Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone.
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
--Hilaire Belloc in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1906)
In 2007, the Getty Center held a magnificent menagerie of an exhibit consisting of beautiful paintings of exotic animals created by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry. My favorite painting in the exhibit was a life-sized portrait (fifteen by ten feet!) of an Indian rhinoceros named Clara. This painting was so amazing that I actually went back to the Getty before the exhibit left just to see Clara again. She swept me off my feet!
Clara really existed and was one of the rarest and most lucrative animals to have ever been displayed in Europe. She was brought by a Dutch sea captain and together they traveled all over 18th-century Europe for twenty years; her display in front of everyone from kings to peasants forever changed the way that people imagined the rhinoceros. Until Clara, many people even doubted the very existence of rhinos--from the 3rd to 16th centuries AD, no rhino had been seen on European soil.
In a world of zoos, TVs, and the Internet, it's hard to imagine the impact that seeing a real rhinoceros back then had on Clara's visitors. But I tried to have that mindset when I was at the zoo on Saturday. We have no real sense that a living species would ever remain a mystery to us. If we failed to see an animal at the zoo, it wouldn't be a huge deal. But when Clara stopped in a little European town, she offered people the only chance they would ever have to see a rhino.
Three years after learning about Clara, I couldn't wait to see the Indian rhinos at the zoo on Saturday, two brothers named Soman and Surat. They were doing what I would do on a Saturday at noon if I had nothing else to do--laying around, looking cute. Oh man, I was so happy to see them. I got myself a little souvenir, too! (His name is Pete.)
My other favorite animals of the day were the baby panda, lions, tigers, giraffes, and elephants. I don't know if you've been to the San Diego Zoo recently, but it was so much fun!
Bye, Soman and Surat!