The Guilty Zebras of Poland's Niepołomice Castle
Heard of Marius the Danish giraffe? Worldwide outrage greeted the news that despite protests, this long-legged inhabitant of Copenhagen Zoo had been killed and fed to the lions. Euthanasia isn't uncommon among zoos but Marius' death and dissection were a PR disaster for the zoo. And no wonder. Modern revulsion over killing exotic animals is well established. We're conscious of our destructive impact on ecosystems and feel intensely squeamish when reminded of how we've driven animal populations towards extinction in the past - especially when it's for frivolous reasons. So it's unsettling to visit Poland's Niepołomice Castle (www.zamekkrolewski.com.pl/zamek-krolewski; Polish only). This 14th-century castle served as a hunting lodge for game expeditions around Niepołomice forest. In its rebuilt Renaissance form, this lesser-visited sight is well worth a halfday trip from Krakow (it's only 30 minutes' drive away). Taking a tour of the rebuilt Niepołomice Castle. But the hunting display rooms don't half make for uncomfortable viewing. Tours of the castle invite visitors to explore rooms full of exotic game: springbok heads are mounted on walls, entire stuffed zebras jostle for space next to bears and gnu, and mounted moose glower from the gables. At one time, these rooms would have had pride of place. Some are local animals, other shot abroad and brought back to the palace. The trophies were evidence of the hunters' prestige. Being able to hunt for leisure, rather than necessity, demonstrated wealth. The exotic creatures spoke of worldliness and power. But to modern visitors, the rooms represent decadent waste. This is no natural history museum, intending to educate, but the work of hobbyists. Of course, we're judging them by modern standards. Hunters of centuries past weren't privy to information about declining animal populations and fragile ecosystems. They couldn't predict the revulsion their trophies would rouse in the future. Instead of being pride of place, these sad stuffed zebras are a relic of a past we'd rather guiltily forget.