VULTURE CAPITALISM

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.

Contributor

Stuart Husband

Published

September 2021

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