Michael’s Menagerie

What Michael Jackson's exotic animals really say about the singer.

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Who, if anyone, will benefit from Michael Jackson’s death? The obvious answer is TMZ, the Web and TV tabloid organization that was supposedly legitimized by their breaking the news that the King of Pop was indeed dead. The more obscure answer is the Center for Great Apes in central Florida.

It’s not that anyone welcomed the news. It’s just that the Center is the current home of Bubbles. Everybody remembers Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, who appeared with the singer in the ’80s. But nobody really knows whatever happened to him. In the wake of the singer’s death, rumors circulated that Bubbles was a plastinated display in Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit in London (and that Jackson had plans to join him). But Bubbles was actually still very much alive, and still in the States.

Great ape sanctuaries don’t pay for themselves, of course. Hoping to find a place in the meet-up between the public’s unending curiosity about Jackson’s life and death, and the media’s equally ceaseless coverage of the same, the nonprofit Center launched a Bubbles and Friends Fund and listed the chimp as a “featured resident” on its Web site. There he’s described as “smart, distinctive, tender;” he apparently has a theatrical air about him as well: “Bubbles can be sensitive and dramatic. If he has any kind of cut or scratch on his body…no matter how small… he will show it many times during the day to his caregivers and ask for sympathy,” the site says.

In the ’80s, Bubbles was one of the many visual shorthands (the anti-aging chamber, the bedazzled appearance at the White House, the Brooke Shields/Emmanuel Lewis date at the 1984 Grammys) that suggested Michael Jackson’s eccentricity. In 1988, artist Jeff Koons captured the bizarre tableau in a trio of gold and white porcelain sculptures. To an adoring but puzzled public, the chimpanzee Jackson rescued from a Texas cancer research center in 1985 was just another sign that the singer was a bit off-key.

And Bubbles wasn’t alone. Jackson surrounded himself at his Neverland ranch with a personal menagerie of exotic animals that included tigers, giraffes, parrots, and reptiles. In a video of the press conference at which Jackson introduced Louie the Llama, he quietly lists facts about the animal — they eat alfalfa, come from South America — speaks of their affectionate nature, and laments the fact that his dogs killed the last llama he owned. Jackson even launched a line of plush toys based on his collection, the hilariously illustrated Michael’s Pets.

But just how bizarre a pet was Bubbles, really? Jackson was not the first person to use his extensive means to acquire odd animals. Far from it. In The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power, independent historian Marina Belozerskaya chronicles the practice over a period of more than 2,000 years. Throughout the world, from antiquity to the last century, the rich and powerful used animals for a myriad of purposes. Ptolemy Philadelphos — the ruler of Alexandria — spent a great deal of time and money to acquire African elephants; he saw them as a sign of strength in the fractured and warring world that existed following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. In 13th-century Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici negotiated with an Egyptian sultan to bring a giraffe to his Italian city, both as a means of garnering public affection and as a negotiation tool — the queen of France very much wanted a giraffe of her own.

The list continues throughout history. Rudolf II, the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor, collected animals from around the world for his famous cabinet of curiosities — a labor of love for him, but also one intended to celebrate God’s creation. Napoleon’s Josephine built botanical gardens and a private zoo at her country house in Malmaison, supporting scientific research, sponsoring collecting exhibitions abroad, and building museums. Her goal, Belozerskaya argues, was to secure influence, authority, and public affection in the face of her inability to provide Napoleon an heir.

The closest parallel to Jackson may be William Randolph Hearst. At San Simeon, his famed California sea-side estate, the publishing giant collected Bengel tigers, elk, bison, water buffalo, polar bears, grizzly bears, ostriches, and gorillas. He amassed more than 1,500 birds and had tossed around the idea of a shark tank in one half of an indoor pool. Hearst’s was an almost child-like wonder for animals, his excitement at their ability to surprise the estate’s many guests endearing. “How about a maze in the connection with the zoo,” he wrote San Simeon’s architect.” I think getting lost in the maze and coming unexpectedly upon lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, wild cats, monkeys, macaws and cockatoos, etc. etc. would be a thrill even for the most blasé.”

Financial troubles ultimately forced Hearst to disband most of the zoo; Jackson’s well-known debt forced him to do the same. The singer told Martin Bashir in the now-infamous 2003 special Living with Michael Jackson that Bubbles grew too aggressive to keep (a prescient move on Jackson’s part, considering the recent chimpanzee attack in Connecticut that left a 55-year-old woman practically faceless). But the zoo animals went as part of the paring down of Neverland ranch in recent years. His tigers, Sabu and Thriller, went to actress Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve. The flamingos departed for New Jersey. A couple in Arizona bought the giraffes, snakes, and parrots; as recently as November PETA was urging Jackson to intervene and rescue those animals from what it claimed was poor treatment in the Arizona facility.

That’s not to say Jackson’s affair with the exotic was over. Earlier this year, rumors in Britain’s tabloid press claimed Jackson wanted to appear in his London concert series on the back of an elephant, with panthers led in on gold chains and parrots bringing up the rear. Organizers eventually said no animals would be used, and there may never have been such plans to begin with. Either way, Jackson’s reputation when it comes to animals was such that the idea didn’t seem implausible at all. Indeed, it was exactly that kind of spectacle that many of the 50 shows’ ticket holders expected when they bought every seat in a matter of minutes.

In the end, the animal collection turns out to be less a novelty and more a throwback. It was almost old-fashioned. Exotic animals worked for Ptolemy Philadelphos and the Medicis and Josephine and William Randolph Hearst because they were still, in fact, exotic. At this point, who hasn’t seen a tiger or giraffe or chimpanzee in person? We may not own them, but we’re certainly not surprised by them. They seem to retain that kind of power only in the drug world: This past year alone, police in Oakland and Mexico discovered alligators and panthers and white tigers as part of raids; the personal menagerie of a Colombian drug lord killed in 1993 is today a popular zoo.

Given his wealth and power, owning a chimpanzee might have been just about the most unsurprising thing Michael Jackson ever did. How much more weird would it have been to see the man who once dangled his baby over a balcony railing walk through an airport with a Golden Retriever? If he bought a $1 hermit crab at the beach, wouldn’t we wonder why? If we had learned he enjoyed maintaining a small saltwater aquarium in his free time, wouldn’t such a normal hobby seem bizarre in Jackson’s white-gloved hands? Wouldn’t that, in fact, have made for such a better Jeff Koons sculpture? • 1 July 2009

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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