Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Zoophagy - Victorians and Exotic Meat!

Red Squirrel.
Photo courtesy of British Wildlife Centre

Whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight, I was lucky enough to see not one, but two, red squirrels. Granted, they aren't the brightest creatures on the planet (the first one ran alongside the car trying to outpace it, rather than escape up a tree!) but they win hands down in the cute stakes.

Sadly, red squirrels are becoming a rare sight in the UK, pushed out by the hardier and more aggressive grey squirrel. The later are a non-native species to Britain and were introduced in Victorian times by a naturalist, Frank Buckland - and this is where the zoophagy comes in - he imported grey squirrels to eat!

Zoophagy is the pursuit of eating animal flesh - and the more unusual the better.
Doctor Frank Buckland.
Born in 1826, Frank Buckland trained as a doctor, although his first interest was always natural history. To give him his due, he paid some attention to the medical profession because he noticed most nurses couldn’t read! He tested nurses with a medicine label.

 What the label actually said was:
'This lotion to be applied externally only.'
However the nurses' reply was:
Two spoonfuls to be taken four times a day.'

Buckland eventually gave up his medical career to pursue his love of natural history, and became an expert in fish production. However, he took it as his personal mission to broaden the traditional 'roast beef' diet of the British and was a pioneer of zoophagy. Buckland regularly dined on delicacies such as mice in batter, horse tongue, squirrel pie and stewed mole (the latter reportedly tasted like "poo".)  Indeed, Buckland had friends at the Royal Zoological Gardens (now London Zoo) who contacted him when an animal died, in case he wanted to eat it!
Non-native grey squirrel. Photo courtesy of Brian Marshall. 
In a quest to be even more adventurous, in 1859 he founded the Acclimatization Society. Their aim was to search for new and more exotic meats to eat, and at the society's inaugural dinner in 1862 the menu included roast kangaroo, boiled sea slug and grilled parrot. Such was his renown that it was said when he walked past:
"Elderly maidens called their cats indoors."

It was to broaden his dining options that Buckland came to import the grey squirrel form North America, with the subsequent disastrous decimation of our native red squirrels.

Distribution of red vs grey squirrels in the past 70 years.
Courtesy of British Red Squirrel Society.
As an aside, if you are tempted to think grey squirrels are 'cute' - it is an offense punishable by 2 years in prison, to nurse and re-release an injured grey into the wild in the UK. If you find a grey squirrel in distress, then by law you are required to take it to a veterinarian for humane destruction. This may seem harsh, but in 2001 the grey population was estimated at 2.5 million and the red squirrel is only hanging on in certain protected areas, including the Lake District and the Isle of Wight.

As a vegetarian myself, researching this post set me thinking about what makes some meats acceptable to eat, and others repulsive. What is your opinion? Why should it be OK to eat lamb or chicken, but we squirm at the idea of mole or parrot?
Photo courtesy of British Wildlife Centre


  1. I suppose I'm too biased to answer that question, as I became a vegetarian myself as a child because the idea of eating any animal was horrible to me.

    I think it simply comes down to the power of conditioning. Because we're used to thinking of cats and dogs as pets/companions, the idea of making a meal of them is repugnant. But since we've been taught that cows, pigs, or chickens are *there* to be used as food, we usually don't give it a second thought.

    But then, like I said, I'm biased. I'd be curious to see what a meat-eater would have to say...

    1. As a vegetarian myself, I dont think you're biased but have thought things through more than most!
      Whilst writing the post I was reaching the opinion it's about the 'cute' factor, and yet I felt repulsed at the idea of eating animals that had died at the zoo. In fact, eating animals that have died of natural causes is stopping them from going to waste...
      As a digression, one of the many reasons I became vegetarian was because I disagreed with the animal husbandry methods needed to make meat freely available for all...but if this was my sole objection it would follow I'm comfortable about eating road kill or deceased zoo exhibits...and I'm not...A complex topic.
      Thanks for your comment, Undine.
      G x

  2. Hi Grace,

    I'm afraid that I am very much a meat eater, although I am quite happy to choose a vegetarian meal from a restaurant menu, if the mood takes me.

    I have to say that I totally agree with the comment made by your previous commenter 'Undine'. I am sure that it is purely a conditioning reflex, which makes some animals and birds 'suitable' as food and others not.

    I have eaten pigeon and frogs legs, although I think that is about as outrageous as it gets. I have often wondered whether I would actually eat something more unusual, if it was cooked, prepared and served and I wasn't told what it was in advance? ... Perhaps it has already happened ... who knows!

    There was an entire television programme broadcast a few months back (although I can't find the link now I need it), which told the story of a local Somerset man who lives entirely off of roadkill. I have to admit that I wasn't able to bring myself to watch it, so perhaps there is hope of converting me to vegetarianism yet!

    Great topic for a post, most interesting.


  3. To me its an issue of how animals are treated, not whether they should be eaten in the end. Animal abuse is the real problem. (read Upton Sinclair-The Jungle) I think if an animal lives a pretty full life. He is indifferent to be being eaten, once he is dead. I actually think it is a sign of respect to use the animal as food once deceased. I do believe animals can live a full life and then be consumed. We may just need to rethink how we do it.


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