The Curious Case of Ringling's Living Unicorn

Dr. Charles Reid, distinguished professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, held the X-ray up for the gathered reporters to see. It was quite clear, he told them, that the horn of the creature in the radiograph was part of the skull. It was not an implant or an artificial addition.

The members of the press turned their attention to Lancelot, the docile animal that looked remarkably like a goat and who likely contributed to the room smelling like a petting zoo. He stood two feet, six inches tall, not including the large protrusion erupting from the middle of his forehead. The reporters were told they could pull on the horn to see for themselves. It didn’t come off.

As they tugged, Lancelot munched on some rose petals. Despite the controversy his presence had created among animal rights groups during his visit to New York in April 1985, he seemed to suffer no crisis of identity. Another professor, Dr. William Donawick, declared him “content, healthy,” and—in case there was doubt—“living.”

Lancelot had just been validated. He was a content, healthy, living unicorn.

Lancelot with circus proxy Heather Harris. Image Credit: CircusNoSpinZone

As explained by the spokespeople at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the “official” origin of Lancelot the Living Unicorn required some suspension of disbelief. The creature, they said, had simply “wandered up to a tent” when the show touched down in Houston in July of 1984. Enchanted by his arrival, they assigned him a caretaker, a former dancer named Heather Harris, and proceeded to take him around the country so audiences could see this magical aberration of nature for themselves.

For contractual reasons, Lancelot’s original owner couldn’t say anything to ruin the narrative. He went by the name Oberon Zell, and he was a self-professed wizard fascinated by cryptozoology, Neopaganism, and polyamory. In the 1970s, Zell read The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle's fantasy novel, and began to study mentions of the unicorn throughout history. In their most common iteration, they were horse-like, with a single uniform horn on their head that could turn a poisoned body of water into something pure.

This path of research led Zell to discover the work of Franklin Dove, a biologist active in the 1930s who had discovered a method for fusing the horns of a goat together. The trick—actually, a simple surgical procedure—was to get a kid less than a week old, while the horns’ “buds” were still just part of the skin and not connected to the skull, maneuver them close together, and stitch them so they met in the center of the forehead. As they grew inwardly, the horns would merge.

The result? A unicorn. More or less.

Zell, who took biology and pre-med in college, began using Dove’s notes as the basis for his own work in 1980. Using angora goats for their luxurious coats and cross-breeding them with Saanen goats to get slightly higher legs, he was able to successfully coerce his bleating patients to grow a single horn without complication. Aside from a little bit of sanding, they required no maintenance or further modification.

“Many people could not even recognize them as being goats at all,” Zell told in 2007. “And of course, that was perfectly reasonable. They were unicorns. And they knew it! They were amazingly charismatic!”

From 1980 to 1984, Zell donned a sorcerer’s robe and appeared at Renaissance fairs with his charismatic unicorns, inviting curiosity wherever he went. The agents who booked him for the smaller venues eventually put him in touch with Ringling Bros., who offered a four-year licensing deal to take his four best animals on tour with them across the country. Zell agreed to the terms, which prohibited him from discussing his methods for contorting nature.

He proceeded to disappear to avoid the press. He would miss out on all of the controversy.

Zell with an unknown goat. Image Credit: SideshowWorld

Ringling Bros. began to advertise their “Living Unicorn”—a name which they eventually trademarked—in early 1985. By the time their touring show hit New York that April, both the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) began to express concern over how Lancelot had been made to seem like something out of a storybook. Representatives went to the circus expecting to see a chin strap holding a prop in place. Instead, the horn seemed biologically sound, which was even scarier.

“My worst fear has apparently been realized,” ASPCA then-president Dr. John Kullberg told the Los Angeles Times. An implant could be painful for the goat and possibly detrimental to its health. Kullberg cautioned the public not to pay for “freak shows” and demanded to examine the unicorn and his three stand-ins while the circus was at Madison Square Garden; they were rebuffed. Allen Bloom, vice-president for Ringling, called critics “grinches” who were out to destroy the magical realism of Lancelot. They would not publicly acknowledge he was anything other than nonfictional.

“I can’t believe Ringling Bros. has the nerve to insist it is a real unicorn,” Nancy Blaney, a Humane Society spokesperson, said. “The circus is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got involved, dispatching veterinarians to get a closer view of the unicorn. Their report: Lancelot was a goat, and he seemed fine. USDA chief veterinarian Dr. Gerald Toms correctly speculated that a simple grafting procedure had been done. If anesthesia was used, he said, Lancelot shouldn’t have suffered any pain or lasting effects. A day later, Ringling Bros. held a press conference with X-rays confirming the horn’s natural growth.

Lancelot took the hysteria in stride. He appeared at a New York disco next to Harris, his caregiver, and Eric Douglas, Kirk’s son. Pre-show grooming helped ward off the noxious stench common to billy goats; thanks to the publicity, Ringling filled arenas, kids craning their necks to get a glimpse of the creature that stood atop a float and circled the main floor like parading royalty.

“It looks more like a dog,” one said.

A man-made unicorn in existential crisis. Image credit: SideshowWorld

In February 1986, Lancelot was seized by sheriff’s deputies in Daytona Beach, Florida. Their claim to him stemmed from a 1921 state law prohibiting anyone from exhibiting a disfigured or malformed animal for profit. It was a second-degree misdemeanor.

Authorities said they wouldn’t act unless a complaint was filed. The Florida chapter of the Humane Society was happy to oblige them.

Lancelot was once again subjected to X-rays. Another veterinarian agreed the horn appeared to be the result of surgical intervention shortly after birth. He was returned in time for that evening’s performance. No charges were filed.

While Lancelot had a four-year deal, Ringling opted to exercise only two years. Company president Kenneth Feld liked to rotate attractions on a regular basis to help dampen the idea that if someone missed the circus once, they could just catch the same show the following year. In 1987, Lancelot went to a “unicorn retirement home,” according to Feld, and the show began to promote King Tusk, a 12-foot-tall elephant.

By 1990, Zell had stopped crafting his unicorns, with the last member of his stock passing in 2005. A patent granted to him in 1984 may have prevented anyone else from using his particular method until 1992, when it expired.

While observers felt Ringling may have pulled a bit of a bait and switch, Ringling spokeswoman Debbie Linde made a reasonable point.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a unicorn,” she told the press. “A unicorn is an animal with one horn.”

15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.


A flying squirrel soars through the air

In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].


A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.


Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.


A man holds a truffle up for the camera.

The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.


A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.


A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.


An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue

Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.


A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!


A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.


A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.


A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].


A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.


A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.


A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.


A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.


A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

Forget Horns: Some Trains in Japan Bark Like Dogs to Scare Away Deer

In Japan, growing deer populations are causing friction on the railways. The number of deer hit by trains each year is increasing, so the Railway Technical Research Institute has come up with a novel idea for curbing the problem, according to the BBC. Researchers there are using the sound of barking dogs to scare deer away from danger zones when trains are approaching, preventing train damage, delays, and of course, deer carnage.

It’s not your standard horn. In pilot tests, Japanese researchers have attached speakers that blare out a combination of sounds designed specifically to ward off deer. First, the recording captures the animals’ attention by playing a snorting sound that deer use as an “alarm call” to warn others of danger. Then, the sound of howling dogs drives the deer away from the tracks so the train can pass.

Before this initiative, the problem of deer congregating on train tracks seemed intractable. Despite the best efforts of railways, the animals aren’t deterred by ropes, barriers, flashing lights, or even lion feces meant to repel them. Kintetsu Railway has had some success with ultrasonic waves along its Osaka line, but many rail companies are still struggling to deal with the issue. Deer flock to railroad tracks for the iron filings that pile up on the rails, using the iron as a dietary supplement. (They have also been known to lick chain link fences.)

The new deer-deterring soundtrack is particularly useful because it's relatively low-tech and would be cheap to implement. Unlike the ultrasonic plan, it doesn’t have to be set up in a particular place or require a lot of new equipment. Played through a speaker on the train, it goes wherever the train goes, and can be deployed whenever necessary. One speaker on each train could do the job for a whole railway line.

The researchers found that the recordings they designed could reduce the number of deer sightings near the train tracks by as much as 45 percent during winter nights, which typically see the highest collision rates. According to the BBC, the noises will only be used in unpopulated areas, reducing the possibility that people living near the train tracks will have to endure the sounds of dogs howling every night for the rest of their lives.

Deer aren't the only animals that Japanese railways have sought to protect against the dangers of railroad tracks. In 2015, the Suma Aqualife Park and the West Japan Railway Company teamed up to create tunnels that could serve as safer rail crossings for the turtles that kept getting hit by trains.

[h/t BBC]


More from mental floss studios