(82) Taming the wild
For many Westerners living in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pets were a necessary part of life. Naturally cats, dogs, goldfish and birds were the most common pets but there were others ― more wild ― that not only served as exotic pets but also, in some cases, as guards.
Many of these animals were bought from Korean hunters and farmers. One young missionary remembered that farmers would bring fawns to his house and sell them for a mere 50 cents each. Other animals were received as gifts.
Wiliam Franklin Sands, an American advisor to the Korean court during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a veritable wild life sanctuary of deer, bears, goldfish, cranes and “other helpless things brought [to him] from the country.” According to Sands:
“They all prospered and lived quite happily together and increased more or less like guinea-pigs, to the discomfort of those who objected to be chased by ambitious young bucks…”
Deer were one of the most commonly raised wild animals. The Korean palaces often kept small herds of deer who occasionally fell prey to the stealthy leopards that would occasionally climb over the city walls or slink through the sewers in their pursuit of easy prey.
The various legations in Seoul also kept deer. At the American legation, Sallie Sill – the minister’s wife, described to her children the two young deer that her husband had purchased:
“[They] are the prettiest little pets you can imagine and so tame that they will come to you when you ask them. They never grow much larger than a common sized dog and are so graceful as possible.”
But, like Sands, the Sills soon experienced unpleasantness with their little deer. The following year Sallie reported:
“The dear little fawn which we left last fall when we went to Japan has grown so large and fierce that it is no longer safe to have her in the yard where people pass so today after jumping at Mrs. Scranton and trying to strike the Hillier children your father had to have her taken away. It looks lonely without her, but it would not be right to run the risk of having anyone hurt by her.”
Deer were not the only animals kept. Sands kept at least one pet bear that he allowed to roam the enclosure of his estate. He explained:
“A bear is a one-master animal. Mine obeyed me but were not nice with other people. Since there were some misguided people in town who did not like me, I did not encourage my bears to be polite to strangers.”
King Gojong was often given rare wild animals by his subjects. While he was at the Russian legation, Gojong received a young tiger which he promptly gave to Karl Warber, the Russian Minister to Korea. According to Sallie:
“Some Korean peasants in the northern part of the country were out walking and saw two large eagles, each with a tiger’s cub in his mouth or rather talons, and the Father and Mother tigers following after them. They then found the cave and in it one little tiger left. They secured it and brought it to the King, he, not caring for it, gave it to Mr. Waeber, who is going to send it to Russia to have it put in one of the zoological gardens there. It is the queerest looking little thing I ever saw, as large as a good sized cat, but with enormous claws and hear, and most wicked looking eyes.”
About a week later, Sallie and her sister went to the Russian legation to photograph the young tiger and found it to be less than cooperative:
“He was most obstreperous and did want to have his picture taken at all. He growled and fought and showed his teeth and seemed [in possession] of all the tiger characteristics.”
It is unclear what became of the tiger, but most likely he was transported back to Russia aboard a Russian warship.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.