This book — first published in a slightly different format in 1901 — features a hundred real or real-ish tales of ingenious, loyal or otherwise extraordinary animals, each enlivened by a wonderful picture from British illustrator Percy J. Billinghurst.
We meet a role-reversing Russian bear who hugs a boy to its breast to keep him warm each night. An obliging dolphin who ferries a Roman boy across a lake every morning and back in the afternoon. A wise dog who guides a replacement newspaper delivery man along its unwell owner’s complicated round. The famously clever elephants star in eight anecdotes. One squirts bullying cobblers with a trunkful of dirty water. Another sacrifices itself to protect King Porus from Macedonian swordsmen. A third is rapturous with joy when reunited with its master after a dozen years of separation. Other animals are crueller, though still clever, such as a hen who captures and kills up to five mice a day to protect a hayrick, and a wild stork who four months after being attacked by a tame one returns with three friends to administer lethal retribution.
The celebration of the impressive feats of non-human animals has a long history, stretching back at least to Plutarch, who provided the Renaissance philosopher Montaigne with anecdotal material to argue for the superior intelligence of animals in his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576). The brains of the beasts continue to enthral scientists today, as this excellent Economist essay “Animal Minds” suggests.
If you are hungry for more outlandish animal tales rendered by late Victorians, look no further than Frank Key’s essay for the PDR on Dog Stories from The Spectator (1895). And to hear more on the “cat piano” (rendered in swine form in the first anecdote here), then check out our essay “Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments”.