Big cats on board 

A tiger tattoo - a memento of a really BIG ships' cat?Able Sea-cat Bart shares two tales of friendship, fun and frolics with tiger cubs on board as honorary ships’ cats. He also reveals the role model for William Blake’s “Tiger, tiger burning bright” …  

Tigger to Tyger

“A beautiful young male Tiger, lately brought over from China, in the Pitt East-Indiaman, at the age of ten months, was so far domesticated, as to admit every kind of familiarity from the people on board. It seemed to be quite harmless, and was as playful as a kitten. It frequently slept with the sailors in their hammocks, and would suffer two or three of them to repose their heads upon its back, as upon a pillow, whilst it lay stretched out upon the deck.

This ship's cat is a strange bedfellow.

In return for this, it would, however, now and then steal their meat. Having one day taken a piece of beef from the carpenter, he followed the animal, took the meat out of its mouth, and beat it severely for the theft; which punishment it suffered with all the patience of a Dog. It would frequently run out on the bowsprit; climb about the ship, like a Cat; and perform a number of tricks, with an agility that was truly astonishing.

There was a Dog on board the ship, with which it would often play in the most diverting manner. This animal was taken on board the ship when it was only a month or six weeks old, and arrived in England before it had quite completed its first year. On its arrival it was presented to the king, and was afterwards deposited in the Tower of London. It even there continued to be perfectly good natured, and was in no instance known to be guilty of any savage or mischievous tricks.

In the year 1801, one day after this Tiger had been fed, his keeper put into the den to him, a small, rough, black terrier puppy, a female. The beast suffered it to remain uninjured, and soon afterwards became so much attached to it, as to be restless and unhappy whenever the animal was taken away to be fed. On its return the Tiger invariably expressed the greatest symptoms of delight, always welcoming its arrival by gently licking over every part of its body.

… The ship carpenter, who came over with the Tiger, came to the Tower to see him. The animal, though they had been separated more than two years, instantly recognised a former acquaintance, rubbed himself backward and forward against the grating of his den, and appeared highly delighted. Notwithstanding the urgent request that he would not expose himself to so much danger, the man begged to be let into the den, and with so much entreaty, that he was at last suffered to enter.

The emotions of the animal seemed roused in the most grateful manner. He rubbed himself against him, licked his hands, fawned upon him like a cat, and in no respect attempted to injure him. The man remained there two or three hours; and he at last began to fancy there would be some difficulty in getting out alone. Such was the affection of the animal towards his former friend, and so close did he keep to his person, as to render his escape by no means so easy as he had expected. With some care, however, he got the Tiger beyond the partition of the two dens, and the keeper watching his opportunity, closed the slide, and separated them.” 

CREDIT Buffon’s Natural History of Man, the Globe and of Quadrupeds, George Louis Leclerc Buffon, 1833
ILLUSTRATIONS (Top) A sailor’s tattoo (Bottom) Original photo Tom Ingham and Ad Long

Tyger, tyger burning bright …

My take on thisThumbs up to this cub as bouncy as A.A. Milne’s “Tigger” having the time of his life on board as an honorary seafurrer. Back in Britain he was officially bestowed on King George III and spent the rest of his life behind bars. Captivity is cruel, but his keepers cared because he’s on the list of animals on display in the Tower of London’s Royal Menagerie 18 years later:

“Harry, a royal tyger, from Bengal and one of the finest ever seen, given by Mr (now Sir Evan) Nepean in 1791. This noble animal is very tame, and is fond of a little dog which often plays with it in the den” — Feltham’s Picture of London, 1809

The Menagerie in the Tower - a seafaring feline now landlocked

It’s no stretch of the imagination to suggest Harry inspired William Blake’s “Tyger, tyger burning bright”. We know Blake went to the Tower Menagerie. The poetic mind is an amazing thing. He saw poor Harry stuck in his cage and imagined a noble animal “burning bright in the forests of the night”. Great poem. But the picture looks more like a dejected tiger in a cage than burning bright in the forests of the night. 

William Blake's Tyger

CREDIT (TOP) Royal Menagerie, 1812 (BOTTOM) Detail from William Blake’s Tyger Tyger


Zoo story

Shipping tigers off to zoos was no one off. About 150 years later young Tiggy from Shanghai met the same fate. He was a mere babe weighing in at 2.3 kg (5lbs) when he was rescued by Marie Elisabeth Wilding in 1935 and became a beloved family pet until he grew (as animals do) and his bounce and pounce exuberance became too hard to handle. He thought it was fun to “jump out and knock you over and lie on top of you with his jaws open over your throat” recalls Johnny Wilding.

A young Tiggy with his boy, Johnny Wilding

HMS Kent was due to head home, and her captain (with a fair bit of arm twisting) found himself with a passenger, Tiggy, to be delivered “to a responsible zoo”. Sounds like Tiggy had a good trip – special quarters on deck and a designated keeper, leading seaman Hollis (likely the rating shown with him in the photograph). Back in Britain he ended up at London Zoo. You can read the whole story in The Guardian. Tiggy is long gone but lives on in this photo of him on board and in merchandise from mugs, magnets and mousepads to tea towels, totes, cards and note pads. And more.

Tiggy the ships' cat and his keeper

There’s aren’t many tigers left. They are an endangered species. The world has wiped out 97% of its tiger population in a little over a century according to the World Wildlife Fund. “There are probably not more than 3,900 tigers left in the wild,” says Panthera CEO Dr Alan Rabinowitz. Zoos are now are big part of the solution and are involved in breeding and conservation programs. Sydney’s Taronga Zoo for example, is part of a regional conservation management plan for Sumatran Tigers. 

CREDIT (TOP) Johnny Wilding (BOTTOM) Sailor with tiger, National Museum of the Royal Navy

Learn more about animal conservation
Taronga Zoo Breeding Programs
Taronga Zoo Sumatran Tiger Programs