The use of animals for entertainment dates back thousands of years. Even ancient civilizations were fascinated by exotic animals. Archaeological evidence shows that lions were kept in cages in Macedonia as far back as 2,000 B.C. Egyptian, Chinese, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman rulers also collected wild animals, as did the Abbasid princes of Arabia. Ancient collections often included elephants, bears, giraffes, and big cats. Historians believe that wild animals were kept and shown off by rulers as a symbol of power and wealth.
The Greeks were among the first to collect wild animals to learn about them. Their collections had an educational purpose. By contrast, the Roman Empire focused on the wild nature of the animals. The emperors entertained themselves and the public by holding spectacles in which
animals fought to the death with each other and with human gladiators. These events took place in great circular arenas called circuses. One of the most famous was the Circus Maximus in Rome, which held about 300,000 spectators.
Animal entertainment based on violence, particularly dog- and cockfighting and bull- and bearbaiting, continued in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Captive wild animals were also popular as items of curiosity. European explorers brought back exotic species from all over the world to put in exhibits called menageries. The French word ménagerie means housing for domestic animals. Wild animal menageries used cages or small pits to protect people from the animals and still allow easy viewing.
King Henry I of England (1068–1135) established Britain's royal menagerie in the town of Woodstock. Later this collection was moved to the Tower of London, where it remained for several hundred years. It featured many exotic animals that were captured from the wild or presented as gifts to British royalty by the leaders of other countries (the practice of government leaders presenting each other with gifts of wild animals still existed in some parts of the world in the twenty-first century). At various times, these animals included African elephants, leopards, lions, camels, and even a polar bear and a porcupine. The royal menagerie was the longest continuously running animal exhibit in the world.
Some medieval entrepreneurs took their menageries on the road. They traveled the countryside, collecting money from curious spectators. By the end of the 1700s, these traveling menageries were called circuses. It was also in the eighteenth century that the first real zoos were established in France, Spain, and Austria. Historians note, however, that the Aztec civilization of Mexico had large zoos at least two centuries before this. The first British and American zoos opened to the public in the mid-1800s.
Wild-animal performances were perfected in the traveling menageries, circuses, and sideshows of the 1800s. Famous animal trainers of the period included Henri Martin (1793–1882) of France and the American Isaac Van Amburgh (1801–65). Van Amburgh allegedly was the first man to entertain a crowd by putting his head into a lion's mouth in 1833. His act also included a lion and lamb that would lie peacefully side by side. Van Amburgh was greatly admired for his heroic and wondrous feats. In portraits he was depicted in gladiator costume, and in the press he was described as a "conqueror" of wild animals.
Most acts of the time focused on the ferocity of the animals and the bravery of the trainer. Lions were trained to roar and swat at the trainers, who fended them off with whips and chairs. These daring acts thrilled audiences, but the training methods used could be brutal. Trainers had to establish absolute dominance over their animals to prevent them from actually attacking. Animals usually were beaten, starved, and occasionally had their teeth pulled to render them less dangerous.
Zoos, circuses, and other forms of "wild" animal entertainment were especially popular in England and America during the late nineteenth century. Historians note that many performing animals suffered terribly from poor care. In his online article "Romantic Rhinos and Victorian Vipers: The Zoo as Nineteenth-Century Spectacle" (http://www.dickinson.edu/~nicholsa/Romnat/zoos.htm), Ashton Nichols reported that large mammals in captivity in the mid-1800s lived for an average of only two years and faced an "immeasurable amount of disease, suffering, and death."
Wild animals were not the only animal entertainers of the time. In the nineteenth century horses, dogs, and other domesticated animals performed in variety shows throughout Europe and the United States. Near the end of the century, animal acts were incorporated into a new form of American entertainment—vaudeville. Vaudeville shows consisted of short theatrical acts performed on stage. They usually included jugglers, singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, and performing animals.
The Library of Congress maintains a collection of vaudeville memorabilia on its Web site (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vshome.html). As of 2005, the collection included playbills as well as audio and video recordings of various vaudeville acts. Three of the films depict popular animal acts: Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog; a troupe of performing dogs and cats in Stealing a Dinner; and Jumbo—The Trained Elephant. The Web site reports that a variety of other animals, including sheep, pigs, bears, donkeys, monkeys, and birds, also performed in vaudeville shows. Vaudeville remained popular until about 1920, when it was overshadowed by radio and motion pictures.
These new entertainment media also featured animal acts. A German shepherd dog named Rin Tin Tin became a popular movie star during the 1920s after he was rescued from a German kennel during World War I (1914–18). He was featured in twenty-six movies and reportedly received more than 10,000 fan letters a week. Rin Tin Tin died in 1932. The next year, a movie called Black Beauty was released, based on a popular book about a horse's life and hardships in nineteenth-century England. A decade later, a dog whose real name was Pal became an entertainment sensation in the 1943 movie Lassie Come Home. A Lassie radio show followed in 1947, and a television show in 1954. The original television show aired for seventeen years. Numerous other movies and television shows were produced featuring Pal's descendents starring as Lassie.
The movie and television industry became major media outlets for animal entertainment during the latter part of the twentieth century. Circuses and other traditional shows featuring live wild animal acts faded in popularity as they competed with new venues, such as theme parks and aquariums with exotic animals. In 1962 the first Sea World marine park opened in San Diego, California. The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park was established in 1969. Busch Gardens of Florida began in the late 1950s as a beer-tasting factory open to the public. Over the following two decades the company added elaborate bird and animal acts and amusement park rides to create a theme park. During the late 1990s and early 2000s Sea World and Walt Disney World both added massive animal theme parks to their existing attractions.
Exotic animal acts evolved during the twentieth century. Shows today are often marketed as a chance for people to get closer to nature and to help protect endangered species. Tourists pay to swim with captive dolphins at beach resorts. Sea World in Orlando, Florida, advertises "amazing animal encounters" for its guests with killer whales, dolphins, sea lions, and stingrays.