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10 Brutal But Hilarious Old Disses of Adorable Animals 

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Getty // iStock

Today, people tend to speak about the animal kingdom with a certain reverence. How times have changed! A century ago, most writers and academics didn’t think twice about taking cheap shots at our fellow creatures. Neither did their forebears 100 years before that. Even Charles Darwin relished in demeaning the marine iguana, which he said were “large ... most disgusting, clumsy Lizards ... somebody calls them 'imps of darkness.'” If that burn makes you feel bad for the iguanas, just wait until you read Ernest Hemingway’s anti-hyena rant. 

1. “I HAVE NEVER SEEN SUCH AN UGLY ANIMAL OR ONE THAT IS MORE USELESS.”

Who Said It: Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557)
The Target: Sloths
The Context: A Spanish historian and adventurer, Oviedo was among the first Europeans to ever encounter these sluggish mammals. Apparently, they didn’t leave a good impression on him. In his 1526 book, The Natural History of the West Indies, Oviedo shows utter contempt for all things sloth-related. “[It is] the stupidest animal that can be found in the world,” he wrote

The text also reveals that the Spaniard kept a pet sloth during his travels in South America. Feeding it wasn’t easy. “No one can find out what this animal eats,” Oviedo complained. “I had one in my home, and from my observations I have come to believe that this animal lives on air.” Of course, we now know that sloths can’t live on air alone. Instead, the omnivorous tree-dwellers mainly subsist on buds, shoots, and leaves—along with the occasional insect or small vertebrate. 

Oviedo wasn’t the last scholar to throw shade on sloths. French Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) is widely regarded as one of the greatest zoologists in history. He wrote that in sloths, “nature seems to have amused herself by producing something imperfect and grotesque.”

2. “RHINOCEROS ARE TRUCULENT, BLUSTERING BEASTS, MUCH THE MOST STUPID OF ALL THE DANGEROUS GAME I KNOW.”

Who Said It: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
The Target: Rhinos
The Context: Roosevelt was one of those animal lovers who also liked shooting them. In his autobiography, he reminisces at length about his hunting hobby. Chapter two—“The Vigor of Life”—offers plenty of advice on how to bring down everything from grizzlies to elephants. 

While Roosevelt “personally had no difficulties with lions,” he recounted several close calls with angry rhinos. “Generally, their attitude is one of mere stupidity and bluff,” TR wrote. “But on occasions, they do charge wickedly, both when wounded and when entirely unprovoked.” He would know. After leaving the White House in 1909, Roosevelt and his son Kermit went on an African hunting expedition on which they killed a whopping 512 animals—including 11 black rhinos and nine white ones. 

Modern readers might have a hard time believing this, but the whole trip was seen as conservation-oriented. After all, Teddy’s foray was sponsored by the Smithsonian—which he rewarded with more 23,000 valuable specimens, 11,000 of which were animals.

3. “THAT STRANGE LITTLE ANIMAL OF ZOOLOGICAL PERVERSITIES.”

Who Said It: Ernest Scott (1867-1939)
The Target: Platypuses
The Context: You don't need to be a biologist to appreciate how the platypus's discovery confounded animal experts. In January 1939, Ernest Scott—the first (and, so far, only) historian to head the Australian and New Zealand Society for the Advancement of Science—gave a lecture on the platypus, “that strange little animal of zoological perversities.” In his words, “the platypus is an historical character. It set the anatomists all agog when specimens were first examined in Europe.” 

Scott wasn’t exaggerating. In 1793, South Wales governor John Hunter wrote a paper on the strange new chimera. Among other things, he theorized about how such an oddball came to exist. His theory? That the platypus must have been created by “a promiscuous intercourse” between several different animals. 

4. “HE IS A BIRD OF BAD MORAL CHARACTER. HE DOES NOT GET HIS LIVING HONESTLY.”

Who Said It: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
The Target: Bald Eagles
The Context: Did Franklin really want the turkey to be America’s national emblem? No. (In fact, the symbol he proposed was of Moses at the Red Sea.) But although the oft-repeated turkey yarn isn’t true, what is true is that Franklin didn’t think much of bald eagles.  

Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. At its center is a bald eagle soaring with patriotic pride. Two years later, a certain inventor and diplomat questioned this decision—privately. In 1784, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache. Included in this dispatch was a scathing critique of the raptor’s personality.

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen,” Franklin wrote. “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.” The founding father then accused it of stealing from ospreys (which is true) and being easily scared off by smaller avians (also true—crows sometimes gang up on the eagles to chase them away).  

5. “IF ANYONE DESIRES TO SEE A BLACKER, UGLIER, MORE SAVAGE, AND MORE UNTAMEABLE BEAST THAN OUR ‘DEVIL,’ HE MUST BE DIFFICULT TO PLEASE.”

Who Said It: Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895)
The Target: Tasmanian Devils
The Context:  This marsupial has been vilified for ages. During the19th century, myths about Tasmanian devils spread like wildfire. Rumor had it that the creatures could even skeletonize unwary travelers. Soon, popular Aussie writers bought into the hype—including Meredith. In 1880, she penned the above sentence to defend the killing of 150 devils by a local shepherd. “We don’t show the brutes any mercy; they do too much mischief,” Meredith wrote.

Truth be told, however, Tasmanian devils don’t prey on humans and usually won’t attack unless threatened. Furthermore, despite Meredith’s concerns about their taste for full-grown sheep, the marsupials mainly kill sick or young ones.   

6. “IT IS AN ANIMAL NO LESS MISCHIEVOUS THAN IT IS DEFORMED.”

Who Said It: Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon (1707-1788)
The Target: Vampire Bats
The Context: Other mammals with terrible reputations include the three known vampire bat species. Natives of Central and South America, these blood-eaters predominantly feed on cows, chickens, and other livestock. And, yes, one of these bats—the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus)—does occasionally bite humans. However, it generally prefers bovine or horse blood over that of Homo sapiens. When a person does get bitten by one, the victim is usually asleep and the bite tends to occur on the big toe.

Buffon describes the bat in volume seven of his encyclopedic Natural History book series. Using vivid language, the text states that the flier’s nose “is deformed, its nostrils resembling a funnel, with a membrane at the top which … greatly heightens the deformity of its face.” 

7. “[THEY HAVE] A SINGULARLY STUPID AIR, NOT AT ALL BELIED BY THEIR MANNERS.”

Who Said It: Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon (1707-1788)
The Target: Snipes
The Context: Yes, snipes are real—although if your camping buddies tell you to go and hunt for one, some skepticism might be warranted. The long-beaked wading birds poke around for worms and other invertebrates on warm or temperate beaches all over Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Ornithologists currently recognize around 20 species—the largest of which can be 19 inches long from beak tip to tail tip. 

Buffon mocked their appearance in yet another installment in his multi-volume magnum opus. “A character peculiar to these birds,” he wrote, “is a compressed head and large eyes placed considerably behind, which give them a singularly stupid air not at all belied by their manners.” 

8. “THERE IS NO DEPTH OF MEANNESS, TREACHERY, OR CRUELTY TO WHICH THEY DO NOT CHEERFULLY DESCEND.”

Who Said It: William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937)
The Target: American Wolves
The Context: The American bison had a powerful friend in Hornaday, a hunter-turned-naturalist who set up a captive bison breeding program, founded the National Bison Society, and helped establish protected ranges for the herbivores in Kansas and Montana.

Yet his attitude towards wolves was far less progressive. In 1904, Hornaday opined that every single one was not only “deadly dangerous to man,” but “a black-hearted murderer and criminal.” Moreover, there was supposedly “no depth of meanness, treachery, or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend.” 

Sadly, such rhetoric was nothing new. Since colonial times, American farmers had been at odds with wolves, which frequently killed livestock. In the late 19th century, the government began to actively incentivize the killing of these animals. Bounty programs—some of which lasted until 1965—would pay private citizens anywhere from $20 to $50 per dead wolf.

These efforts nearly eradicated the predator. In 1960, only about 300 wolves remained in the lower 48 states. Then, in 1973, Congress granted them formal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, American wolves have been steadily recovering—with roughly 5500 now roaming the contiguous United States.

9. “TORPID, SENSELESS CREATURES.”

Who Said It: George Perry (1771-?)
The Target: Koalas
The Context: Despite being a stonemason by trade, Perry’s real passion was natural history. From 1810 to 1811, he published The Arcana, a monthly illustrated magazine dedicated to the study of life. 

In one 1811 issue, his readers were greeted with the first painting of a koala that ever graced a European publication. Perry’s caption called it “the Koalo, or New Holland Sloth.” And, just as Oviedo didn’t know what to make of real sloths, Perry was befuddled by this arboreal weirdo. Arcana subscribers were told that the “torpid, senseless creatures” were “supposed to live chiefly on berries and fruits.”

A few sentences later, Perry speculated about its purpose in God’s plan: “Whether we consider the uncouth and remarkable form of its body, which is particularly awkward and unwieldy, or its strange … manner of living, we are at a loss to imagine for what particular scale of usefulness or happiness such an animal could by the great Author of Nature possibly be destined.”

10. “A HERMAPHRODITIC SELF-EATING DEVOURER OF THE DEAD.”

Who Said It: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
The Target: Hyenas
The Context: These mammals were getting bad press long before The Lion King opened. Teddy Roosevelt categorically dismissed the hyena, which he wrote was “too cowardly ever to be a source of danger to the hunter.” Granted, he did give credit where he thought some was due. “The hyena is a beast of unusual strength, and of enormous power in his jaws and teeth,” Roosevelt wrote. Still, he didn’t have many charitable things to say about them: “[The] creature is fraught with a terror all its own.” 

Ernest Hemingway had an even less flattering outlook on hyenas. In 1935, he released The Green Hills of Africa, which chronicles a safari the author had embarked on two years earlier. (Incidentally, it was Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition that inspired Hemingway to take this trip.) In the book, the author called the hyena a “hermaphroditic, self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain …”

Though it was a takedown fit for a Comedy Central roast, Hemingway didn't have his facts straight. While female hyenas do have pseudo-penises (more or less a weirdly-shaped clitoris), these animals are no hermaphrodites. Also, while they’re not above scavenging, the predators actively kill 95 percent of their meals. And, by the way, lions are far more likely to munch on a hyena’s leftovers than vice versa. Sorry, Hemingway …

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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