More than the pacing, antic tapir, more than the dancing bear did visitors to the Jardin des Plantes love Castor and Pollux, the two elephants held captive there. Brother and sister (twins, in fact), Castor and Pollux never ceased to delight onlookers. Ladies marveled at the delicacy with which the pachyderms’ trunks probed for the morsels of white bread they’d bring them. Men stood thunderstruck by their great size. Children squealed with excitement when for a small fee the elephants’ keeper would set them on his charges’ backs for a march across an imaginary Serengeti.
Even the most jaded of journalists could not help but feel themselves wooed by the charms of these animals. One Paris correspondent for The Times of London deemed them “as lively and playful as kittens,” noting how they would “gallop and strike each other with their trunks” and later “lie down beside each other” when such hi-jinks tired them.
Only the dark pall of conflict could break the spell that for seven years Castor and Pollux had cast over the city. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 brought an end to the idyll enjoyed by these “pets of young Paris.” The threat of imminent siege forced Parisians to abandon their recreations in order to prepare themselves. Their days they spent amassing arms, building blockades and laying by stores. Some 220,000 sheep, 40,000 oxen and 12,000 pigs they herded into the Blois de Boulogne — meat enough for even the most protracted embargo, they believed.
This proved an unrealistically optimistic estimate. The siege lasted well into winter. By late autumn the Parisians had consumed all their livestock. Beleaguered, wracked with hunger, they found themselves resorting to strange flesh. First they ate their horses, all 70,000 of them. Then they nibbled their pets. Old maids roasted lap dogs and mourned them as they sucked marrow from tiny ribs. House cats went missing only to turn up in butcher shops, filleted and dressed with paper frills and colored ribbons. Housewives served the small pink and white carcasses broiled with pistachio nuts and pimientos. When even the stock of felines dwindled, a “rat market” sprang up in the Place de Hôtel de Ville. Even such meager meat as this came in scant supply, the price it commanded putting it out of reach of the poorest citizens, who had only “siege bread,” a dark, sour-smelling mass made mostly of sawdust, to fill their bellies.
War creates opportunity for those savvy and well-heeled enough to seize it. In this, the siege of Paris stood as no exception. Provisions in the city stretched to the limit, the various attractions of the Jardin des Plantes rapidly went from luxuries to liabilities. One dwarf zebra, two buffalo, two Sambour stags, twelve carp, two yaks, three geese, one small zebra, one lot of hens, one lot ducks, eleven rabbits, four reindeer, two Nilgai antelopes, one doe, two elk, one antelope, two camels, one yak calf — these exotic creatures were all placed on the auction block and sold to the highest-bidding butcher.
An English butcher named Deboos claimed the lion’s share of the menagerie. He catered to Paris’s wealthiest citizens and counted Baron de Rothschild among his best customers. To him went also Castor and Pollux, whose sale happened to coincide with a situation of particularly acute dearth. The city had nearly exhausted its store of meat, and the moneyed classes, invoking the folly of maintaining a zoo under siege conditions, clamored for something new, something unusual, to delight their palates.
Deboos admitted he knew nothing about slaughtering elephants, but, sensible to the caprice of the rich, he saw it as in his interest to learn on the fly. Enlisting the help of a zookeeper and a gunsmith, he settled on Castor as his first victim. The keeper commanded Castor to kneel and rest his head on a wooden block. The elephant obeyed.
The gunsmith meanwhile raised a carbine to his shoulder, took aim and fired. The explosive steel-tip bullet it discharged struck home, but it did not kill Castor. Blood gushed from the wound it made. The elephant appeared surprised and somewhat confused, perhaps thinking he had suffered some accident. Yet he continued patiently to rest his head on the block. It took two more shots to the skull to fell him.
Pollux received a more humane dispatch than that granted her brother. She died of a single shot behind the ear.
The abundant meat these animals rendered—some 1,500 kilograms—commanded the princely sum of sixty francs per kilo. Restaurateurs printed new bills of fare to advertise the exotic new dishes they offered: Emincee of elephant! Elephant vinaigrette! Stewed elephant with camel’s hump! These dishes the beau monde of Paris downed with gusto. Gourmands reported the trunks and feet tasted especially fine.
The days of exclusive culinary adventure ended with French surrender on January 28, 1871. As a gesture of goodwill Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck directed food relief to Paris by the train-load, which the city’s poor, who had little else but seige bread to nourish them and who had perished by the tens of thousands during the hostilities, no doubt gratefully received. Richer sorts, however, perhaps sniffed at the idea of eating rations, memories of their earlier zoo-animal dinners still vivid in their minds. Ennui bred by peas and sausage was something only they could know.