George Wombwell

24 December 1777 – 16 November 1850

This headstone is very sweet and might make you think kindly of the person it immortalizes, but George Wombwell was no champion of animal welfare.

Wombwell was a shoemaker from Essex who stumbled into exotic-animal-collecting when he bought two boa constrictors on the London docks and started charging people in taverns to look at them (I was going to make a Regency Era joke here but all eras have people staring at things after paying a fee so… nevermind).

He began buying more exotic animals, many of which died, at least early on in his menagerie-building days, due to the inhospitable climate and contemporary lack of understanding about providing proper habitats, but that didn’t stop this guy — he sold them off to taxidermists and medical schools!

There are many stories about Wombwell, most of which are pretty off-putting by modern animal-welfare standards. I’m sure there were many who objected even at the time but his business was a popular entertainment and he had many rivals, similar to the same-era circuses here in the US.

Wombwell’s nephew, who worked for his menagerie, died after being gored by an elephant. The transcript of Wombwell’s testimony at the inquest is interesting reading primarily as it has no hint of anger at the elephant or blame. At least by this time in his work, he understood his animal charges and also seemed to understand they retained a level of wildness and unpredictability that had to be respected.

Nero, who is immortalized atop Wombwell’s tomb, was a docile male lion who famously refused to participate in a (possibly apochryphal) lion-baiting scheme Wombwell had arranged.

Would that all his menagerie animals had been able to opt-out of his shenanigans.

RIP Nero


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