10 Brutal But Hilarious Old Disses of Adorable Animals
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.