Manet’s Cat: the Siege of Paris

by / Sunday, 18 August 2013 / Published in France, History, Paris

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I used to go by the Paris zoo regularly when taking the 63 bus into the Latin Quarter. I would invariably glimpse a lhama forlornly lumbering across a patch of dirt in a large enclosure. I never saw many visitors.  

I visited a zoo for the first time when I was about four or five. I can still recall my feeling of shock and sadness as I watched a large lion pacing frantically in a small cage as hundreds of humans inspected its movements. I felt the same emotions when passing the Jardin des Plantes decades later, except at the Jardin des Plantes there were no crowds of curious onlookers. I wondered with a twinge of indignation why animals are kept in such conditions in the centre of major cities.

The Jardin des Plantes zoo is the oldest in the world, stretching back to 1793 in the turbulent wake of the French Revolution when thousands of heads were tumbling off Robespierre’s guillotines. Something had to be done with the decapitated French king’s private collection of animals in Versailles, so they were moved to the Jardin des Plantes – elephants, hippos, bears, lions, tigers, seals, and many other species.

Zoos later became immensely popular in the 19th century as crowds flocked to gaze at exotic animals – giving little thought to the cruel conditions these creatures were enduring as public displays to satisfy human curiosity. A monkey house was installed in 1837. The great attraction of the Paris zoo was Jumbo the elephant in the early 1860s. Fortunately for Jumbo, he was moved to the London zoo in 1865, thus escaping the Prussian siege of Paris five years later.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-18 à 09.16.05The Franco-Prussian War has almost vanished from collective memory, though it was a horrendously traumatic event for Parisians. Napoleon III, a man of astoundingly poor judgement, declared war on Prussia on the absurd pretext that the Prussian emperor Wilhelm I had insulted him. Bismarck was only too happy that war had been declared. It took the Prussians only a few weeks to defeat France after a relentless siege of the French capital. It was the Franco-Prussian War that gave birth to modern Germany.

The siege of Paris in late 1870 brought the population to near starvation. Parisians were so famished they began killing and eating dogs, cats, pigeons and rats. People were queuing at butchers to buy scraps of dog and cat meat. It’s estimated that some 65,000 horses were slaughtered as food in Paris during the siege of Paris – including two of Napoleon III’s stallions given to the French emperor by the Russian czar as a gift.

It is also claimed that the painter Manet was forced to eat his own cat. We do know that Manet – whose works sometimes featured cats — was eating horsemeat during the siege. In a letter to his wife Suzanne, he wrote: “There are cat, dog and rat butchers in Paris now, we eat nothing but horse when we can get it at all.”

The siege of Paris was not good news for the animals at the Jardin des Plantes zoo. Parisians were so starved that the zoo animals were slaughtered for food. The only animals spared were monkeys and lions. The two elephants Castor and Pollux were – like Jumbo before them — hugely popular with Parisian crowds. No matter, Castor and Pollux were shot and killed to be eaten.

Historians argue that the siege of Paris had a profound impact on the relationship between Parisians and animals – especially culinary habits. During the siege restaurants boasted menu items such as ‘jugged cat with mushroom’, ‘roast donkey and potatoes’, ‘rats, peas, and celery’, ‘mice on toast’, and ‘dog cutlets with petits pois’. More exclusive establishments offered ‘elephant consommé’ and ‘roasted camel à l’anglaise’. The impact on French culinary habits proved enduring, notably the taste for horsemeat. Dog and cat meat too. As alarming as it seems today, there were still boucheries canines and félines in Paris in the early twentieth century.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-18 à 13.06.46The Paris zoo slowly recovered from the shock of the siege. At the turn of the century Parisian artists went to the zoo and set up their easels in front of the cages to paint the exotic animals. By the mid-century, however, the Jardin des Plantes zoo was languishing as Parisians preferred newer zoos outside the city.

The Jardin des Plantes zoo is still there today, its animal residents reduced in  number and no longer major attractions to the public. There are plans to inaugurate a new ecology-friendly “parc zoologique” in Vincennes next year. It will feature different “bio zones” and their animal species. It’s progress, to be sure, but I still remain faithful to my first reaction to zoos when I was a small boy. In the 21st century, keeping animals in enclosures to satisfy our own curiosity seems unnecessary and cruel.

The famous 19th century elephant Jumbo, by the way, got out of Paris in time to escape a fate on someone’s dinner menu. But he met a sad end. Jumbo was a victim of his own fame. At the height of Jumbo’s celebrity in the London zoo, the American circus impresario P.T. Barnum offered a colossal sum to buy the elephant and take him to America. Despite an emotional outpouring of opposition to the sale, Jumbo was sold off and left for America in 1882. After amusing New Yorkers at Madison Square Garden, Jumbo went on the road as a circus act – and in 1885 he was killed in a small Canadian town when accidently struck by a local train.