By Jacqeuline Schoenfeld
Like Lisa Smith, I am a sucker for animal stories. As a child (and young adult) some of my favorite movies included Homeward Bound, Babe and George of the Jungle. There is something irresistible about an American Bulldog, a Golden Retriever and a Himalayan cat that are best friends. And really, a pig that herds sheep and a gorilla who talks, need I say more? Given my intrigue for a good animal story, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across the following letter.
In 1732, Charles Bere wrote to an unnamed recipient to inform him/her of an interesting case concerning a horse:
Peter Clarke of Hammersmith Baker did the ninth day of January 1732 produce & show me a stone taken out of his Mares gutt which weighed seaven pounds and three quarters and measured round – Twenty inches.
Yes. You read that correctly…
Once my initial disbelief wore off, I did a quick search in the letter database, only to learn that a similar event occurred six years earlier. On 14 December 1726, Zabdiel Boylston from Boston, New England informed Sloane of a horse that had consumed a large stone:
The Stone I now send you was taken out of a gelding[.] [W]hen first taken out [it] weighed five pounds & about Eight ounces, … and measure[d] round one way, seventeen Inches & 3.q’rs and ye. other was sixteen Inches & 3 quarters.
Upon reading the eighteenth-century letters, I was left wondering how and why two horses would consume indigestible objects. After all, the stone consumed by the horse in Bere’s letter was only slightly smaller in circumference than a NFL regulation size football!
After searching through a few veterinarian journals, I came across an article by Dr. Aytekin et al. in which the authors describe a condition found in horses and other animals known as ‘pica’. Pica, defined “as a depraved or abnormal appetite [that is sometimes] regarded as a sign of nutritional deficiency or boredom”, is characterized by the consumption of rocks, dirt and other indigestible objects. Dr. Aytekin and his colleagues admit that researchers do not fully understand the underlying causes of pica; however, the authors suggest that a lack of certain amino acids, vitamins, soda salts or phosphates in an animal’s diet may contribute to the emergence of pica.
Could it be that the horses discussed in Bere and Boylston’s letters were acting out of boredom or simply attempting to supplement their diets? This cannot be said with certainty but it seems like a plausible explanation for their unconventional dietary substitutions.
And while we are on the subject of unconventional diets… I think this is a good time to redirect our attention to a story from the English county of Gloucestershire earlier this year. According to an article in the Daily Mail (18 March 2015), it seems that packs of wild boars have taken a liking to hunting and eating newborn lambs in the Forest of Dean, a popular tourist site.
According to veterinarian Clare Harvey (quoted in the article), it is not strange for boars to consume meat, after all they are omnivores–but the boars’ disposition to hunt suggests that “they may have developed a taste for fresh meat”. In other words, the consumption of meat does not necessarily suggest attempts at dietary substitutions or even signal strange behavior–rather, it is the manner in which these boars have acquired meat that is less than conventional.
So, what does a horse that swallowed a stone the size of a football and herds of wild boars roaming the Forest of Dean hunting lambs have to do with natural history in the Sloane letters? Then and now, our desire to understand the world around us seems strongest when it comes to explaining instances that seem strange or out of the ordinary. This is as evident in Bere and Boylston taking the time to write down and share their observations as Dr. Harvey’s attempts to explaining the boars’ taste for fresh meat. But Boylston’s letter also hints at the element of entertainment involved in looking at curiosities.
According to Boylston, several people were present when the stone was removed from the gelding and many more came to see it. What really makes me smile is Boylston’s tone as he explains, “altho [the stone] was not found in an Humane … it was in one of ye. most noble of ye. brutal kind[.]” So here we are, almost 300 years later and our ability to find wonder and entertainment in natural phenomena persists.