Hedgehogs were probably kept as pets in Regency England and Europe by little boys who found them while hiking around in the countryside. Old tales probably still existed about the hedgehog skewering fruit and other food on its quills and carrying it home that way. Hedgehogs were supposed to have two anal passages, and to mate standing up because their spines got in the way otherwise.
For a time, you could claim a three pence bounty on hedgehogs, due to the menace they posed to dairy farms and chicken coops. I haven’t uncovered how the little creatures were able to steal milk right from the cow, but they were also blamed for stealing eggs. Hedgehogs often like a little egg, with or without toast, but they are incapable of breaking a chicken egg shell.
The hedgehog is the original predictor of spring, but as there are no hedgehogs native to the New World, we switched to the groundhog. The hedgehog was also a good source of nutrition for many people. I read that some Gypsies still consume hedgehogs, and that would not surprise me. More civilized people are a bit too squeamish about eating cute little animals. But on the edge of survival any food will suffice.
Monkeys could have been kept as pets. Many royals did so, and as the Navy went to ports in the Mediterranean and Africa, sailors naturally could have bought or obtained a monkey to enliven the boring days between ports or action. If a hero was in the Navy, or the heroine from a naval family, a monkey would not be out of place at all.
Lots of material exists documenting the use of monkeys, baboons, and other primates as farm laborers, gathering everything from coconuts to rhubarb, and even pounding rice. Can you picture a Regency household with a trained monkey serving at table?
Deer became a very popular pet in the US Colonies, second only to squirrels. Taken young, they could be completely tamed for a few years. When puberty dawned, however, the animal became a bit harder to maintain. If a character in a story came from the Colonies or had served there, chances are good a deer may be a logical pet to introduce.
However, most people in Regency England were content with dogs and horses, and some cats. The more exotic animals they saw after paying a few pence in menageries or circuses. Astley’s is the most ofter referenced entertainment, and seems to have been quite a show. One could see breath-taking equestrian events, and a pig doing math. But for exotic animals, you must go to the Tower of London and see the Royal Menagerie. You might see the grizzly bear, the lions, or the alligator. You might also be unlucky enough to be there when an animal made an escape, and be a victim or see a worker there killed or maimed. How exciting!
Less bloodthirsty, the leopard at the Tower loved to jump and steal parasols, umbrellas, and anything else she could get to. She was so quick and agile that the person who lost the item didn’t always know it until the leopard had completely shredded her prize.
Some country homes had their own collections, which I bet delighted any visitors. Knowsley Hall of Liverpool had an impressive collection, started by the 13th Earl of Derby 20 years before the Royal Zoological Society began. When sold in 1851, it was advertised as the largest living collection in existence. Reproduction was the sole reason for the earl’s collections, and he occasionally turned down a single specimen if he felt he could not reasonably obtain a mate for the animal. The earl also hired Edward Lear to catalog and illustrate his collection. During this time, Mr. Lear composed The Owl and the Pussycat for the children in the Knowsley nursery. (This link will take you to a site where some of the beautiful color plates of the animals and birds can be seen. http://www.bridgemanart.com/search?filter_prev_text=owl+pussycat&filter_text=Gleanings+from+the+Menagerie+and+Aviary+at+Knowsley+Hall&filter_search_type=new&x=0&y=0 )
Traveling menageries satisfied the more common folks’ desire to see exotic animals. A showman headed the troupe, and the number of animals ranged from a few to many. In 1804, George Wombwell, a shoemaker, bought a pair of boa constrictors from a sailor, and began showing them around in drinking establishments. He made good money, and expanded his collection. Soon he had the largest in England. But being trained as a shoemaker and inclined to be a showman, he knew little about the care of these animals. The mortality rate was high, but he could still profit by either selling the body to a taxidermist or museum collection, or having the animal mounted so he could continue to show it.
An interesting note, Wombwell bred the first lion in England. He also took his collection regularly to Bartholomew Fair where he competed for an audience with another exhibitor. At one of these fairs, Wombwell’s elephant died unexpectedly, so the competitor put up a huge sign advertising that he had the only living elephant at the fair. Wombwell got the better of the situation by advertising he had the only dead elephant at the fair. Seems people were more thrilled with the thought of seeing a deceased pachyderm which they could poke and touch and get very close to, if you didn’t mind the smell.
Now I return to the question of which animal to have my heroine chase through the halls of an inn. If I return to that manuscript, at least I know I have made the choice much more difficult through my research. But I am tipping the scales towards a boa constrictor, pun intended.
Next week I will muse on the usefulness of entering contests.