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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Every year, Ferrebeekeeper dedicates today’s blog post to the myths and legends of the fair green island. This tradition started back in 2011 with a post about Ireland’s unofficial mascots, the leprechauns (those little magical men did some heavy lifting in popularizing this blog and they are still the second or third most popular post of all time). Subsequent years featured the sad tale of Oisín and Niamh, a description of the dark sky spirits which haunt the night sky, the tale of Daghda’s harp (which is there on the old flag), the myth of the leannán sídhe (a vampire woman who represents life as an artist), and the story of the salmon of wisdom (a metaphorical fish of universal knowledge). These tales are wonderful (and horrible too) but they are all from Ireland’s pre-Christian past, so for this SAINT Patrick’s Day, let’s head to the Christian myths of Ireland.

Now the hagiography of Saint Patrick himself has always struck me as a bit dull (plus, old Patrick was really from England anyway!) however his contemporary, Saint Ciarán of Saigir was a churchman much more in the florid style of ancient Irish myth–and a noted animal lover rather than a persecutor of serpents. Although the details of the lives of (possibly mythological) magical bishops from the dark ages are a bit uncertain, it seems that Ciarán was born in the 5th century as a noble in Osraigh (that link is pretty interesting but also so painfully Irish that I felt like I was drinking Harp beer and listening to a lilting ancient in some stone tavern when I read it). Ciarán’s first miracle occurred when he was a child. A predatory kite swooped down and killed a little songbird sitting on a nest in front of the boy. Ciarán admonished the kite for its cruelty and then breathed life back into the little bird.

Realizing that the compassionate new faith was for him, Ciarán went abroad to learn the ways of the church. After studying Christianity at Tours and then at Rome, young Ciarán returned to Ireland in the 6th century and built a stone hermit’s cell in the woods of Upper Ossory. His first converts were forest creatures who took up the monastic habit upon hearing Ciarán’s sermons, so parts of his hagiography read like Redwall with Brother Badger, um, badgering Lay Brother Fox about the latter’s habit of stealing footwear. His miracles are a bit peculiar as well, and include transforming the water of a well into a potent intoxicant with the taste of honey and performing a magical abortion on a raped nun named Bruinnech (reading between the lines here, this seems like a story of preventing honor killings and stopping an ever-escalating cycle of vengeance before it started, but it is still a strange look for one of “the twelve apostles of Ireland”).

There are other tales of Ciarán’s life which I am leaving out (just as I am leaving out the various monasteries and churches he founded and his episcopal acts), however I will share the story of his death. Ciaran was not beheaded by pagans or crushed by Romans or anything like that–he died from old age surrounded by adoring monks, students, and parishioners (and probably hedgehogs, rabbits, and turtles wearing robes).

The list of presidential pets is many and astonishing. Each executive stands revealed by his choice of companion animal.  Additionally the animals’ remarkable names reflect different eras of American history.  George Washington, the father of the nation, started the trend magnificently with a gigantic donkey named Royal Gift and a pack of three American staghounds called Sweet Lips, Scentwell, and Vulcan. Thomas Jefferson owned a mockingbird named Dick.  Andrew Jackson kept fighting cocks (names unknown) whereas Martin Van Buren favored tiger cubs–at least until they stopped being cuddly. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln kept goats in the white house yard as well as Jack, a pet tom turkey. Benjamin Harrison had a pair of gentleman opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. Naturally, Teddy Roosevelt kept a veritable menagerie of terriers, hunting dogs, cats, and farm animals, however his bristling nature stands most revealed by his free-ranging pet badger, Josiah, and his beloved garter snake, Emily Spinach.

John Quincy Adams, who swam nude in the Potomac every morning, kept an American Alligator in the guest bathroom of the White House!

Enjoy your stay at the Executive Mansion....

For the moment, I’m going to ignore the larger ramifications of that crazy list and simply use it as the lead-in to a biography of one particular presidential pet.  Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was a small government conservative from New England known for his taciturn silence.  But Coolidge loved animals.  In addition to more familiar housepets, Coolidge’s collection included a wallaby, a miniature antelope, a black bear, canaries, a donkey, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a pair of lions.  In 1927, Silent Cal came into possession of one of the most remarkable animal figures in American history, a pygmy hippopotamus named William Johnson Hippopotamus, (1920s – October 11, 1955) AKA “Billy”.  The rubber baron Harvey Firestone presented Billy to Coolidge after workers on one of Firestone’s giant latex plantations in Liberia captured the 6 foot long 600 pound pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis—there is a taxonomical controversy surrounding the correct name).  Since the White House had limited space for the large semi-aquatic artiodactyls, Billy quickly found himself at the National Zoo–today called the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (although the attentive Coolidge visited him there frequently).

An adult pygmy hippopotamus (I couldn't find one of Billy, but I'll keep looking)

Billy’s life and times straddled a great dividing point for wild animals in captivity.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, zoos were more or less for entertainment purposes only.  Creatures were captured and exhibited for profit in circuses or for status in menageries.  When the animals died of stress, disease, or malnutrition, new specimens were obtained.  The National Zoo and the Bronx Zoo were both feeling their way towards nobler scientific and conservation ends, however there was still a whiff of the nobleman’s menagerie about them.  Good animal husbandry was frequently unknown or subsumed for larger aesthetic or cultural reasons.

Billy was a very “frisky” hippo and a mate named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Unfortunately Billy and Hannah’s first three offspring met hasty ends.  Although the Washington Post quickly concluded that “inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise,” it seems that human ignorance was more to blame. The pygmy hippos were initially kept in the lion house (a stressful environment for pregnant pygmy hippos!). When the pair was moved to their own lion-free facilities, their offspring did fine. Pygmy hippos became one of the first great success stories of the zoo.  Billy had many offspring and his celebrity continued to grow.  He attended the World’s Fair in 1939, and then acquired an additional mate in 1940 (when the zoo director ignored geopolitical rumblings to personally visit Liberia and capture a new pygmy hippo female).   Billy died on October 11, 1955 having outlived Coolidge by 23 years.  His last offspring, Gumdrop XVIII was born five months later.

Baby Pygmy Hippo!

Billy left a tremendous legacy.  The majority of pygmy hippos in America’s zoos are his direct descendants, and, as zoos improve their conservation programs (and their international ties), his progeny are spreading around the planet.  Additionally, thanks to his fecundity, his longevity, and his highly placed political and business connections (and even his simple hippo joie de vivre) Billy helped popularize a new conception of zoos.  Zoological parks are no longer a novelty or a diversion but a critical tool to understanding wildlife.  They are also a conservation measure of last resort in a dangerous world of ever diminishing wilderness habitat.

An orphaned baby pygmy hippo taken in by the London Zoo last year

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