Strangers in a Strange Land

by X

The spread of the Zebra mussel into the Great Lakes is a recent example of the introduction of an alien species into a new environment. Its introduction into North America is attributed to the dumping of fresh water contaminated with its larvae from a ship coming from Europe.

Some species of alien animals have been purposely introduced into North America, such as the sparrow and the starling, while some species, like the Norway rat, have made their way around the world uninvited.

Canada is populated by invaders, for it was not too long ago that ice sheets covered its land mass. Thus, the species which comprise Canadian fauna migrated northwards in the wake of the glacial lakes. If there are such animals as the Sasquatch or an Ogopogo, their ancestors probably came from habitats in the United States, where their brethren may yet be found. However, there are some invaders which pose even greater mystery.

The occasional individual may escape in a strange land from a menagerie. The shooting of a penguin at Portrush, Ireland, reported in the Coleraine Constitution of January 12th, 1907, suggest a mascot's escape from a passing ship. The shooting of an Indian jackal in the county of Kent, England, reported in the London Times of March 2nd and Drewry's Derby Mercury of March 15th, 1905, was probably an escapee from a circus or private collection. Who would report the loss of such a dangerous animal in the south of England? The discovery of a living African lemur in the backyard of Dr. E.R. Mathers in Lincoln, Nebraska, as reported in the Lincoln State Journal of October 23rd and 25th, 1931, seems a wayward pet of extraordinary value, whose loss was never confessed. The presence of such individual strangers can be easily, if only unsatisfactorily, explained. There is no doubt as to their appearances, however, as each one was stuffed and preserved for display.

But an invasion that is more difficult to explain was discussed in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1866 and 1867: several crocodiles had been found alive in England.

The story was first related by George R. Wright, F.S.A., who saw one of the specimens stuffed and on display in a farm house tenanted by William Phillips. The animal was found in 1856 or 1857, on the same farm at Over-Norton, Oxfordshire. Mr. Phillips was walking in his farmyard when his attention was drawn to what looked like a dead lizard, about a foot in length, with a wound in its belly, lying in the gutter.

Mr. Phillips offered his laborers a reward for another specimen but without any success, and he carefully skinned and stuffed the animal. Mr. Wright brought the stuffed animal to Dr. Vesalius Pettigraw in London. Dr. Pettigraw confirmed that it was indeed a crocodile as did the famous naturalist Frank Buckland, to whom it was shown. These men merely confirmed what had already been learned before, when the specimen was brought to the British Museum once before and its discovery announced in the British sports newspaper Field on August 23rd, 1862.

Mr. Wright took the specimen to Prof. Richard Owen of the British Museum. Prof. Owen confirmed the animal was a crocodile and a very young one, but he would not accept that it had been found alive in England nor even that it could have escaped from a traveling menagerie. He insisted the animal had been caught in another country, preserved in alcohol, and placed in the gutter as a joke. Mr. Wright did not think this a reasonable explanation. Nor were other readers of the Gentleman's Magazine convinced by it.

Mr. C. Parr of Oxford wrote of an occurrence some 30 years before in a field on Primsdown Farm near Chipping-Norton. A woman recalled to him how she "in company with some other friends was pursued by an animal of the crocodile kind, which chased them across the field; they had some difficulty in escaping from it, but eventually one of the lads crushed his head with a large stone." The creature was only a foot in length, but they were afraid to touch it should it still be alive and able to bite. A few years later, another smaller creature of the same appearance was seen on the footpath from the pond into the field where the group had been chased.

John Henry Belfrage of Lincoln's Inn Fields twice wrote to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1867. On the first occasion, he mentioned seeing a stuffed alligator at the Welsh Harp Hotel in the Edgware Road (now part of Metropolitan London). The animal had been brought to England by an American prize fighter and was kept in a reservoir as a pet for six months before being killed by an unknown angler. Another acquaintance told him of an earlier discovery of a crocodile.

Prof. Owen was not consulted as to where some laborers would find a yard-long crocodile specimen preserved in spirits, but Mr. Belfrage's acquaintance thought it may have escaped "some homeward-bound vessel, and had found its way up the Trent and into the drain in which it was discovered."

How several crocodiles came to be found in the north of Oxfordshire and in Staffordshire over a number of years early in the last century remains unanswered, unless a small number of invaders had established a colony in Britain. The other possibility would seem more preposterous than Prof. Owen's explanation, that these strange crocodiles were not strangers to Britain at all and had lived there as native fauna. Perhaps, the last specimens of British dragons were killed by stick, stone, and pickaxe by commoners, and not by St. George.

"Strangers in a Strange Land" was first published in the Whig-Standard Magazine, 12 (no. 5; November 17, 1990): 24.

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