Lionel Walter Rothschild, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, was born into the 19th century’s richest banking dynasty, though the family business did not call to him. No, Walter preferred animals — and the more exotic the better — to his Victorian peers.
Walter Rothschild riding on the back of Rotumah, his 200-year-old, 300-pound giant tortoise.

Buckingham Palace has seen some pretty strange sights in its time — Queen’s Brian May perched on its roof in 2012 while cranking out a hair-metal version of the national anthem springs to mind — but surely none can top the incident in the early years of the 20th century when a carriage drawn by three zebras (and one nonplussed-looking pony) pulled up in front of the gates.

The reins were wielded by Lionel Walter Rothschild, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, a scion of the banking family whose interests lay in fauna rather than finance; he had driven the zebras from his townhouse at 148 Piccadilly to disprove the widely held notion that the animals were untameable. Many eminent Victorians kept exotic pets — Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a wombat named Top, who liked to nestle in his lap while he painted, and the naturalist Richard Bell kept emus, tortoises and monkeys — but Walter was in a class of his own: at its height, his collection included 300,000 bird skins, more than two million butterflies, and 30,000 beetles, as well as, by his own account, “wild horses, a tame wolf, wild asses, emus, rheas, cassowaries, wild turkeys, a marabou stork, cranes, a dingo and pups, a capybara, pangolins, several species of deer, a flock of kiwis, a spiny anteater, giant tortoises, a monkey... and a number of less exotic species”. They comprised the largest zoological menagerie ever amassed by a private individual. The Rothschild giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), a subspecies with five ossicones rather than two, is named in his honour, along with a further 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, three fish, three spiders, two reptiles and one millipede and worm apiece.


    Stuart Husband


    September 2021


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