The book covers animals kept as pets, animals imported for show in personal or commercial menageries, animals that were the source of useful products, and the jokes people derived from the animals’ presence. Sometimes, animals were both pets and sources of humor: Women kept parrots as pets, and there were erotic jokes and poetry about the parrot’s closeness to its female owner. The queen’s zebra gave rise to many comments about “the queen’s ass.” Menageries could be private; there was a long spell where the wealthy kept their own aviaries and exotic animals for decoration and prestige. Some of the animals were well-kept, many were kept in crowded quarters where they were regularly poked, prodded, and sometimes hit by the public. All things considered, the fatality rate was exceptionally low.
The book also covers the century in time. Plumb’s work takes the tale of exotics from the early import of canaries, first available only to the very rich, to a time when menageries traveled out into the country so that even small towns saw them. The book moves from people hearing lions roar in London and then on to the closing of most menageries and the opening of exclusive London Zoological Gardens which were arranged more like zoos today but were closed to all but members.
Plumb has done extensive research, looking into old advertisements, newspaper articles, diaries, insurance policies, old books, and letters to see what animals people had and how they viewed them. There are also plenty of later works, looking back. At the same time, there are no points where one feels that he is simply showing off his research; what is there is there for a purpose and the book’s contents are well-organized and highly readable. The result is a highly informative book that gives one a glimpse into the past.
The Georgian Menagerie a well-researched, well-written work that is recommended to students of history and to animal lovers who want a look back.