When I last visited Sea World in Orlando, Florida, I saw the Shamu show. It didn’t matter that the original Shamu died in 1971; she was so iconic that the biggest of orcas at each theme park is still presented under her name. (The individual I saw was actually called Tilikum.)
This kind of symbolic naming is nothing new. It has been going on with performing animals for over 100 years. One example was Consul, a performing chimpanzee (or, rather, a series of performing chimpanzees). As I have written about previously, the public was very interested in gorillas, cavemen, and “missing links” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their popularity fed into interest in evolution, and in some ways was even spurred by the idea of a real “missing link.” The performances of Consul (and others, like a chimpanzee named Peter) were an attempt to capitalize on this fascination.
Audiences marveled at the dexterity and skill with which Consul lit cigars, undressed, sewed, and accomplished other feats. These sorts of acts had become a little plain after the turn of the 20th century, but sometimes something happened that would put the current incarnation of Consul into the headlines. According to an article that appeared in Popular Mechanics in 1919, a latter “Consul” was touring America when he fired a gun at his trainer. The trainer had used the gun earlier in the performance to keep some bears in line and put it down backstage. Consul, the piece tells us, picked up the gun and tried to pocket it. When the trainer approached to reclaim it, Consul fired.
The gun, of course, was loaded with blanks, and the trainer only suffered some powder burns. Why Consul fired, no one was sure, but the article was adamant that this was “an authentic instance of an anthropoid ape shooting a man with a firearm.” Is this story true? I have no idea. The rhetoric is played up in the article, but it is conceivable that Consul could have picked up the gun and accidentally fired it when the trainer tried to take it back.
Regardless of what actually happened, the article speaks to the fascination surrounding our nearest living relatives. Our evolution from apes might have been a controversial topic, but people loved to see apes dressed up like humans. This habit is difficult to understand, but it seems that apes have long been regarded as a more vulgar version of ourselves. They could inspire fear if they represented the brutal depths we could sink to, but they could also be used as satire; lowly creatures that aspired to be like us.
[Image: The “Consul” that fired a gun, as seen in Popular Mechanics.]