During the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of wild animals in London theatres was a common and sensational practice. The use of animals, often exotic and dangerous, added an element of spectacle and excitement to theatrical performances. These displays were known as “animal acts” and were popular attractions in a variety of entertainment venues, including theatres, circuses, and menageries.
Wild animal acts in London theatres were diverse and ranged from dramatic reenactments of exotic scenes to more dangerous displays featuring trained animals. These performances could include scenes depicting jungle hunts, battles between humans and animals, or simply showcasing the exotic nature of the creatures. These acts were often included as part of larger theatrical productions or as stand-alone attractions between acts.
The animals used in these acts were sourced from around the world, and their presence in the city was a testament to the colonial and imperial interests of the time. However, the conditions in which these animals were kept and the treatment they received were often inhumane. Many animals suffered due to inadequate care, confinement, and the stress of performing in unnatural environments.
As public attitudes towards animal welfare began to shift during the late 19th century, concerns about the treatment of animals in entertainment grew. Activists advocated for better conditions and raised awareness about the ethical concerns associated with using wild animals in performances. Eventually, legal regulations and changing societal values led to the decline of such practices in theatres.
Overall, the use of wild animals in London theatres during the 18th and 19th centuries reflects a complex blend of curiosity, entertainment, and exploitation. It’s a historical reminder of how attitudes towards animals and entertainment have evolved over time.
Isaac A. Van Amburgh was a 19th-century American entertainer known for his performances with wild animals, particularly lions and tigers. He gained fame for his daring and often controversial acts in which he interacted closely with these dangerous animals in front of live audiences.
Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals Inscribed 1839
Oil on canvas | 113.7 x 174.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 406346, Royal Collection
Van Amburgh’s performances were a precursor to the modern concept of animal training and the use of exotic animals in entertainment. He would enter cages with ferocious animals, often using a combination of fear, dominance, and conditioning to control them during his acts. His feats included putting his head inside a lion’s mouth, commanding multiple lions and tigers at once, and engaging in mock battles with them.
While he was praised for his audacity and showmanship, there was also criticism and concern about the treatment of the animals in his care. Many animal rights advocates and observers questioned the ethics of subjecting these creatures to potentially harmful and stressful situations for the sake of entertainment.
Van Amburgh’s popularity waned in the latter half of the 19th century as public sentiment shifted towards more humane treatment of animals. His performances are remembered as a reflection of the attitudes and entertainment preferences of his time, as well as a catalyst for discussions about the treatment of animals in captivity.
The Exeter Exchange, also known as Exeter Change, was a building in London that housed a menagerie, or collection of exotic animals, during the 19th century. It was located on the Strand and operated from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s. The menagerie at Exeter Change was a popular attraction for Londoners, showcasing a variety of animals including lions, tigers, monkeys, birds, and other exotic creatures.
However, the conditions for the animals at Exeter Change were often poor, with small and cramped cages that did not provide proper care or space for the animals. This led to concerns about animal welfare, and eventually, public sentiment turned against the menagerie. Animal rights activists, including figures like William Wilberforce, campaigned for the closure of Exeter Change due to the inhumane treatment of the animals.
In 1826, the menagerie was finally closed down, and the building was later demolished. The closure of Exeter Change marked a turning point in public attitudes towards the treatment of animals and contributed to the growing movement for animal welfare and rights. The change was on the current site of The Strand Palace Hotel.