he had been chosen, in fact, for the remarkable gentleness of his disposition; but his reputation for ferocity, presumed to have been acquired by association with lions, was so thoroughly established … that never afterward did any thief attempt to scale the walls or strip the espaliers; and whenever the harmless creature barked, the peasants within hearing would say with respect, ‘That’s the lions’ dog.'”[4]

Interesting Animal Tales of France

Great Pyrenees. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While you probably expected to find dogs in France in the 1830s, one animal you might not expect to find was the crocodile. But that was precisely case when the Pasha of Egypt decided to send one of his French friends some objects from antiquity and also decided to add several crocodile eggs. When the box reached France it was opened at the customs house and to the amazement of officers, three young crocodiles climbed out. The eggs had apparently hatched either while in quarantine or during the trip. To survive, the hungry crocodiles “sustained themselves by feeding on some papyrus manuscripts and the mummy of an Ibis, which the case contained — nothing being left of this last but the talons, and some feathers.”[5] Because snapping baby crocodiles greeted them, officers quickly cleared the box through customs sending it on its way along with whatever the crocodiles had not eaten.

Crocodile Eggs, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Crocodile Eggs. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another animal that ended up in France in the 1800s was the elephant. This particular female elephant was housed at Les Jardins des Plantes in the menagerie and had an extremely vigilant sentinel who prevented spectators from giving her any casual food. Of course, this did not make the sentinel the elephant’s friend, and every time he prevented her from getting a tasty tidbit, she sprinkled him with water from her trunk. One day numerous spectators were gathered round her and she thought this might be the perfect opportunity for a small piece of bread, “but the rigorous sentinel was … upon duty … [She] watched all his gestures, and the moment he opened his mouth to give the usual admonition to the spectators, [she] discharged a stream of water full in his face.”[6] Of course, all the spectators had a hearty laugh. But the sentinel wiped himself off and continued his vigilance. A few days later, the sentinel was again telling everyone not to feed the elephant. “No sooner had he uttered the words, than the female laid hold of his musket, twirled it round her trunk, trod it under foot, and did not restore it, till it was twisted into the form of a screw.”[7] Unfortunately, it was never clear whether or not that stopped the sentinel’s vigilance, although it did probably cause him to be more cautious.

Interesting Animal Tales of France

Asiatic Elephants. Author’s collection.

While the sentinel may have been cautious about the elephant, Paris dog owners found it wise to be cautious about their dogs in 1825. That was because so many dogs were running loose in Paris, officials decided “every dog having a master should be muzzled or led [by] … leash, on penalty that those who should neglect that precaution should see them poisoned.”[8] Officials also decided to hire dog killers that were charged with exterminating any loose dogs. These dog killers were paid 50 cents per head, which was achieved by strangling the dogs in a “justice-room” where “a machine, the lever of which … [was] put in motion by a girl of 12 or 13.”[9] If that wasn’t bad enough, the dog killers found they could increase their profits by taking leashed dogs from their owners. Thus, they began to impudently seize dogs that were muzzled, sometimes by surprise and sometimes by force. It became so prevalent, dog owners started to arm themselves to protect their animals. One insolent dog killer saw an officer walking his dog and cut the dog leash, but instead of the dog killer making off with the dog, “the officer immediately drew his sword, and laid the miserable wretch dead at his feet.”[10]

Left to Right and Top to Bottom: Retriever, Chinese Dog, Coach Dog, Setter, Shepherd, Bull Dog, Pug, Mastiff, Terrier, and Skye Terrier, Author's Collection

Left to right and top to bottom: Retriever, Chinese Dog, Coach Dog, Setter, Shepherd, Bull Dog, Pug, Mastiff, Terrier, and Skye Terrier. Author’s collection.

Finally, there is an anecdote about a cat. The story was related by the Romantic painter Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix who one day went to an experimental philosophy lecture. The topic of the lecture was to show that life could not be supported without air. To demonstrate, the lecturer placed a cat under glass to which was attached an air-pump.

“The lecturer had already made several strokes upon the piston, in order to exhaust the receiver of air, when the animal, who began to feel herself very uncomfortable in the rarefied atmosphere, was fortunate enough to discover the source from whence her uneasiness proceeded. She placed her paw upon the hole, through which the air escaped, and thus prevented any more from passing out of the receiver.”[11]

When fresh air was pumped in it removed its paw. This the cat did several times to the amazement of the lecturer, which resulted in the spectators clapping at the “wonderful sagacity of the animal; and the lecturer found himself under the necessity of liberating her, and substituting in her place another that possessed less penetration, and enabled him to repeat this cruel experiment.”[12]

Interesting Animal Tales of France

Domestic cats. Author’s collection.


  • [1] Colston, Marianne, Journal of a Tour in France, Switzerland, and Italy, 1822, p. 134.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 135.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Lenormant, Amélie Cyvoct, Madame Récamier and Her Friends, 1867, p. 161-162.
  • [5] Casket, Volume 5, 1830, p. 168.
  • [6] Casket, Volume 1, 1826, p. 213.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “Extermination of Dogs at Paris,” in Morning Post, 21 July 1825, p. 2.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Mechanic’s Magazine Museum, Register, Journal & Gazette, 1832, p. 134-135.
  • [12] Ibid.

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