636: The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya

by Gerard


636: Belozerskaya, Marina. The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. 384 pp. ISBN 0-316-52565-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 630: Agriculture and related technologies
  • 636: Animal husbandry

Human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom share an interesting and symbiotic relationship. People have shaped the history of animals and certain animals have shaped the history of humanity. Marina Belozerskaya’s The Medici Giraffe attempts to bring together seven stories of historic animals to show a timeline of important beasts. Starting with Ptolemy’s war elephants and ending with the historic agreement between the China and the U.S. on the gifting of two rare panda bears to the National Zoo, we see that people are drawn to the exotic. You won’t find simple tales of animal breeding and care here, but rather a portfolio of complicated relationships with the animal kingdom.

Many times while reading this one, though, I felt like the animals were playing second fiddle. For instance, in the chapter on the mass slaughter of exotic animals in the Roman circuses, I don’t think it actually mattered what animals were involved. The story really centered around the social attitudes and actions of a civilization and not the animals. That being said, these make for interesting vignettes that you can come back to after a while. My favorite chapter still tends to be the one on the black swans of Josephine Bonaparte. If you’re an ardent animal lover, however, consider this a warning that a not insignificant percentage of this book is about the neglect and maltreatment of animals at the hands of humans and how that went to show (in some weird way) just how powerful leaders of the day were. On the technical side, Belozerskaya’s writing is fluid and competent but somehow left me a bit underwhelmed. An interesting but not incredible book.