The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling

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The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Surgeon, naturalist, conservationist, veterinarian and Victorian eccentric, Frank Buckland was very much a man ahead of his time. A flamboyant but thoughtful man, he did much to advance the cause of science in his own unorthodox way. By turns amusing and serious, this biography tells us much about changing attitudes to conservation and the animal world over the last two centuries.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: November 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781784701611

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As a conservationist in Victorian England before the term existed, Frank Buckland was very much a man ahead of his time. Surgeon, naturalist, veterinarian and eccentric sums him up perfectly, and any biographer is immediately presented with a colourful tale to tell.

Born in 1826, the son of an Oxford professor, canon and geologist whose feats included eating a preserved human heart, he grew up in a home shared with collections of fossils - which he could readily identify by the age of three - and unusual pets, including a monkey and a bear, which roamed freely around the house. At school he used to keep snakes and hedgehogs, trap rats and mice, dissect and sometimes eat them, much to the annoyance of his peers. By the time he left, he had started to obtain human parts from the local hospital and dissect them as well. While studying at Oxford he kept a bear, until the Dean told him to get rid of it or leave.

It was only to be expected that he should make medicine and surgery his career, but at length these vocations took second place to his all-consuming (in more ways than one) interest in natural history. As an active member of a society that supported the introduction of new plants and animals as food sources, he took a major interest in eating and tasting various exotic animal meats, including giraffe, crocodile, monkey, bear and kangaroo. When a friend at Kennington Zoo told him his panther had died and been buried for a couple of days, he immediately asked if it could be dug up so he could be sent some of the chops to try. His request was granted, but he had to admit that the taste 'was not very good'. When two giraffes were killed in a fire at Regent's Park he campaigned for safer stabling in future. It saddened him to see such beautiful creatures, only recently so healthy, now 'motionless, charred, and inanimate', but such sentiment did not stop him from enjoying the toasted flesh that he said afterwards resembled veal.

From our 21st-century perspective, his curiosity may seem to border on the heartless, but by Victorian standards his intense curiosity, borne out of a thirst for furthering the boundaries of scientific knowledge, was little more than slightly peculiar. He was genuinely concerned for the less fortunate, as shown by his compassion for human freaks such as Julia Pastrana, dubbed 'the ugliest woman in the world'. Born in Mexico, she suffered from a genetic condition which covered her face and body in thick black hair, with thick lips and gums like a gorilla. He met and befriended her, and during her short sad life he was one of the few who came to appreciate the person inside the unfortunate exterior. Such stories are quite poignant, but for every one there is an amusing tale as well. He had an aversion to boots which, like many of us, he would happily kick off when not actually walking in them. One day he fell asleep with his feet on the windowsill of a railway carriage, leaving him with no option to arrive at the hotel in his socks. Luckily an observant platelayer was able to help reunite them with their sometimes reluctant owner.

It goes without saying that in Victorian times, society had a much more robust attitude to conservation and potential pests, especially if they were in no danger of extinction. Nowadays we all wish to 'save the whale', but Frank, with his fish farming interests and knowledge, was one of many who saw all species of whales as unwanted plunderers of a vital resource. To him they were 'rascally herring-poaching Finners', and saw no reason why gentlemen should not be allowed to harpoon them for sport. As the author succinctly reminds us, 'different century, different priorities'. In 1869 he served on a committee responsible for framing the Sea Bird Preservation Act. Within a few years it was realised that legally protected black-backed gulls were destroying more fish than all the other salmon poachers in Scotland.

Frank was a flamboyant but thoughtful man, a strange genius who did much to advance the cause of science in his own unorthodox way. Based largely on his own scrapbooks of letters, cuttings and lists, this book is by turns amusing and serious. It makes a lively and very enjoyable read that tells us much about changing attitudes to conservation and the animal world over the last couple of centuries.

For further reading on the subject, Frank Buckland and his father William are both mentioned in Great British Eccentrics by S D Tucker. Another title which will appeal to those interested in the odder aspects and personalities of the nineteenth century is Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorian Ancestors by Jan Bondeson, while from the same author, The Hunt for the Golden Mole: All Creatures Great and Small and Why They Matter offers us a more contemporary perspective on animal conservation issues.

Buy The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history by Richard Girling at Amazon.com.


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