Beautiful Animal of the King


Our Correspondents

Elena Passarello’s column is about famous animals from history. This week: Zarafa.

Design by Kristen Radtke.


All these observations bring to mind the possibility of bringing her to Paris by small daily journeys. No other manner of transport seems preferable to me. Count Villeneuve-Bargemon

At each arrival in populous towns … I had to fight the crowds who rushed tumultuously at the animal. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

The giraffe occupies all the public’s attention; one talks of nothing else in the circles of the capital. —La pandore

Name: Zarafa

Species: Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis

Years Active: 1825–1845

Distinguishing Features: Sixteen-inch prehensile tongue, tufted ossicones, bedroom eyes

Skills: Long walks, befriending dignitaries

Habitat: A parquet-floored wing of the Jardin des Plantes rotunda: “truly the boudoir of a little lady”

Additional Notes: When Zarafa arrived at the port of Marseilles in the autumn of 1826, she did so unnamed. Though she was occasionally called “the child of Egypt,” “Dame Girafe,” or “the Beautiful Animal of the King” by dignitaries, newspapers, and her thousands-strong French fan club, Zarafa lived her eighteen years never officially known as anything but la girafe. There were no other beasts of her kind, you see, with which to confuse her. 

The last giraffe to set foot on the continent—the prize beast of a Medici prince—did so 340 years earlier, but that creature never made it onto French soil. A giraffe could only be found in bestiaries, galleries, and picture books, where a lack of information often led to artistic license. See the squat “girfaunt” of John Mandeville’s medieval travel memoir, with its cat’s head and serpent’s neck; or Bosch’s fancy, snow-white beast, with its sloping back end and the horns of an ibex.

No giraffe had even been to France when King Charles X sent a global request in 1824 for additions to his Jardin des Plantes, which already housed rescued circus bears, exotic birds, and a couple of big cats “liberated” from the defunct menagerie at Versailles. Egypt’s Pasha Muhammad Ali, spotting a diplomatic opportunity, sent word to his Ethiopian contacts to find an even more unforgettable animal for Charles and to keep the delicate creature safe all the way down the Nile and over the Mediterranean.

A hunting party found the two-month-old giraffe in Sennar with her mother. They quickly dispatched the adult and loaded the already six-foot-tall baby onto a camel. Unweaned and vulnerable, she became dependent on the care and affections of the hunters, who had learned from earlier attempts that a giraffe must travel delicately or it would perish. Thus began the first leg of a four-thousand-mile journey—by dromedary, felucca, brigantine, and, finally, foot—that would bring Zarafa within reach of a king.

It took two and a half years to travel from the Sudan to the Mediterranean. In that time, Zarafa nearly doubled in size and soon required six gallons of fresh milk a day. Three cows accompanied her on the ship when it sailed from Alexandria. While other beasts made the crossing at her feet, Zarafa’s head stood a deck above, poking through a little hole padded with straw that her handlers had cut for her. A tarpaulin shielded her head from the elements and she wore an amulet stuffed with Koran verses, tied at the base of her neck with red ribbon, to keep her safe. She rode that way—stuck in place like a fireman’s pole, but guarded like a treasure—for twenty-five days.

The Beautiful Animal of the King first touched French soil on October 31, already an inch taller and surprisingly hale. That she travelled so long with little consequence is nothing short of miraculous; a different giraffe secured by the Pasha for King George IV had barely made it to London the same year. That beast spent the last months of her short life trussed in a harness, her legs too weak to support her own weight.

Zarafa’s French handlers didn’t dare risk a similar fate, so she wintered in a custom-made stable on the grounds of Marseille’s prefect while officials plotted and planned. The best route to Paris, they decided, was not another boat, up the Rhône, but a five-hundred-fifty-mile walk along the gravel roads that led to the capital. Paris sent the esteemed Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—one of Europe’s most prominent men of science—to supervise. A founding professor of France’s natural history museum (and the namesake of Leopardus geoffroyi, a wonderful spotted wildcat), Geoffroy traveled extensively, retrieving exotic specimens, cataloguing natural oddities, and investigating concepts that would eventually bolster Evolutionary theory. This request from the king to bring Zarafa safely to Paris must have felt significant to Geoffroy, now near the end of his great career.

It’s impossible to ignore the ardor with which powerful men like Geoffroy described Zarafa. Their writing on her is delighted, avuncular, and on occasion, downright passionate. When Geoffroy saw her letting a lamb cavort on her back, he called her “as debonair as she is intelligent.” Zarafa’s prefect landlord wrote that she was “glorious as a peacock,” and a Marseillais academic wrote in a sixteen-page pamphlet, baffled and in awe of her nymphet guile: “She seems badly built, unbalanced on her feet, and yet one is seized by astonishment at the sight of her, and one finds her beautiful without being able to say why.”

She walked the road to Paris in a huge two-piece waxed taffeta raincoat—essential for the unusually wet spring. Her entourage included a mounted guard, a pair of sheep, her trusty milk cows, and three footmen, each one holding a leather leash as he walked, to keep any single lead from tugging too harshly on her body. The devoted Geoffroy—though fifty-five and gouty—guided her every step of the trip, which, at two miles an hour, took forty-one days.

They knew the walk would require no small amount of crowd control. Papers had already published essays and illustrations of the fabulous beast at full gallop or reaching to the high branches to snatch a leaf with her shocking tongue. An inn in Tonnerre painted on its shingle the equivalent of THE GIRAFFE SLEPT HERE! and a hotelier in Maisse renamed his whole business after her. In Aix, she walked the thoroughfare twice—an evening show and a matinee—and they thanked her by embroidering a Fleur-de-lis on her raincoat. In Lyon, the mob of fans spooked the police horses and Zarafa bolted, knocking poor Geoffroy to the ground.

When the party neared Paris, King Charles complained he’d be the last Frenchman to lay eyes on his royal gift. He wanted to meet her on the road, but his wife advised him to act like a king and let the giraffe come to him. And so the longest distance Zarafa ever ambled in a day was her final walk: nine miles through Paris to the palace at Saint-Cloud for her audience with the king, and then nine miles back to her tower in the Jardin des Plantes. At the palace, she showed off her signature gallop and ate rose petals straight from the royal hand.

Though she stayed at the Jardin for her remaining seventeen years (with a live-in handler who slept by her every night), Zarafa’s first year in residence was a mob scene. A steady stream of artisans arrived at her tower to sketch her. One ink-drawn headshot has Zarafa in profile, peering under her eyelashes, gamine like a twelve-foot Natalie Portman. Nicolas Huet’s Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt puts all the bestiary doodles to shame, mastering Zarafa’s long legs, proud, straight neck, and tufted ossicones (though perhaps adding a fashionable arch to her brow).

By that fall, everything in Paris was à la girafe: serving ware, confections, songs, and skits. George Sand noted in a letter that her son’s stuffed giraffe toy looked “exactly similar” to the belle of the Jardin. Flaubert once wrote to Sand after a laborious day that he was as tired as Zarafa’s handler must be, post-grooming. Plans were made to erect giraffe-shaped gas lamps around the stock exchange, and, in a strange bit of slang, those stricken with that year’s winter grippe were asked, How goes the giraffe?

A magazine spread on that season’s cravats featured a high-necked collar and a low red silk knot, and ladies stepped out with ribboned amulets at their necks, modeled after the charm Zarafa was given for her sea voyage and that she still sported in Paris. Journal des Dames touted the season’s hot color—“giraffe belly”—and said the must-have sleeve was a yellow puff gathered at the elbow (an homage to Zarafa’s knobby knees). Hats were ordered in giraffe-belly moiré and plush, or trimmed in satin giraffe-yellow cord. Parisians didn’t just want to own the giraffe image; they wanted to become her.

So they combed that giraffe onto their own heads, ordering the friseurs to pile their hair forward and grease it with bear-fat pomatum. They held rods in the fire and curled wet locks around them—piling their tresses up and up from the crown to the ceiling; hair giddily bolstered with wire, toupees, and ribbons; tall enough so that they had to sit on the carriage floors when they rode to parties—lifting themselves toward the beast of the world that France had the greatest desire to see.

Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which will be released by Sarabande Books in February. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.