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Barnum on Whales: There’s One Born Every Minute

22 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 15,662 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

After months of unwearied labor, and spending

NEARLY TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS

NEARLY TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS

NEARLY TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS

in capturing and transporting them from that part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence nearest Labrador, the Manager is enabled to offer his visitors

TWO LIVING WHALES

TWO LIVING WHALES,

TWO LIVING WHALES,

TWO LIVING WHALES,

a male and a female. Everybody has heard of WHALES

IN NURSERY TALES and “SAILOR’S YARNS,”

IN NURSERY TALES and “SAILOR’S YARNS,”

everybody has read of WHALES in story, song, and history, and everybody

WANTS TO SEE A WHALE,

WANTS TO SEE A WHALE,

WANTS TO SEE A WHALE,

WANTS TO SEE A WHALE.

-Newspaper advertisement

Over a century after his death, P. T. Barnum is still a household name, famous as the founder of the circus he called “The Greatest Show on Earth” and also as an exhibitor of human oddities like Tom Thumb and the original “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng. But most people don’t know that he also opened the first public aquarium exhibit in the United States in 1856 at his American Museum in New York City.

In the 1850s, you couldn’t simply go to your local pet store and buy an aquarium and fish to keep at home. The necessary equipment, like filtration systems and sealants for glass, was yet to be invented. And this was also before public exhibits of wild animals were common – the first zoo in the United States, in Central Park in New York City, did not open till 1860. So even the fish, monkeys and boa constrictors on display at the American Museum were unusual sights for the average person.

Even so, Barnum was not a man to be content with the small stuff. The American Museum also exhibited large land animals including kangaroos, lions, and bears. Most remarkably, in 1861 Barnum had two beluga whales, 18 and 23 feet long, captured by fishermen at the mouth of the St Lawrence River in Canada.

Barnum Whale Ad

Losing no opportunity for publicity, Barnum stopped the train transporting the whales at towns along the way, where huge crowds gathered to see them in their seaweed-lined boxes. News of the expedition had been telegraphed ahead to New York, and throngs rushed to see the exotic creatures when they arrived. “A real live whale,” said a writer in the New York Tribune, “is as great a curiosity as a live lord or prince, being much more difficult to catch, and far more wonderful in its appearance and habits.”

However, Barnum had no idea how to care for the whales – no one did, at that time – as he acknowledged in his advertising: “As it is very doubtful whether these wonderful creatures can be kept alive more than a few days, the public will see the importance of seizing the first moment to see them.”

Nowadays many captive animals live longer than their wild counterparts, but in the 19th century it was common for animals to die a short time after being brought into captivity. Ignorance of their dietary needs was one problem, but for whales, the very medium in which they lived was a problem. Today you can buy salt water mixes that contain all the elements necessary to reproduce ocean conditions, but large marine animals are even now at the edge of our capabilities to keep in captivity – for example, it was a remarkable achievement for the Monterey Bay Aquarium to keep a great white shark for six months before releasing it to the wild in 2005. Barnum had none of these modern resources available to him.

So while the prediction in Barnum’s advertisement was partly a way to get people to rush to see his exhibit, it’s not surprising that the first pair of whales died within a week of their arrival at the Museum. Undaunted, Barnum had an underground pipe built and piped water in from the ocean – a solution still used in many large marine mammal exhibits today. He captured a second pair, and then a third. The deaths of so many large animals in quick succession would be scandalous in a major zoological institution today, but times were different, and all were sensations. The death of one prompted a long newspaper obituary which concluded:

“The deceased was about sixty years of age. It bore an excellent character. Its patience and sweet disposition under the most trying circumstances will long be remembered. The remains, weighing not less than twenty-six hundred pounds, will be suitably disposed of. While the public mourns it may also console itself with the reflection that there are plenty more where it came from, and that the energy of Barnum is not to be abated by any of the common disasters of life, and may hopefully anticipate a speedy announcement of an entirely new whale. Vale! Vale!”

Linda Lombardi

Read more animal epics at Linda’s terrific Animals Behaving Badly blog!

PHOTO BY EMDOT

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