Amazing Animal Performers Of The Past : NPR History Dept. Today's YouTube sensations — intelligent dogs and crafty cats — are the latest in a long line of entertaining animals.
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Amazing Animal Performers Of The Past

Dog & Monkey Hotel, circa 1915. Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

Dog & Monkey Hotel, circa 1915.

Library of Congress

Inundated by YouTube clips of entertaining animals like the elephant cleaning itself with a broom and Joey the trick ferret, I can't help but think of celebrated animals in America's past: Trigger the horse, the many porpoises named Flipper and, last but not leashed, the superdogs who portrayed Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.

Those are some of the ones we have seen on the Internet and TV. But before there was mass media, Americans marveled at other amazing animals — on stage, in circus rings, in courtrooms, in everyday life.

These days animals rights proponents decry maltreatment — leading to more humane decisions, such as the elimination of elephant acts by Ringling Bros., as recently reported by USA Today. For now, the circus "will continue to showcase, horses, dogs, tigers and other animals in its performances."

The Trained Pig Show, circa 1898 Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

But no matter what happens, we will always be able to marvel at the menagerie of past entertainers.

For example:

  • Like A Trained Zoo. Super showmen Barnum & Bailey staged a spectacular reenactment in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World. On their one-day stop in St. Paul in August, they advertised in the local paper: Trained cats, dogs, pigs, geese, storks, goats, sheep, monkeys, bears, lions, tigers, hyenas, panthers, leopards, wolves, zebras, deer, horses, ponies and elephants. In another show, a few years later, they featured xylophone-playing pigs.
  • The Dog and Monkey Hotel. Around the turn of the 20th century, a show promoter from Flint, Mich., carried a traveling show from state fair to state fair. It featured the Don Carlos Dog and Monkey Hotel. Newspapers from Kentucky to Oklahoma to Texas raved about the spectacle. "A miniature hotel on the stage is operated entirely by monkeys and dogs," the Eastern Utah Advocate reported on Aug. 28, 1913, "and romances and disagreements with police interference and the ultimate removal to jail and the trial of all wonderfully enacted and the audience is sent into spasms of laughter by the antics of the educated animals." The hotel "is the cutest and funniest show travelling," noted the Indian Journal of Aufala Oklahoma. "The best poodle dogs and monkeys ... run a hotel. It is an act for women and children as well as men." In Texas, the El Paso Herald reported, the dog and monkey show was paired with an educated horse performance. The horse, Red Riding Hood, "spells, adds, waits table, tells ages, gets mail and assumes wonderful poses on the instant of the command and without a perceptible cue."
  • The Great Dane Case. In the spring of 1915, Edward McBirney, an electrician in New York filed suit against lumber dealer John Paganucci, claiming that Paganucci had stolen McBirney's supersmart Great Dane, Beauty. The judge was having trouble knowing who was telling the truth until McBirney brought his daughter into the room and Beauty responded with affection. Paganucci was not aware that Beauty — who had appeared in stage performances and even movies — could do tricks. "At the direction of McBirney," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, Beauty "shook hands, played dead and said his prayers like a highly moral and religious pup." Beauty's ability to testify on his own – and his owner's — behalf, ensured return to the proper home.

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