Where we left off: But we were never confronted by anything spectacular, nothing like that energetic New York kangaroo whose adventure prompted me to start looking for info on strange pets. What I found is worth retelling.
Show biz people seemed most likely to favour the unusual, so that’s where I searched first. And it soon became apparent that nobody had been a match for Michael Jackson in his zeal to collect bizarre animals. Owning a private menagerie on his Neverland 2,700 acre spread became a priority for him. He visited friends, attended rehearsals and entertained audiences around the world, accompanied by some of his favourite pets, on stage and off.
Quincy Jones, who is a legend in the music industry as trumpet player, arranger and general all-round nice guy, took exception when one day Jackson arrived at their recording session wrapped in Muscles, his enormous live boa constrictor. The snake actually took a nip out of Quincy’s little daughter who was in the studio at the time. That incident really soured the relationship between the two entertainers from then on.
Jackson also spent many happy hours with his eighteen foot white python, but his favourite pet was Bubbles the chimp, which travelled with him everywhere and slept in the same bed regularly. This little character, as you can imagine, created lots of work for housemaids and hotel cleaning staff around the world, but as its owner was a big tipper, compensation was always liberal. There were even rumours that the chimp was offered book and movie deals after his master’s death in 2009!
Yes, it’s all there in the MJ biog, page after whacky page. And the urge to please Michael in his high flying days prompted many admirers to present him with more bizarre live gifts, including a five ton Indian elephant that arrived in 1991. Her name was Gypsy. She was a thank you present from Elizabeth Taylor to her dear friend for hosting the last in her string of eight marriage ceremonies. On that day the bridal party and 160 very special guests at the ranch were guarded by a hundred security agents on the ground and a flight of helicopters above. But that didn’t faze one of the intrepid paparazzi. He jumped into the fray by parachute!
So for me, linking celebrities with their pets was fun, but it was also illuminating. Who would have thought that George Clooney would be so devastated when Max, his 300lb pet pot-bellied pig died in ’06? Mind you, he and his hog had been together for 18 years.
Leonardo diCaprio, who like me has a soft spot for terrapins, paid the princely sum of $400 for a colourful tortoise five years ago, and it will probably outlive him and all his Hollywood contemporaries. Most of them would probably prefer a less silent pet. Reese Witherspoon for instance has two noisy ones, and they cavort around her paddock. Honky and Tonky hee-haw their way through their days and occasionally their nights, much to the chagrin of her complaining neighbours, who don’t share her love of donkeys.
Back in the Thirties the legendary Josephine Baker was the talk of Paris and kept her French fans in thrall off stage as well as on, by mincing down the Champs-Elysee with a large leopard on a jeweled chain. Her chauffeur always opened the rear door of the white Rolls Royce first on one side for the big cat to leap in, then on the other for Josephine to gracefully enter. The crowds in the sidewalk cafes were always impressed by this well-rehearsed performance.
And of course during our various armed conflicts, the company of pets did much to raise the moral of soldiers, sailors and airman on both sides. I wrote a column a while back on the role played in the First World War by the Canadian bear cub Winnie, who became so popular through the writings of A.A. Milne, long after hostilities ended. But nothing quite matches the exploits of a tough little moggy which used up three of his nine lives in surviving sea battles of the last war. Unsinkable Sam as he became known, was a favoured pet of a gun crew on the mighty German battleship Bismarck. She met her fate against the combined British fleet in frigid northern waters. Very few of her crew survived and the British destroyer Cossack picked up most of the half-dead sailors who did. One of them had the cat tucked into his jacket.
The destroyer crew made much of their new shipmate, but it wasn’t long before a U-boat torpedo sent Cossack to the bottom, with much loss of life. But Sam survived, was rescued and put ashore at Gibraltar. His reputation now earned him respect around the fleet and the crew of the legendary aircraft carrier Ark Royal won the right to invite him on board. Months later, the news that the carrier had been sunk sent shock waves through the navy and the nation. But guess who survived? Rescue boats found Sam clinging to a piece of debris and according to an officer’s report, he was “soaking wet, very angry, but quite unharmed!”
By then the Royal Navy was taking no more chances with its famous feline mascot. Sam was honourably discharged and presented to fellow matelotes at the Old Seaman’s Home in Belfast. He stayed there dry and much loved, and crossed the bar for old sailors in 1955.
History is full of animals wild and tame that embellished the images of the high and mighty. The Romans in particular, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians sported everything from eagles to lions as confirmation of status. (Sadly, nowhere is a tortoise mentioned).
And I mustn’t ignore pets in history and those today, which do tricks to entertain. For instance, in the first Queen Elizabeth’s time, she and her court were fascinated by the ability of a handsome horse trained to dance and prance to the music of the fife, and even keep count of numbers called out to him.
The narrow-minded church bishops attending her Majesty inevitably took exception to these performances, and soon William Bates, the horse’s owner, was arraigned on charges of witchcraft. So was the horse. The ecclesiastics demanded death sentences.
When the case came up before the Lord Chamberlain, Blake’s plea for mercy was unexpectedly reinforced, because his horse actually knelt before the Bench in supplication. That did the trick; the Tudor equivalent of “case dismissed” was the verdict, and the two performers were allowed to retire to a quiet life in the country, where they both enjoyed Bates’ considerable earnings.
The history of pets and people seems inexhaustible, but the smiles that some of these relationships produce for us have occasionally turned to horror. We realize only too well that the wild creatures favoured by a few misguided owners can be a lethal menace, if let loose or when they manage to escape captivity. Even an untrained dog can wreak havoc and injury. Those incidences are reported so often that sanity should be our guide in choosing a pet, because responsibility for its behaviour really rests with us, seldom with the animal.
And one last point. We owners usually have high regard and affection for our pets, but do we ever give a thought to what they think of us? On the wall just above me is some framed calligraphy which I enjoyed scribing many years ago. This is what it says: “If you need to know the character of a man, find out what his cat thinks about him!”
Mine is stoically silent on that subject. I bet yours is too.
Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.