As a rheumatologist, Jan Bonderson is a well-informed writer about medical freaks and their strange and often disturbing histories. In his latest book he moves away from asylums and heavily curtained drawing-rooms to look at animals credited with exceptional powers. In the past, these unusual abilities could cut two ways: some animals became performing stars, while others ended up on the scaffold or even at the stake.
Cat orchestras may not be prime time today, but the troupe owned and trained by a certain Signor Cappelli played to packed houses in early 19th-century London. In today's more sophisticated age, one might be tempted to raise a inquiring eyebrow at such simple tastes. However, as Bonderson explains in his introduction, performing animals were once a major industry, and the most successful showmen could reap rich rewards. Cappelli was an example: an evening with his cats cost up to two shillings a seat - the equivalent of a night at the opera today.
After this feline overture, other animal performers follow thick and fast. There are dancing horses, card-playing dogs and a selection of "porcine philosophers", or learned pigs. Pigs have long been known for their intelligence, but the book also contains some much less likely performers, such as Mr Breslaw's famous acting canaries. Smartly turned out in military uniform (exactly how the uniforms were fitted, Bonderson does not say), these patriotic birds "shot an alleged deserter with a small cannon and then buried the corpse, whistling mournful funeral tunes" - stirring stuff for the audiences who watched them in city theatres or country fairs.
The Cat Orchestra and the Elephant Butler casts its net wide and, as a result, produces a distinctly miscellaneous catch. However, it rises above other works in the genre thanks to the depth of its research.
In some of the case histories the performing animals seemed to have enjoyed their work, but more often than not training involved a small amount of carrot and a much larger dose of stick. For large animals, cramped conditions could be particularly inhumane. Bonderson recounts the poignant story of Chunee, an Indian elephant kept in an upstairs room not far from Trafalgar Square. Chunee's demise, which was both painful and squalid, triggered a national outpouring of indignation and anger - a 19th-century precursor of animal rights campaigns today.
Some of the most interesting sections of the book tackle imaginary creatures rather than real ones and "faith-based" beliefs in them that persisted into relatively recent times. One such creature was the borametz or "vegetable lamb of Tartary" - a cross between a plant and an animal that was believed to grow in the steppes of Central Asia. Some fascinating woodcuts, among several dozen illustrations in the book, depict this extraordinary life form with all the confidence of a modern field guide.
As Bonderson explains, belief in the vegetable lamb can be traced back to Chinese and Jewish traditions, which existed as long ago as the 5th century AD. When Westerners began to explore central Asia, or Tartary, they learnt of the existence of the vegetable lamb and eagerly sought out specimens to take back with them to Europe. Sadly, most of these ingeniously contrived fakes have since disappeared, but one is in the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth and another in a drawer in the Natural History Museum, where it has lain for more than 200 years.
With his historian's nose for authenticity and fascination with the bizarre, Bonderson has produced a book that manages to entertain, inform and occasionally repel. It is an intriguing study not only of animals but also of human curiosity, credulity, ambition and greed.
David Burnie is a fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
The Cat Orchestra and the Elephant Butler
Author - Jan Bonderson
Publisher - Tempus Publishing
Pages - 230
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 978 0 752 43934 1