A Brief History of Weird, Exotic Pets in France

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Forget the dogs and cats slinking around the house! A cosmopolitan country requires diverse zoological specimens. 

Wild animals have made for some dangerously chic pets in France—it is, after all, the country that gave us the world’s first public zoo in the Jardin des Plantes, where beasts from across the globe were housed for scientific study. Many French monarchs imported exotic creatures for the sake of staging gruesome animal brawls to entertain royal guests, but most were simply itching for some fascinating, one-of-a-kind pets.

Here’s a list of the weirdest untamed (and hopefully not too long-suffering) beasts kept as pets in France—some by the famous, others by lesser-known kooks—romping around on everything from pinchers to claws to hooves:

Painter Salvador Dalí was known for his eccentric art and kooky demeanor, but his taste in furry companionship seemed to top it all. The Spanish surrealist kept his pet ocelot, Babou, in tow during the 1960s, even on the glamorous ocean liner, the SS France. The Colombian cat once accompanied him to an art gallery in Paris to the horror of the owner, who furiously confronted Dalí about the animal making a “nuisance” all over some priceless engravings. Dalí responded, “A nuisance of Dalí’s can only increase their value.” Lo and behold, the gallery owner raised the cost of his stained—and now extra-historic—engravings by fifty percent.

Dalí had a propensity for bizarre pets from a young age: he also had a pet bat as a child. Besides Babou, the Ocelot Art Critic, Dalí was also photographed walking an ant-eater on a leash around Paris in 1969.

Sylvie author Gérard de Nerval kept a pet lobster named Thibault, that he walked around Paris on a blue silk leash. The 19th century Romantic poet was reportedly seen strolling around the gardens at the Palais-Royal with his trusty crustacean. After some curious glances and questions from passersby, Nerval explained, “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.”

Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s wife, kept black swans, emus, and kangaroos. But her favorite pet was a female orangutan named Rose. She sported a white chemise and apparently had excellent table manners, which is why she was often a guest at dinner, although if she was truly possessed of the finer graces, Rose would have had more sense than to share a bed with the Bonapartes as well. The great ape also had a penchant for turnips.

King Charles X received perhaps one of the most wondrous creatures ever to grace France: a giraffe named Zarafa. A diplomatic gift from Egypt, Zarafa’s journey started in southern Sudan on a custom-designed barge that carried Zarafa 2,000 miles northward along the Nile. From Alexandria, the giraffe embarked on a month-long sea voyage to Marseille, arriving there in October 1826. In May of the following year, a convoy led by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (scientist and head of the zoo at Jardin des Plantes) marched the 12-foot-tall animal toward Paris, which was still 560 miles away. To protect Zarafa from the elements during this trek, she had her own raincoat, embossed with the king’s fleur-de-lis coat of arms.

Forty-one days later—two years after she had left Egypt—Zarafa was presented to the king and eventually drew massive crowds at the Jardin des Plantes zoo. Her arrival in France marked the first time anyone in the country had ever seen a giraffe.

The “Black Pearl,” Josephine Baker—Dalí’s dancing contemporary during the Jazz Age—brought her pet cheetah to Paris with her, often allowing the cat to join her onstage during her performances. Chiquita the Cheetah (because, of course, that was her name) even slept alongside Baker in her bed, which beats having Napoleon’s orangutan stealing your covers.

King Louis XIV was a chien kind of guy at heart, though he spiced up his ménageries at Versailles and Vincennes with exotic faunae to entertain his guests. Most notably, the Sun King kept a pet elephant, whose skeleton (displayed at the Jardin des Plantes) was tragically hacked by a chainsaw-wielding ivory thief in 2013.

Feminist icon Marguerite Durand often moseyed around Paris with her pet lion, appropriately named “Tiger.” Durand was a French stage actress, journalist, and women’s rights advocate who co-founded the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, an animal cemetery in Paris where her lion is buried thanks to her clever and ambiguous use of the catch-all “Other.”

Montpelier aristocrat Baron Richard d’Arcy, on the other hand, tried to get his two-year-old pet lion, Karal, to go into the bathroom where it usually slept. It repaid his hospitality by attacking and killing the baron who, let’s be honest, should not have had a lion in his bathroom.

Anthony Crapet, whose name cannot possibly be real, is hoping for a more Durand relationship with the lion he keeps in his backyard in Poussan.

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was touring the 24 United States as a victorious general of the American Revolution, and picked up more than a fair few gifts from grateful countrymen—including an alligator. The creature was still with him when he visited then-President John Quincy Adams. Perhaps the Marquis thought the alligator a fitting companion to Washington, D.C., which was at that time still largely swampland. Adams kept the creature in a bathtub in the East Wing of the White House, reportedly delighting in the sounds of his guests’ screams when they took a bathroom break.

King Louis XVI assembled an impressive creature collection during his nearly two-decade reign over France alongside his wife, Marie Antoinette. By 1783, he was enjoying the rare company of an ostrich, dromedary, camel, and tiger, along with lions, jackals, antelopes, and hyenas. The king also had a pet zebra and once sent the French Consul to try to secure a mate for the animal, but to no avail. The king, who was beheaded nine months before Antoinette, also took a shine to toy poodles.

Before you head to the nearest pet store or jungle to find a companion, don’t forget: in France, it’s illegal to name your pet pig Napoleon.

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