A love song for elephants visits Philadelphia

    A new exhibit at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia looks at the intersection of the arts and sciences during the revolutionary period in France. The story of a unique pair of elephants is featured in the exhibit.

    Here’s the scene:

    The year: 1798. The scene: a concert at the menagerie at Paris’s Museum of Natural History. The tune: “Ah! Ça ira.”

    The audience: Hans and Parkie, two elephants recently stolen from Holland by the revolutionary government. The musicians were doing a kind of experiment, checking out something they had read in a natural history book at the time.

    “(It said) that elephants were next to humans in intelligence and sensitivity and even in emotional capacity,” said Sue Ann Prince, curator of the exhibit.

    The musicians played the tune as a love song, hoping to inspire the pachyderms to mate in captivity, a rarity.  It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop a French artist from writing a book about the elephants and drawing a picture of them mating–the wrong way.

    “The idea to do an experiment on living animals was fairly new and actually came into being during this time period,” Prince said, “but the observations weren’t terribly scientific.”

    The score of the revolutionary anthem and that book are now on exhibit at the American Philosophical Society. So is part of the elephant Hans’s jaw, which helped paleontologists identify elephants, mastodons and mammoths as separate species for the first time, which lent credence to the then-new idea of extinction.

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