Alligators, elks and bears: The obscure pets of historical figures

From a pug in prison to an anteater on a leash, these are some of the weird and wacky pets kept by important people throughout history.

 People in history have always had pets, some of them more unusual than others. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
People in history have always had pets, some of them more unusual than others.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Humans have always had a penchant for pets, with the earliest evidence of dog ownership dating back to the Paleolithic era, some 2,500,000–200,000 years ago.

However, while some chose to take in dogs, cats, pigeons and horses, others acquired menageries of more interesting pets. Here are seven such people, all of whom played notable roles in humanity's long history, and their unusual pets.

Thomas Jefferson's grizzly bears

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was presented with an unusual gift in 1807, during his second term in office, when explorer and soldier Captain Zebulon Pike sent him a letter, with two bear cubs attached. The cubs, sent to Jefferson from the Rocky Mountains, lived in a special enclosure on the White House lawn until 1808, upon which Jefferson sent them to a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In a letter to his granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph, Jefferson mentioned his decision to send them away, writing: "These are too dangerous & troublesome for me to keep. I shall therefore send them to Peale’s Museum."

Josephine Bonaparte's pug

In 1794, Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future Empress of France and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, found herself imprisoned in Carmes due to her ties to counter-revolutionaries. In order to maintain contact with her family throughout her imprisonment, she received clandestine messages from her children concealed in the collar of her pet pug Fortune, who was the only member of her family to be granted visiting rights.

Tycho Brahe’s "drunken moose"

Imagine having a giant puppy-like moose living in your home with you. Can't imagine it? Well, that's exactly what 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe did. The moose followed him around his home obsessively and was a frequent source of entertainment for the people who attended Brahe's top-notch parties.

Known not just for his precise and impressive astronomy observations, Brahe was famous for throwing lavish parties to entertain Europe's nobility. Not only was his moose granted permission to attend these parties, but he would partake in festivities, drinking merrily with the other guests.

Unfortunately, it was during one such party that the moose met his fate, after drinking too much and falling down the stairs.

Marquis de Lafayette’s alligator

French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette fought in both the US Revolutionary war and the French Civil War and somehow still had time to keep a pet alligator on the side. Not only did he enjoy evoking fear in those closest to him, he also spread the love, gifting alligators to prominent leaders and allies. 

The 6th US President, John Quincy Adams, was one of the chosen people to whom Lafayette gifted an alligator, and he made the decision as Jefferson had before him, to keep his unusual pet on the White House Grounds.

Years later, 31st President Herbert Hoover followed in his footsteps, when his son kept two pet alligators on the grounds of the White House during his presidency. 

Audrey Hepburn's pet deer

During Audrey Hepburn's rise to fame, she filmed the movie Green Mansions, set in the Venezuelan jungle.

Her role required her to be followed around by small fawn, meaning she needed to bond with it ahead of filming. And bond they did. Hepburn named the fawn Ip and took it grocery shopping, bottle-fed it, and acted as a motherly figure.

Not long after parting ways with Ip, Hepburn suffered from a miscarriage and fell into a dark state. Luckily, her partner knew that Ip was the remedy she needed. He tracked down the fawn and they took it in as a pet. Her pet dog, a Yorkie, likely did not enjoy having to share the spotlight.

“A wicked parrot that was a household pet, got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people.”

Reverend William Menefee Norment, attendee of President Andrew Jackson's funeral

Salvador Dali's anteater

The father of surrealism, Andre Breton, was nicknamed "le tamanoir" - or, the anteater. Many believe that it was artist Salvador Dali's respect for the man that led him to adopt a pet anteater, among his other exotic pets. Although it is not certain whether or not this really is the reason, what is certain is that Dali seemed to love his pet anteater, and took it on regular leashed walks through the streets of Paris.

Andrew Jackson's cursing parrot

America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was not known for being cool-tempered. One of the best examples of his overbearing temper was seen in the attitude his pet parrot held toward him. According to historians at the University of Virginia, this parrot used its deceased owner's funeral as a platform to air his grievances and scream like there was no tomorrow. 

At Jackson's funeral, his bird flew into quite a fit of rage. Reverend William Menefee Norment was a funeral attendee who witnessed this event, and later wrote in his diary that, “A wicked parrot that was a household pet, got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people.”