Clara, the traveling rhino, belied species' 'brutal beast' image


Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with an Eighteenth-Century Rhinoceros

By Glynis Ridley. Atlantic Monthly Press. 256 pages. $22.

You've got to hand it to Glynis Ridley, an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. She stumbled across a fascinating, never-before-told true story, and she did painstaking research in order to bring it to life. But Clara's tale, as told in Ridley's first book, reads less like the adventure story that her title suggests and more like a dry history textbook sprinkled with occasionally amusing and surprising details.

The story's protagonist is a 5,000-pound Indian rhinoceros who became a European celebrity in the mid-18th century, traveling from city to city in a massive horse-drawn carriage and changing people's ideas about a little-known species from an exotic land. Ridley believes -- and presents plenty of evidence to support -- that Clara's tour was "one of the first recognizably modern media campaigns," complete with souvenir tie-ins and fake stories of her demise that made customers only more eager to pay for rhino viewings when Clara came to town.

The tour, which spanned 17 years, was the brainchild of Douwemout Van der Meer, a Dutch sea captain who purchased young Clara in 1741 with plans to make a living by displaying the giant horned creature throughout Europe. As exploitative as that plan may sound, Van der Meer is portrayed by Ridley as a benevolent master, dedicated to the copious feeding and care of his rare cargo. Her upkeep was no small undertaking, Ridley writes: "Since the fall of the Roman Empire, no one had managed to bring a rhinoceros to Europe and keep it alive long enough to understand anything about the care of the species."

Van der Meer managed to keep Clara alive and in good health for years, beginning on their six-month voyage from Calcutta to Leiden, during which Clara developed an affinity for oranges and the smell of tobacco and was regularly rubbed with fish oil to protect her hide. Though the female Indian rhino has a propensity for moodiness -- "a tendency exaggerated roughly every forty-five days of her hormonal cycle," Ridley writes -- Clara was exceptionally tame and comfortable around humans, having been orphaned as a baby and raised practically as a pet by one of the heads of the Dutch East Indian Company.

The bulk of the book is a reconstruction of Clara's travels: the broadsheets that promoted her, the royalty who met her, the artists who sketched her, the scientists who studied her, the literature inspired by her. Van der Meer left no written record of the tour, so Ridley had to piece together her story from a wide variety of written accounts and artifacts. Her prose sometimes bogs down in historical digressions, and the story itself often reads more like a lecture than an engaging tale.

Along the way Ridley does weave in an array of interesting rhino tidbits; among them, the fact that rhinos once took the place of unicorns in the Bible, and that a seminal Roman historian considered the rhino and elephant mortal enemies. "This was a false belief," Ridley writes, "but one that Pope Leo X had nonetheless intended putting to the test in the Papal gardens," pitting a rhino against his own elephant -- "had the rhinoceros sent to him by King Manuel of Portugal in 1516 not been shipwrecked and lost on its way to Rome." Clara's demeanor throughout the tour offered evidence to contradict the stereotype of rhino as brutal beast. Her cultural impact ranged from rhinoceros-inspired hairdos in Paris to debates over the evolution of her species.

In the end, the author certainly supports her thesis, that Clara -- who died of unknown causes in London in 1758 -- "was the longest-lived rhinoceros in captivity in Europe and the most influential there has ever been in terms of fixing an accurate representation of the animal in the European mind."

If only the book had been as captivating as its namesake was.

Lisa Pollak, a former Sun features writer, is a producer for the public radio program This American Life.

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