Annual Peacock Party

Perhaps not very well-known among Filipino readers, Flannery O’Connor was an American fictionist best known for her short stories. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, where her house was converted into a museum and home of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation.

But aside from O’Connor’s writing, she was also known for her love of peacocks. She kept as many as forty of them on her property. In 1961, she wrote an essay called “Living with a peacock,” where she said, “Some people are genuinely affected by the sight of a peacock, even with his tail lowered, but do not care to admit it; others appear to be incensed by it. Perhaps they have the suspicion that the bird has formed some unfavorable opinion of them.”

Every year in October, the foundation celebrates its anniversary with the Annual Peacock Party. In March, they sponsor the Flannery O’Connor Homemade Parade and Block Party, where Savannah natives celebrate the author and her quirks with gorilla suits and peacock feathers.

Dickens and Grip

Who doesn’t know Charles Dickens? Whether it’s “A Christmas Carol,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” or “Great Expectations,” you’ve probably read his work or seen a movie adaptation. Did you ever notice a raven in any of those stories? If you’ve read Barnaby Rudge, you might have met
Grip the Knowing.

According to Brain Pickings, “Dickens had a beloved pet raven named Grip, who made frequent cameos in the writer’s fiction. In 1841, a few months after swallowing a paint chip, Grip
perished. After Grip died, Dickens had him taxidermied. Literary historians believe the bird inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” written shortly after Poe reviewed Dickens’s
Barnaby Rudge, which features a talkative raven. Grip now lives in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.”

Grip was so famous, and such an influence on Dickens’ life and work, that he was “declared a ‘Literary Landmark’ by a national library association.

Inspiration for Illustration

Who doesn’t know Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle Duck? The Tailor of Gloucester and Mr. Tod? Beatrix Potter is known for her adorable stories about rabbits and ducks and all sorts of
creatures from the English countryside.

Her own illustrations accompany these cute tales, with the little dears clad in waistcoats and bonnets of dainty colors. Apparently Potter was in the habit of capturing wild mice and other rodents, keeping them “in beautiful Victorian cages on her drawing table. After rendering studies of their shining pelts and bright eyes, she often dissected the animals to study their muscle structure. Potter’s illustrations might be cute, but they are also realistic, right down to the viscera.”

So from pets, the rodents became lab subjects. No wonder her illustrations were anatomically correct!

Byron’s Bear

If George Gordon, Lord Byron, were around today, he’d be such a rock star. He would be surrounded by screaming fan girls, and youngsters would parrot his fashion and quirks.
But even in his own time, Byron was quite the rebel. Romantic and sexual affairs with men and women inspired his poetry and scandalized his peers. Of course, his talent was unquestionable—
and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage made him an overnight success.

His choice of pets, too, was quite unorthodox. “Lord Byron kept a menagerie that included everything from monkeys, foxes, and badgers to herons, cranes, and crocodiles.”

His penchant for unusual pets went back to his school days. “While a student at Cambridge, for example, he kept a tame bear as a pet, taking it for walks as one would a dog.”

Little Oddity

Other writers preferred the small but terrible.

French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire was no stranger to scandal himself. His volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal, described “described lesbian love and vampires,” and “afforded Baudelaire a degree of notoriety.” He gained quite a reputation for being eccentric, and
deliberately enhanced it by doing such things as keeping “a tarantula in a jar on the window ledge, perhaps as an artistic affectation.”

Managing a Menagerie

Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a “beloved wombat named ‘Top,’ triggering a fetishist interest in wombat pets among the cognoscenti. While waiting for his marsupial to arrive by ship, he wrote: ‘Can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat?’”

But the wombat was just one of his many creature companions. He reportedly also kept “a Brahmin bull, a zebra, an armadillo, a wallaby, a Japanese salamander and an Irish deerhound, dormice, rabbits, marmots, woodchucks, laughing jackasses, a Pomeranian puppy, owls and parrots… The bohemian poet was a sucker for every creature from the clumsiest caterpillar to the most graceful gazelle. He wanted to add a young elephant to the population, but balked at the exorbitant price quoted by his pet broker.”

Some of these animal anecdotes are recorded in journals and letters, but others are hearsay and gossip passed down as history. Either way, tales of these authors’ lives and their
obsessions are just as entertaining as novels and poetry.

Read Part 1.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s December 2015 issue.