The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: zoo

On the last of the tigers

This September 7th marks the 80th anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger. Or at least, that’s the date that has been agreed upon in official sources as the extinction date.

I took up the issue of dating the thylacine’s extinction in my recently published article “Presence of absence, absence of presence, and extinction narratives” in the volume Nature, Temporality and Environmental Management: Scandinavian and Australian Perspectives on Landscapes and Peoples. The question is whether or not the absence of evidence of live thylacines should be interpreted as the absence of thylacines. This proves a more challenging question to answer than you might think.

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Pamir the Przewalski and his places

When I was at the Ménagerie in Paris, which is part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, I found a lovely children’s book in the gift shop: L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski. The book (which you can buy here), written by Fred Bernard and illustrated by Julie Faulques, is a real reintroduction story.

The book begins by backing up in time to present the Przewalski horse as living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Przewalskis were wild, untamable horses, killed as prey by Mongols on the backs of domestic horses. Then the horses are discovered by a colonel named Przewalski in the 19th century. After the discovery scene, the text presents the capture of Przewalski horses which were shipped to zoos “in order to save the species.”

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L'histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Some of the 50 horses captured at the turn of the 20th century were shipped to the Ménagerie in Paris. And now we get to Pamir, who was born in the zoo and is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of animals caught in the wild.

After the Przewalski horses were captured, the species became extinct in the wild. But the zoo populations were carefully bred and grew in numbers, from 13 founding population animals to over 1000. In 1993, when a scientific reintroduction project was begun, the two-year-old stallion Pamir was selected for the program. He was released into a large enclosure on the Méjean Plateau in France along with horses from other zoo collections. The horses had to adapt to wild living, including finding their own food sources and reproducing freely within the herd. In 2003-4, 22 horses were then taken to Mongolia and reintroduced in their prior range — some of these were Pamir’s descendants.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book with a positive story. But as a historian thinking about belonging and reintroduction, a couple of things struck me.

First, there is a claim about the role of France as place in the story. While the book places the Przewalski horse in Asia, one page is dedicated to the horses in the caves of Lascaux in France. “The small horses have a remarkable resemblance to Pamir,” which is an ingenious way of linking this Asian species to France where the Pamir story takes place. The place of the Ménagerie zoo also matters in the story because it was here that Pamir was born — three double page scenes show him in his zoo enclosure. Placing Pamir specifically in Paris makes him all the more real and important to the French children.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Second, there is a continual insistence on the “wildness” of the Przewalski horse. They are “chevaux sauvages” of the plains. When Mongols tried to domesticate them “c’est impossible!” Although the image shows Pamir in the zoo, the text stresses “Pamir remains wild and very well knows how to defend himself. If he does not feel like a caress, beware!”. He moves to the enclosure to be prepared for “la vie sauvage”. It is through the reintroduction of the Przewalski horse after 100 years in zoos that we proved “it is possible to return an animal to the wild who had not previously known it.”

These are not unusual claims: everyone talks and writes about the Przewalski horse as “the last wild horse”, meaning specifically the last undomesticated horse. But I have to wonder how true that claim can be. The horses eventually reintroduced into Mongolia were descendants through many generations of animals that had only ever lived in zoos and were purposefully bred in extremely controlled ways. The stud books of the horse were carefully recorded and managed. Moreover, the horses were bred to look a particular way.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Sandra Swart from Stellenbosch University talked about this in her paper at the American Society for Environmental History meeting in March 2015. She showed a picture of four of the scraggly horses originally from Mongolia, which we can compare to the images of Przewalski horses today which shows extremely consistent animals. (See also another photo taken before 1901 of a captured animal)

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Visual consistency is a trademark sign of intentional breeding. Kate Christen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute also discussed this in a paper at the World Congress of Environmental History in 2014, noting that Przewalski breeding was conducted to produce offspring “conforming to their European handlers’ imagined preconceptions about wild, primitive horses such as those in the cave paintings.” If domestic animal implies one bred for a specific purpose, these horses are no less domestic than fjord horses or shires or shetland ponies. The claim of wildness is a rhetorical one to place this horse as belonging on the Mongolian steppes.

So Pamir is a story about how an animal can belong in two places at once. Reintroduction causes a shift of physically belonging from one place to another, but the ontological belonging to both places remains.

Beavers in Berlin

I like to believe that when we write environmental histories they are always smaller than we think–in that they are situated in a very specific place and time–but they are also always bigger than we think–in that they are connected to other places and times. Since I’m in Berlin this week visiting with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, I thought I’d think about the connections between my beavers in Scandinavia and Berlin.

Way back in September 1910, the director of the Skansen zoological garden Alarik Behm got a letter from the Berlin zoological garden offering an exchange (the correspondence is in the Nordiska museet archive in Stockholm). Berlin had a young beaver from the Rhône area that they were willing to trade for one great grey owl  and a pair of northern hawk-owls. The deal was accepted. The three owls made it to Berlin on September 28th and the beaver was sent to Skansen at that time. Unfortunately the little fellow died in 1911. Side note: This didn’t make Skansen beaver-less. Skansen got two Canadian beavers in 1909/10 and they lived until 1924. Read this post for more details.

This was not the last time Berlin connected with my history. In 1934, Sverre Holmboe of Oslo exported a pair of beavers from Norway to the Berlin zoo. While I’ve mentioned P.M. Jensen Tveit many times because he provides all of the beavers reintroduced into Sweden, he was not the only person in the business. I found correspondence from Holmboe about beavers in the Norwegian national archives back to 1933 when he was requesting permits to send live beavers to the Edinburgh zoo and Antwerp zoo. His letterhead states his business as: “Export av levende ville norske dyr” (“Export of living wild Norwegian animals”). According to one of his letters from 1940, he had previously been a German consulate in Kirkenes, Norway.

Apparently the Berlin zoo did get European beavers in the 1940s, as shown on this postcard from Heimatbelege.

On 26 March 1934, Holmboe had received a letter from the Berlin zoo offering 400 Norwegian kroner for each. This time the zoo wanted to get beavers instead of send them. On 8 May, Holmboe received word that the pair had arrived safely in Berlin. Only a few days afterward, however, both beavers died. Holmboe offered to request permission from the Landbruksdepartment to send a replacement pair for a discount. The answer via telegram was brief: “Purchase of the beavers is impossible. Zoo. Berlin”. Holmboe apparently did not end up sending replacements.

Holmboe continued correspondence with Germans and in 1940, he asked permission to catch and export three pairs of beavers to Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg. The permitting process carried on into the German occupation of Norway. Holmboe changed his request to 5 pairs and was finally given permission to do so in June 1942. Holmboe appears to have not objected to the occupation–in his correspondence in the occupation time file he closes letters with “Heil og sæl” (note that others like Jensen Tveit don’t) and works a fair amount with German buyers.

What these little stories into beavers being moved to and fom Germany shows is that Scandinavian beavers are connected to places outside of Scandinavia. My story is connected to many other stories.

A wilder world

Earlier this week, I saw this advertisement in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter:

Välkommen till en vildare värld. Advertisement run in Dagens Nyheter, 12 May 2014.

Välkommen till en vildare värld. Advertisement run in Dagens Nyheter, 12 May 2014.


The advertisement is for a special discounted family day at the Kolmården zoo for subscribers of the newspaper, which is known as DN for short. The text below the picture reads:

Welcome to a wilder world. There are many reasons to visit Kolmården. One definitely is the magical dolphin show Life which, with its strong messages, leaves no one unmoved. During your visit at Kolmården, you can also hover over a landscape full of wild animals in Safari and go on an exciting and educational journey of discovery in the zoo. Come and visit us in the DN-card booth.

I stared at the ad dumbstruck. Welcome to a wilder world?! What was Kolmården zoo selling? Here was a boy meeting a tiger in anything but a wild world. If it was a wild world, there would be no glass between that tiger and the boy, and that boy probably wouldn’t be standing for long. Instead it is a highly managed and mediated world. They boy is safe behind the glass because of that mediation. The messages of the dolphin show Life may be encouraging us to live more environmentally-friendly on this planet, but that doesn’t make the dolphins wild. The animals living in the Safari section may appear in the open and free as the visitor passes overhead in a gondola, but they are still in enclosed habitats. They are certainly not in the wild.

I love visiting zoos. I’ve posted about visits to zoos in Riga and Lycksele previously on this blog, and they are a regular stop on family holidays. But I make no pretences about what we see at zoos–we don’t see wild animals. Very few animals in modern zoos were ever in the wild. This is in stark contrast to zoos in the late 19th century and early 20th century that mostly stocked their cages with wild-caught animals. Almost all zoo animals have been born in captivity and will die in captivity. As the Marius episode revealed, their lives and deaths are managed by people. In spite of the unwildness of captive animals, zoos still impart messages about wild animals and our relationship to them. This is why I believe they are important sites of conservation and environmentalism.

So I think Kolmården is selling the wrong thing in this ad campaign. The child’s encounter with the tiger behind the glass, or the dolphin in the show, or the lions down below is not a wild encounter. It is an encounter of captivity. In that encounter, I hope the child sees how amazing each animal is, how sad it would be if this one behind the glass was the only one left, and how the wild world needs all of us to act differently. The zoo itself is not a wilder world, but it can empower us to envision one.

Bebrus in Latvia

This week I was on holiday in Riga, Latvia. One of our outings was to the Riga Zoo (Rīgas Zooloģiskais dārzs). Ever the researcher, I was on the look out for the animals that I’ve been working with on this project, beaver and muskox. Unfortunately, I didn’t see either one. The zoo supposedly does have a beaver, but he is most of the time out doing school show-and-tell according to the zoo information. In any case, I didn’t see him.

Entrance to the Riga Zoo

Entrance to the Riga Zoo. Photo by FA Jørgensen, all rights reserved.


In spite of that disappointment, the Riga Zoo has a connection to my beaver reintroduction research. In November 1934, Bever-Jenssen applied for a licence to send a pair of wild-caught Norwegian beavers to the Riga Zoo along with one pair for reintroduction in the Latvian countryside the following spring. According to the Riga Zoo’s online history, the ship Nidaros arrived in Riga on 11 April 1935 with beavers (bebrus is plural & bebrs is singular for beaver in Latvian), as well as reindeer, rhesus monkey, and English park cows for the zoo. Presumably the beaver pair for reintroduction were on the same boat. According to Francis Harper’s Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Old World (1945), this pair was set out in Smiltene to the northeast of Riga (although he says they were set out in 1936, which must be wrong).

These weren’t the first reintroduced bebrus in Latvia. Bever-Jenssen had sent two beavers from Norway to Latvia in 1928 (again Harper uses a different year, in this case 1927, but I’m going with the dates Jenssen writes since he was directly involved). These beavers were released in the State Forest of Kurland. They found themselves right at home and soon multiplied.

With success comes challenges. The Latvian Consulate General in Oslo sent a letter to Jenssen on 10 March 1939 asking for his help. The beavers had done so well that “in the district where they are now, they have practically eaten up everything with the name asp, and the forestry department wants therefore to move some of the beaver over to other districts.” They wanted to know what Jenssen would charge to come catch and relocate them and when he could do it. He wrote back 11 days later and remarked,

It is with great satisfaction that I note that the attempt in 1928 to reintroduce Norwegian beaver has succeed to this degree, that one is now capable of capturing the population to move them to other districts in the country: a “taxation” that you can really expect to get a high return on.

He recommended midsummer for the trip, but he’d have to check on the dates for two visitors who were coming to pick up beavers in summer 1939, and that it would cost 1,000 Norwegian kr (approx. 30,000 NOK / 5,000 US$ in 2013) plus travel expenses. I’m not sure if Jenssen made the trip, but I doubt he could have gone any later, as World War II arrived in the Baltic states with the Soviet occupation in 1940. Even if he moved these particular beavers, they would spread out on the own and probably reoccupy the area.

The beavers in Latvia continued to grow in number. In the 1950s, an additional 10 beavers from eastern Europe were reintroduced and beavers from Belarus spread northward into southeast Latvia. The population was estimated as 1,400 in 1973 and it was estimated as 70,000 in 1997 (Halley and Rosell 2002). Bebrus is back in a big way in Latvia.

Panda for muskox

On February 23rd, a pair of pandas named Xing Hui and Hao Hao arrived in Belgium to much pomp and circumstance, including a visit from the Belgian Prime Minister. The pair have been “loaned” (really “rented” since Belgium is paying around $1 million per year to China for them) for 15 years. This is the latest “panda diplomacy” move by China which uses panda exchanges as a way of cementing relationships with diplomatic and trading partners. It all started with a gift to the Soviet Union in 1957, but the most famous panda “gift” was Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing loaned to the US when President Richard Nixon visited in 1972.

What many people don’t know is that the pandas given to the US in 1972 were actually a counter-gift: the pandas were gifted as a response to a US offer of a pair of muskoxen.

In preparation for Nixon’s visit to China, the US delegation decided to take a pair of muskoxen as a major gift. It seems that China had expressed interest in getting muskoxen from North America for display in the Peking zoo. To oblige, the US arranged to donate a pair of muskoxen named Milton and Matilda who were living at the San Francisco zoo. Milton and Matilda had been born at the zoo and were believed to be the only ones born in captivity in the US (their parents had been imported from a Canadian game farm in 1965).

According to a news report on 22 February 1972, during a dinner in China, Lin Yu-hua, curator of the Peking Zoo, told First Lady Pat Nixon that the Chinese were so pleased that the US was sending the muskoxen that China would offer them two pandas.

On the US side, it was unclear which zoo would get the pandas. A number of zoos appeared to be contenders, including San Francisco which had provided the muskoxen for the exchange. In the end, the pandas went to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., much to the disappointment of the other zoos with claims on them.

Milton in the Peking zoo. Printed in the Milwaukee Journal, 12 August 1972.

Milton in the Peking zoo. Printed in the Milwaukee Journal, 12 August 1972.

Milton and Matilda arrived in China in early April 1972, a week before the pandas reached the US. But things started off on the wrong foot. News reports from the end of April claimed that the muskoxen had started to loose their hair because of a skin disease and that the Chinese public was extremely disappointed. After all, muskoxen are known for their long wooly coat. Luckily by August, the rash had been cured–according to the zoo keeper Ou Wang Kan after bathing several times in Chinese herbal medicine.

In spite of the initial recovery, the muskoxen did not last long. Milton died 20 February 1975 after swallowing a sharp object that punctured his stomach. I’m not sure what happened to Matilda, but by 1980, she too had died. In 1980, Helen Miller, a widow from Georgia, decided to take up a one-woman crusade to get muskoxen back in China. She successfully arranged for a pair of muskox to be donated by the University of Alaska, Koyuk and Tanana, who arrived in Beijing on 21 March 1988.

Now when you read about the cute and cuddly black and white pandas flying around the globe in “panda diplomacy”, you’ll know that shaggy brown muskoxen have been part of the same story.

Milton and Matilda: The Musk Oxen Who Went to China by Nancy Besst (1982)

Milton and Matilda: The Musk Oxen Who Went to China by Nancy Besst (1982)

And if you want to buy me a gift some time, how about sending me a used copy of the children’s book Milton and Matilda: The Muskoxen who went to China? I’m sure my daughters would love it. And I would too.

Death in captivity: A “natural” outcome?

News media has been all abuzz since yesterday about Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to put down an 18-month-old male giraffe named Marius (a few examples: BBC News, Guardian, DR, Politiken). The giraffe was killed with a bolt to the head this morning and then butchered for use in research and as food for the zoo’s carnivores. Some of the media headlines talk about the giraffe’s “execution” on “death row”. The reason that the giraffe was put down was that the giraffe could no longer stay at CZ because he was sexually mature and had to be relocated to avoid breaking inbreeding regulations. The zoo said that no place to send the giraffe to had been identified. Although it does appear there were some last minute offers yesterday when the news broke, it is unclear how serious those were or how quickly they could have been worked out.

The Lycksele bear cam gives a view of the mother bear and her cubs. Screen capture on 9 February 2014 from

The Lycksele bear cam gives a view of the mother bear and her cubs. Screen capture on 9 February 2014 from

The zoo’s director was clearly surprised at all the hype — after all, he noted, didn’t they cull hundreds of deer in a nearby park every year to maintain the herd’s health? A better comparison might have been zoo practice here in Sweden. At the Lycksele zoo, 2 or 3 bear cubs are born every year … and almost every year they are euthanised by the fall. This is a long term practice: I found a 2002 article about Lycksele putting down 3 cubs that said some zoos in Sweden had started using birth control on their animals, although Lycksele was not. This year’s youngsters were born on 17 January and a webcam of the den offers a chance to catch a peek of them. But what will happen to them? Unless another zoo wants to have them, they won’t live out the year. In a 2012 interview, the zoo’s director responded to criticism that had been raised in online newspaper comments about the cubs’ destiny:

It is a policy in Swedish zoos that the animals will be able to live as naturally as possible. That they can breed is part of their well-being.

What’s interesting to me here is the idea of “living naturally.” The irony of talking about allowing animals to breed because it is “natural” while enclosing them in much smaller areas than they would have in the wild (even though the Lycksele habitats are very large compared to most zoos) and feeding them butchered meat rather than letting them kill the animals themselves, neither of which is “natural” at all. Part of the justification of killing the cubs is that many cubs “naturally” die in the wild, but of course, not every one like is being done to Lycksele’s bears and not on the same day. So I have to ask: who’s “natural” is this situation?

All of this comes down to management. Zoos have to manage the populations of their animals to not exceed their space or financial constraints. I think the public has gotten the idea that zoos are mainly in the conservation business and that many of the animals will somehow make their way into the wild. While it is true that there is some ex-situ conservation breeding for reintroduction projects, these are in reality quite rare. The vast majority of the youngsters born in a zoo are never going to live outside of an enclosure.

The enclosure might, however, be in a different place. Animal exchanges and sales between zoos are quite common. In fact, Lycksele zoo has just this week acquired three beavers from Zoo Wurppertal in Germany to fill that empty beaver enclosure I discussed in January this year. They had to get the beavers from another zoo because the Swedish EPA denied their request to trap live beavers in Sweden. It’s a bit ironic that the beavers on display in Lycksele will not be from the Norwegian beaver remnant  that was used to repopulate Sweden but from the Bavarian population, but at least there will be beavers to see (meaning that a summer visit will be a must for me!).

While I understand why some people might find the death of a giraffe unsettling, it seems pointless to object to that unless you also object to the entire zoo system. Personally, I think zoos provide a valuable service for cultivating conservation thinking, especially among children. Because animal management is required to make that work, it’s something that I think we have to accept, even if we don’t like it. Copenhagen Zoo decided that another home would/could not be found for Marius, so he became lion food, which might have been his “natural” destiny if he’d been born in the wild anyway.

Dated information

In mid-December, I went with my family to Lycksele djurpark, our ‘local’ (2-hour drive away) zoo. The zoo is closed for visitors during the winter season except for four weekends before Christmas when it is open as Julparken where the kiddies can visit Santa Claus and his real reindeer and see the animals who are not hibernating. The great thing about this zoo is that it is one of the few that has both muskox and beaver. Well sort of…

Looking into the fenced beaver enclosure at Lycksele djurpark, Sweden, 14 December 2013. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

Looking into the fenced beaver enclosure at Lycksele djurpark, Sweden, 14 December 2013. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

There is a beaver enclosure, which is marked on the visitor map you get at the entrance. It is a big fenced in wetland area and a viewing building. In the building, there is a nesting room with hay and a feeding chamber which have glass for the visitor to peer through and observe the beaver. But as we looked through the glass, no beaver was to be seen.

However, next to the window, there was a webcam monitor. The text explained that beavers were often difficult to see, but here was a video of one. And, yes, indeed the video showed a beaver eating out of this exact feeding chamber. So the beaver was here. Or was it?

Beaver webcam video playing inside the beaver enclosure building dated 2010. 14 December 2013

Beaver webcam video playing inside the beaver enclosure building dated 2010. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

I noticed the date on the lower right corner of the video: 2010-07-01. So the video showed a beaver who lived in the enclosure 3 1/2 years ago. Hmmm. And while the zoo’s page used to list ‘beaver’ as one of the zoo’s animals (I found it via the Wayback Machine), when their website was revamped in mid-2013, beaver was not included as one of their animals. The beaver is no longer at the zoo.

It’s quite unfortunate that the beaver isn’t there because Lycksele djurpark is one of the few places I’ve seen that tells the reintroduction story on their information boards:

Beavers are Europe’s largest rodents. It was made extinct in Sweden at the end of the 1800s. Today’s beavers are the result of releases of Norwegian beaver during the 1920s and 30s.

So the enclosure is empty. No beaver is there. This makes the information given to the visitor out of date. But will the visitor be distressed at the beaver’s absence? Or will she just think the beaver must be hiding or sleeping or cutting down trees? Will she still learn that the Swedish beavers are the result of reintroduction?

Muskox at Lycksele zoo. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen

Muskox at Lycksele zoo. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen

Up the hill from the beaver pond, the muskoxen live in a forested enclosure. When we saw them, they were standing quite still as the sun was setting (at 13:30 – it is after all northern Sweden) and light snow was falling. But while we had been eating lunch in the cafe, we’d seen the muskox move. A big tv screen shows the live webcam feed from select animals in the park – and one of those is the muskox, which you can also watch. Unlike the beaver, the muskox cam is live and the animal is there is all of its shaggy glory.

Just as at the beaver enclosure, the muskox enclosure also tells about the muskox’s return to Sweden. But the information is dated, just like the beaver video:

The muskox was extinct in Sweden already 3000 years ago. In the year 1971 a small group of emigrated from Norway into Härjedalen in the western part of Sweden. 20 years later there are 35 muskoxes [sic] in Sweden.

[Note that this information is given only in English at the bottom of the Swedish sign with muskox facts]

While the sign was correct 20 years after the muskoxen arrived in Sweden, 20 years after that, the information is woefully out of date, as the herd size has been greatly reduced — were only 7 in summer 2013 after the release of Idun.

Instead of getting this little info snippet, the Swedish-reading visitors get another whole board, the title of which translates are “The wild muskox is threatened with extinction in Sweden. Lycksele djurpark is working on the project: ‘Save the muskox, an attempt to save the wild population which consists of 8 animals.'” This sign brings the story up to 2003 when an intervention was made to remove the existing dominant male (Ingemar) from the wild herd and let the younger male Linus take over. Again, the visitor is left in the dark about the 10 years between the sign and the present, which turns out to have been struck by one disaster after another as first Linus disappeared in 2004 and then Willy (who was a muskox from the Kolmården zoo) was released to be the herd’s male but died after a year. Now 10 years after that board was put up and the intervention project started, the herd has only 7 individuals, even after the addition of Idun this year. The information given is not wrong, but it is dated.

Telling a history of animal reintroduction/conservation that goes up to the ‘present’ is a dangerous thing for a zoo to do. Information quickly becomes out of date, so unless there are plans to update the signs or take them down, it may be best to stick to the older information like the original reintroduction date or place, which is much more unlikely to need revision. At the same time, it seems a shame not to tell the visitor everything you know up to the time the sign is made.

The moral of the story of my visit to Lycksele zoo might be best summed up by something Liam Heneghan tweeted a day ago:

Stories properly told have no discrete end. They haunt us beyond the articulation of the final syllable.

It’s a zoo out there

I spent 5 1/2 hours in the library and archives of the Nordiska Museet today. I wanted to find out more about Skansen’s involvement in the beaver reintroduction, and since Skansen was at one time joined with the Nordiska Museet, they hold the early Skansen zoo correspondence.

The most striking thing about the incoming correspondance to Skansen between 1901 and 1925 was how many people offered to sell animals to the zoo. There were offers for farm animals, including goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys, as well as birds like ducks and geese. Some even offered to sell their dogs (mind you, Skansen actually did have an exhibit of ‘Nordic’ dog breeds so the offer was not as weird as it sounds now). There were lots of people clearly selling babies whose mothers had been killed by hunters: moose calves, roe deer fawns, fox kits, and bear cubs. The great majority of the offers were for wild birds, everything from owls to hawks to crows (yes, plain regular black crows).

On top of the personal letters, lots of animal dealers, particularly in Germany and Finland, sent regular catalogs and lists of available specimens with their prices. There were also plenty of people who thought the zoo was somewhere they could buy animals, so they requested prices for a pair of swans or a flock of birds to stock their personal ponds.

Postcard sent with an offer to sell a tame badger to Skansen, 1919. From the Skansen correspondence in the Nordiska Museet archive.

Postcard sent with an offer to sell a tame badger to Skansen, 1919. From the Skansen correspondence in the Nordiska Museet archive.

But my favorite was a offer on 24 September 1919 from Axel Parlson of Hösterum farm near Söderköping to sell a badger female. She had grown up with the family and their dog and was completely tame. She was very friendly and would eat anything from the kitchen, although she loved moistened corn. The best part was that the postcard on which the letter was written had a photo on the other side — of the badger with the children. I wonder if the girls knew that their dad was trying to sell off their prized pet? And I wonder about the cost of making such a postcard – this wasn’t a pasted on photo, but rather one printed as the postcard – did the owner expect that the zoo would pay a lot for the animal? Did the family have a whole set of these that they used whenever writing correspondance or was it a one-time printing for this occasion?

There were also some odd ball requests, like the orphanage that wanted to borrow a pair of bear cubs for a Children’s Day or the guy who wanted to know how to build an enclosure for a tame seal. But the best of these was a festival committee that wanted to know whether or not a live crocodile could be put out as part of an exhibition between May and September in southern Sweden. They did not say where they were planning on getting the crocodile or what would happen to it afterward.

Advertisement asking for offers to sell mammals and birds

Advertisement asking for offers to sell mammals and birds

Of course all these requests must not have been a surprise to Alarik Behm, the director of Skansen. He ran regular advertisements in the newspapers declaring that the zoo “buys various mammals and birds for the going price” and instructing the readers to mail or telephone in an offer. I guess you get what you ask for.

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