Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 2

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Sawdust and Spangles by William Cameron Coup
The Perilous Business of Stocking a Menagerie

II

THE PERILOUS BUSINESS OF STOCKING A MENAGERIE

There are at least two features of the show business which are seldom exaggerated, no matter how capable the showman may be at blowing his own horn or how brilliant may be the accomplishments of his advertising man as a professional prevaricator. These features are the great cost of stocking a menagerie and the danger attending the capture and handling of the savage creatures. Few people not in the business have any idea what it costs to get together and maintain a large collection of animals.

Perhaps the only reason why these phases of the business have not been magnified by the eloquent pens and tongues of the advance men is because they are well-nigh incapable of exaggeration. The plain truth concerning them is as astonishing and sensational as would be any addition thereto, and consequently the advertising men have been tempted to regard this as a field which does not invite a display of their special talents.

I know of one showman who paid $10,000 for a hippopotamus. This figure would have been as effective for advertising purposes as twice that amount—and yet I do not recall that this price was made much of in the advertising put out by the proprietor. At the time I went into the great New York Aquarium enterprise I remember having one day figured up the amount which I had paid Reiche Brothers, then the leading animal dealers of the world. It reached the neat sum of half a million dollars. This, however, was but a fraction of the fortune I had been called upon to invest in wild animals. Besides buying from other dealers, I had been interested in several independent animal hunting expeditions to Africa. This was a tremendously expensive experience, and led me to a willingness to pay the very large profits demanded by the established animal houses rather than attempt to go into the forests and jungles with my own expeditions. These houses were able to employ educated Germans who delighted in the adventure, and they saved us time, anxiety and money.

BEASTS AT WHOLESALE

In this particular branch of trade Germans take the lead. Charles Reiche, the New York partner, came to this country a very poor boy, and began peddling canaries, bullfinches, and other songbirds. He made his start in 1851 when he went to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and employed natives to carry the living freight on their backs. He marched with his men and carried a heavier burden than any servant in the caravan. His only great competitors were the Hagenbacks, of Hamburg. Since the death of the Reiche Brothers, the Hagenbacks have almost monopolized the trade, supplying the menageries and zoological gardens of the world. The Reiche Brothers left an enormous fortune made from this humble beginning.

There is something thrilling in the thought of the lives that have been lost, the sufferings and hardships endured, the perils encountered, and the vast sums of money expended in the capture and transportation of wild animals for the menageries, museums and zoological gardens. Indeed, the business has been so exclusively in the hands of two very quiet gentlemen, whose agencies cover nearly half the globe, that beyond the managers of gardens and shows, only a very limited number of persons have any conception of the extent of their operations.

THE PROFESSIONAL ANIMAL HUNTER

The head of the Reiche firm, and its directing spirit, was Mr. Charles Reiche, who was well educated and had traveled widely. His New York establishment was each day passed unnoticed by thousands of pedestrians, yet from it wild animals were supplied to almost every traveling show in the United States. The great supply depot for this country was in Hoboken. Henry Reiche, his brother, lived in Germany, where they had a large supply farm for all the world, with accommodations and appliances for keeping almost every bird, beast and reptile produced by any country or clime of the world. They were ready at any time to fill an order for anything, from a single canary to a flock of ostriches, or from a field-mouse to an elephant.

Africa, the home of the most fiercely voracious animals, was their most extensive field for operations. In it they had many stations, with sheiks or chiefs in their employ, and standing rewards offered to natives for choice specimens of rare birds or beasts. During nine months of every year they had a band of experienced white African hunters traveling from station to station, overseeing and directing the work of the natives, and capturing elephants, lions, leopards, tigers and such other beasts as they might be instructed to obtain. The company, usually composed of four or six, and never more than eight, was under the command of Charles Lohse, a veteran hunter and trapper, and started from Germany about the first of September and generally returned from Africa early in June. During the remaining three months of the year, the rainy season, the climate is so unhealthful that it is almost certain death for a white man to remain in Africa.

STRIKING INTO THE INTERIOR

Starting from Germany, the hunters used to take a complete outfit of clothing and firearms, gifts for the chiefs, and from seven to twelve thousand dollars in drafts and letters of credit. They would go to Trieste, thence to Corfu, in Greece, thence to Alexandria, and by rail to Suez. There they would exchange their money for Austrian silver dollars, the only coin known to the Arabs and sheiks of Africa. A Bank of England note was valueless to them, and the brightest specimen of an American gold eagle would not buy the meanest ring-tailed monkey. They next took the Turkish steamer to Judda and thence to Sarachin, the last station before they commenced their long, tiresome and dangerous march across the Nubian Desert. For this undertaking they bought camels, water and provisions, and hired such of the sheiks and other natives as they needed, the latter being cheap enough, generally costing five dollars, and occasionally seven dollars, each for the trip across the desert. When the caravan arrived at its destination the poor fellows were left to get back as best they could. In this manner they traveled to Honiahn, the principal station of the company in Africa, where the distinctions of caste are strictly maintained.

HUNTERS' LIFE IN THE JUNGLE

Every white man had a "mansion," which consisted of a straw house about twenty feet wide by thirty feet deep, and was divided into two rooms. In such houses they lived and slept, and in one of them they kept the money which had been brought across the desert in trunks on the backs of camels.

No attempt was made to hide it, nor was there any secrecy as to where it was packed during the long journey. So honest were the native blacks that not a dollar was lost by carelessness or theft. Frequently there would be ten thousand of these silver dollars in the hut, with only one or two white men in camp, surrounded by negroes, Arabs and half-breeds; yet no attempt at robbery was ever made. The half-civilized natives, knowing they were not entitled to a dollar until they had earned it, never tried to get it in any other way. The natives slept where and as they pleased, and three times a day were given a fair supply of Indian corn, which they would grind and, after adding a little water, would cook over their own fires, making a sort of biscuit. The white men had negro cooks and lived luxuriously. They had eggs, coffee and Indian corn biscuit for breakfast, with a broiled chicken for a relish whenever desired. For dinner, maize and beef or mutton made up the usual bill of fare. A well-conditioned ox cost only four dollars, and a "good eating-goat" was to be had for fifty cents. No meal was complete without plenty of onions. After supper, the German hunter's inseparable evening friend, his long-stemmed china pipe, invariably appeared.

Sawdust and Spangles (45).jpg

CAPTURING WILD ANIMALS FOR THE SHOW.

The interior of the huts would have charmed an artist. Elephant tusks, lion and leopard skins, hunting-hats and coats, tall wading-boots, rifles and pistols, bright-colored flannel shirts and bits of harness were scattered about in picturesque confusion. In a safe place, where it could not possibly be scratched or disfigured, was the choicest treasure within the four strong walls, a large German accordion. In the long evenings, after the perils and labors of the hunt, Lohse played this instrument by the hour to his hunters as they puffed great clouds of smoke and dreamed of the Fatherland.

The camp was pitched in a clearing on the bank of a little river and was closed by a high and thick hedge of a native thorn. At night, after the pack animals had been fed, watered and housed or tethered, great fires were built at irregular intervals about the grounds to scare off wild beasts, and the watch was set. Then began the dismal howl of the hyena, the roar of the lion, and the shriek of the wildcat. About five o'clock in the morning the camp was again astir and the business of the day was begun. The native hunters formed in companies of about twenty, with a white leader and started off in different directions. Those left in camp put in the time cleaning it, caring for the beasts, and making boxes for transportation of the animals, and cages for the reception of freshly captured beasts.

In capturing wild animals the rule is to kill the old ones and secure the young; for after any of the beasts have grown old enough to become accustomed to the free life of the forests, and to hunt their own food, they are treacherous and worth little for purposes of exhibition.

WHY BABY ELEPHANTS ARE HARD TO CAPTURE

Paul Tuhe, one of the ablest master-hunters in the service of the Reiche Brothers, who has brought from Africa hundreds of rare birds and animals, gives me this account of the methods and perils of the hunt:

"Though the lion is a fierce creature, the lioness, when protecting her young, is very much more ferocious. From long practice, however, we know how to go after them. A good rifle, firm hands and steady eyes and we can soon topple the old king over. The old lady, however, may make a better fight, but in the end we are sure to kill her. Then it is no trouble to pick up the cubs. We try to get these little fellows when they are about three or four weeks old. They are then like young puppies, easily managed, and soon know their keepers. Leopards, tigers and all animals of that kind we get in the same way and at about the same age.

"Baby elephants are hard to capture, and the hunt is very dangerous. The old ones seem to know instinctively when we are after their young, and their rage is something terrible. The trumpeting of the parents can be heard a long distance, and quickly alarms the whole herd. The rifle is comparatively useless, and trying to approach them is particularly hazardous; yet it has to be done.

"First, we try to distract the attention of the female from her young. Then a native creeps cautiously in from behind and with one cut of a heavy broad-bladed knife severs the tendons of her hind legs. She is then disabled and falls to the ground. We promptly kill her, secure the ivory and capture the little one. Of course we sometimes have a native or two killed in this kind of a hunt; but they don't cost much—only five to six dollars apiece. The sheiks are paid in advance, and do not care whether the poor huntsmen get out of the chase alive or not. We like to capture the baby elephants when they are about one year old. Younger ones are too tender and older ones know too much. They soon get acquainted with all the camp and we have lots of fun with them. They are kindly, docile, and as full of pranks as the little black babies who play with them.

"Of all fierce, ungovernable, lusty brutes, the hippopotamus with young is the very worst; and whenever we start off to get a baby 'hip' we calculate to come back with one or more men missing. In water they will fight like devils, and will crush the strongest boat to pieces in five minutes. They are quick as a flash, too, notwithstanding their clumsy appearance, and the oarsmen have to be wide-awake to keep out of their way. On shore they are just as ferocious, and the way they hurry their stumpy little legs over the ground would astonish you. They die hard, and take 'a heap of killing.' When such a job is over you may be sure there is great rejoicing among us; but as one little hippopotamus is worth as much as half a dozen little lions, tigers and such truck, we are well content to take the risk. We cannot get these babies too young to suit. One, I remember, was captured the very day it was born, and the hunters and attendants brought it up on a bottle.

"Ostriches we run down on horseback, and then catch with a lasso. It is an exciting chase, but not particularly dangerous. On these hunts we are entitled only to the young ones we capture. The beautiful skins of the leopards, lions, and other animals we kill, the tusks of the elephant, the feathers of the ostrich, and all other similar spoils, go to the native chiefs and sheiks, and these old rascals are as sharp at a trade as the shrewdest 'old clo' merchant in Chatham Street.

"In the encampments the natives assist in taking care of the animals and do general work, but the menial duties are performed by Nubian slaves, who are very cheap and can be bought in numbers to suit. Among the natives the women are looked upon as inferior. Women never eat with their husbands. The husband is allowed four wives, and as many slaves as he can corral."

ACROSS THE DESERT WITH CAPTIVE BEASTS

A sufficient number and variety of animals having been secured, a caravan is formed to take them across the desert for shipment to Germany or America. This usually consists of about one hundred camels, each having its native driver; thirty or forty horses for the white men, and the Arab hunters and their attendants; a flock of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred goats, for their milk and also for food; and black slaves to look out for the goats. The wild animals are secured in strong boxes and carried on the camels' backs. They are all young, and fed with goats' milk principally, although occasionally, to keep them in good spirits, they are given raw goats' meat. Horses are very cheap there, ranging in price from fifteen to twenty dollars each. Natives are even cheaper, seven dollars each being thought an extravagant price for the trip.

The journey ordinarily occupies from thirty to forty days, and all traveling is done between three and eleven in the morning and five and eleven in the evening. During midday the sun's rays are so fiercely hot as to make labor or travel hazardous, and none is attempted. The route home is much the same as that taken out, and in due time the beasts are landed, usually with very little loss, in Germany. There they remain until needed to fill orders of showmen in either Europe or America, while their hardy captors take three months of rest and recreation before starting on another trip.

THE ADVENTURES OF SPECIMEN HUNTERS

Several men of scientific attainments are always to be depended on for novelties in the way of monsters from the deep. Some of these "professors," as they are generally termed by showmen, are given salaries to go out on special expeditions, while others make an excellent living by pursuing this peculiar craft independently. Often these men have adventures quite as exciting as those which befall the hunters in the wilds of the jungles.

While on an expedition to the Bermuda coast one of our professors had a decidedly interesting experience with a small octopus. He had been towing about in his little boat in search of the beautiful colored fish with which this coast abounds, when there was a sudden lurch of the boat followed by a constant thumping against its bottom. Thinking the skiff had met with an obstruction of the ordinary kind, the professor thrust his arm into the water, at the stern of the boat, where he felt a moving mass which was indistinctly seen, and caught hold of the slimy thing. He then found that his arm was being encircled by what he believed to be a sea serpent. Then he felt a sensation that, according to his description, was like a hundred sucking leeches. This strange and powerful animal was trying to pull him overboard. With a desperate effort he separated the tentacled part that encircled his arm from the body of the devil-fish, and the creature fell back into the water. On the professor's arm were several sores where the suckers had been applied, and he was as thoroughly frightened as a man could be and live.

One of the most pathetic subjects which can be proposed to a proprietary showman of wide experience is that of "wild goose" expeditions. Experiences of this kind are so costly that they are not easily forgotten. I spent thousands of dollars on an expedition sent to the coast of Alaska for the purpose of capturing a live walrus. The man in charge of this undertaking had been with my menagerie for several years, and I knew him to be courageous, capable and determined. He had plenty of assistance, the best equipment in the way of boats, wire nets and other paraphernalia that could be devised, and still he returned empty-handed from a shore that abounded with those ugly monsters. The failure of the expedition and the loss of the heavy investment which it represented all hinged on the fact that, unlike the seals we had taken by nets, the walrus could not be found on the shore. What was still more tantalizing was that they would permit their pursuers to approach within a hundred feet of the ice blocks on which they discreetly held forth.

After he had abandoned all hope of capturing them alive, he determined to have some sport shooting them. As before stated, the walruses would remain on the ice until the party came within one hundred feet of them, resting all the time in perfect silence and raising their enormous heads as if curious to see what manner of men had the temerity to invade their dominion. In that position they were, of course, perfect targets for the bullets. When wounded they would collect in a group, and then, as if by a preconceived signal, they would rush for the boats, and their retaliation would be furious and the attacking party was usually wholly unprepared for the onslaught. As a walrus frequently weighs nearly a ton, and sometimes more, the hunters were in imminent danger of being tipped over into the cold waves a catastrophe which would be almost certain to result fatally; and as the movement of the walrus is very swift, the only alternative left the party was to empty their guns on the foremost of the creatures. This would break the force of the onslaught, the killed and wounded forming a barrier to those coming on behind. On one of these excursions the hunters killed a baby walrus, and while using the oars to reach the ice floe whereon the baby lay dead, they were astonished to see a grown walrus jump to the little one's side and, taking it in its mouth, disappear with it into the icy water.

If the countryman who finds undisguised delight in "seeing the animals" of the big show could only realize the money, the perils and hardships and the disappointments which a good collection of animals represents he would marvel the more at the spectacle.