W. Clerk, Matters of Taste, As Regards Natural History (No. 1), lithograph, ca. nineteenth century.
The NPR station WNYC is hosting an initiative they call Wild New York, in which listeners are encouraged to snap and submit pictures of urban nature. The idea is to celebrate Earth Day by drawing city dwellers’ attention to the beauty all around us, and the result is a riot of birds’ nests, plants pushing up between paving stones, blooming trees and, yes, pigeons. It’s lovely, and I’d happily submit if I’d seen anything save a small rat and a decorative cabbage in the last two days.
Like most cities, this one has often had an uneasy relationship with the natural world. A particularly galling reminder of this is the photographic record of a 1920s and thirties craze: animal mania. Like many fads of the era—phone-booth stuffing, goldfish swallowing, pole balancing—animal mania was brief, giddy, frivolous, and paid by the realities of World War II. But even at its apex—think Bringing Up Baby, a screwball centered around a pet leopard—animal mania was a rarified phenomenon: even pre-Depression, most people couldn’t afford an exotic wild animal to parade at parties.
Gertrude Lintz (whose memoir was titled, Animals Are My Hobby) kept a large collection of pets at her Brooklyn home, including gorillas and chimps, who, for a while, were dressed up in outfits and forced to eat with cutlery, before being sold off to circuses and zoos. Josephine Baker walked a pet cheetah on a jeweled leash. Ruth Harkness, meanwhile, went to China to personally capture a panda cub, whom she hand-fed with formula on the cruise back and who, yes, eventually ended up in a zoo. Private zoos and menageries (William Randolph Hearst’s was of course one of the more elaborate) were a status symbol. And in her new biography of Shirley Jackson, Ruth Franklin notes that Bennington College was forced to implement a rule—something they’d initially hoped, progressively, to avoid—to curb the wealthy student body’s penchant for in-dorm fauna. For the rest of us, dubious circuses proliferated.
It would be nice to think we’ve come a long way in the city, and certainly appreciations like WNYC’s or natural habitats at the Bronx Zoo are encouraging. (For the moment, the invasive lizards and monstrous fish decimating local populations—and brought over as exotic pets—still feel Saul Steinberg–remote.) Surely as a society and a city, we frown on such displays of arbitrary power over the natural world. On the other hand, only last week the New York Post ran a story about a pair of wild socialites—described as “obnoxious dandies about Manhattan”—complaining that “their plans to arrive at the Met Gala in a gold Rolls-Royce and accompanied by a baby panther wearing a diamond necklace had fallen through.”
“You’re nobody until PETA either loves you or hates you,” one of the lads told Vanity Fair.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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