Unusual Animals in Victorian Times
Okay, so my latest historical romance, Starlight & Promises, is set in Tasmania and the South Sea islands in the late Victorian Age. An unusual setting for a Victorian romance. Unusual enough, you say? Not for me. Those of you who may have read my previous book know I like animals, and these critters have personalities and often play crucial roles in the plot. Sometimes it’s a dog or a cat, or both, and always horses, horses, horses. In Starlight & Promises, I hit the zenith of my flights of fancy by making the story about a search for the most unusual animal anyone could imagine: a Smilodon, a saber-toothed tiger.
But saber-toothed tigers did not exist in 1892. They became extinct about 10,000 years ago. As far as we know, they evolved only in North and South America. However, that knowledge is the result of modern science. The question then becomes: Would scientists of the Victorian Age think a Smilodon might have survived extinction? More importantly, would the mere possibility of a living Smilodon lure a reluctant scientist out of retirement?
We have to look at the state of biological knowledge during the late Victorian and how much of the world scientists had actually explored in detail. Before the modern age, many parts of the world remained unknown and inaccessible. It wasn’t quite the “sea monsters be here” days of the Vikings or the “falling off the edge of a flat earth” days of Columbus, but knowledge was limited and selective. One area garnered little intense exploration: the thousands of South Sea islands, for explorers had no hope of finding gold (their primary quarry) or other fabulous wealth—only cannibals, headhunters, and pirates. And exploration was seldom undertaken solely for scientific knowledge. Governments financed expeditions, and they expected a return on their investment. Think Columbus and Queen Isabella. His voyage was no mere joy trip to look at wildlife.
How could a creature as large as a Smilodon have escaped notice, even accidental notice? As new species, even large species, are discovered nearly every year, scientists ask that same question today. In 1900, the okapi, a large leaf-eating mammal that resembles a cross between a zebra and a giraffe, was found in Africa in the depths of the Congo.
Other notables are the pygmy hippo in 1909 in West Africa; the Komodo dragon (world’s largest lizard) in the chain of the Lesser Sundas Islands in 1912; the kouprey (ox-like bovine) in 1988 in the jungles of Cambodia; and the saola (goat-like species) in 1992 in Vietnam. However, as our world shrinks and scientific technology advances, fewer places remain where nonindigenous humans have not left their boot prints.
Thus, the search for a Smilodon becomes plausible in the late nineteenth century. But I didn’t stop there in my unusual-animal theme. My heroine is an amateur herpetologist and has an iguana for a pet, which she, of course, totes along with her to Tasmania and has named Narcissus because he likes to peer at his image in shiny objects. This is a typical behavior of reptiles and birds, in which they interpret the image as an intruder. Mammals catch on more quickly, because they rely more on the sense of smell than vision.
Would a Victorian lady have an iguana for a pet? Once Europeans began traveling back and forth at will to faraway locations, exotic pets became all the rage in London and other large, civilized cities, and many a ship’s captain made his fortune off carrying such cargo. Iguanas and snakes, even leopards and monkeys, were not that uncommon among the upper classes. Lords even kept their own zoos on their estates. Sadly, most of these animals died in capture, transit, or in their new homes, because their requirements for environment and diet were largely unknown. In some cases, the species declined to the status of endangered and remain so today.
If you have questions or comments about unusual animals in the Victorian Age, please leave a note for me, and one lucky respondent will win a signed copy of Starlight & Promises.
An uncharted island in the Furneaux Islands off Tasmania
“Smilodon,” he whispered, barely uttering the word.
“What?” Richard Colchester, sixth Earl of Stanbury, sharply turned his head. “Let me have the glass.”
James Truett grinned and slapped the spyglass in Richard’s outstretched hand. Richard cut him an annoyed look and examined the distant figure on the rock cairn. Heat coming off the sandy ground distorted the vision. Richard focused the glass again.
He gasped, and as a breeze stirred the heat waves, his eyes watered. He blinked away the moisture. A cat sat on the rocks—a cat as large as a lion. Richard laid the glass on the ground beside him and wiped his face and eyes with his handkerchief. Hesitating a moment to slow his heart, he picked up the glass again and studied the cat.
Sleek yet heavily muscled. An abundant dark mane ran along the ridge of a thick, arched neck. Bunched muscles moved under a tawny coat spotted with irregular white blotches. It moved, stretching out short front legs, warming its belly on the rock surface. Massive paws with long toes ending in sharp, nonretractable claws; a lean abdomen, plainly outlined by the ribs underneath; and powerful, densely packed rear haunches. Small, rounded ears set well back on a broad head. A wide, square muzzle, and dark green eyes, large and tilted at the outer corners. The cat washed its legs, taking leisurely swipes with its tongue, and the unmistakable gleam of eight-inch curved canines extended outside the mouth to below the jawline.
“My God.” Richard sucked in a breath through parted lips. His hands shook, jiggling the glass, wavering the image. “’Tis a bloody Smilodon.” He turned to his companion and grinned. “James, we’ve found a bloody Smilodon.”
For two hours, Richard recorded his observations, and James sketched the cat in detail. Though Richard’s primary interest centered on the island’s flora, something of this magnitude was impossible to ignore. He made notes as precisely as he would have done had the cat been a new bromeliad.
Comfortable in each other’s company, the two men—Richard a noted botanist; James a nature artist and disciple of Audubon—worked in silence. At thirty-five, James was ten years Richard’s junior. For twelve years they had traveled together through the world’s unknown corners, observing, recording, collecting samples, and sketching the plant life, producing detailed monographs with illustrations accurately depicting the vegetation of exotic locales. The scientific community eagerly awaited each new contribution.
When the cat moved on, Richard and James backed away from the sandy plain in the island’s interior and worked their way through the dense brush of the jungle toward the temporary camp they had established on the beach. A sultry breeze rippled through the thick foliage, carrying the meaty scents of decaying vegetation and the whistling calls of parakeets and cockatiels. A six-inch-long, rust red lizard scurried across their path, twirling its tail like a propeller. The trail it left on the sandy ground resembled a corkscrew. It halted at the edge of the trees, expanding its red throat sac in a display of miniature bravado. A long-tailed shrewlike animal shrieked overhead and swung off through the treetops. Still dazed by their discovery, Richard and James tramped along, their tongues stilled, each engrossed in his thoughts.
James suddenly stopped—as he was often wont to do when he sighted a strange plant—causing Richard to nearly tread upon his heels. He gestured expansively with one hand. “Just think, Richard, if that storm hadn’t caught us and blown the ship off course to this island, we never would have had this opportunity. We should give thanks to the Lord for His intervention.”
“Fate moves in mysterious ways, as do the vagaries of the ocean in these waters,” Richard replied with a wry smile. “In this case, perhaps we should extend our thanks to Neptune.”
James chuckled. “Ah, Richard, always the heretic.”