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Futility Closet

May 29, 2017

In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king's menagerie in Paris.

We'll also visit Queen Victoria's coronation and puzzle over a child's surprising recovery.


In 1952 a stray cat made a home in Classroom 8 of a California elementary school.

Abe Lincoln's ghost seems to spend a lot of time in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Sources for our feature on Zarafa the giraffe:

Michael Allin, Zarafa, 1998.

Erik Ringmar, "Audience for a Giraffe: European Expansionism and the Quest for the Exotic," Journal of World History 17:4 (December 2006), 375-397.

Heather J. Sharkey, "La Belle Africaine: The Sudanese Giraffe Who Went to France," Canadian Journal of African Studies 49:1 (2015), 39-65.

Olivier Lagueux, "Geoffroy's Giraffe: The Hagiography of a Charismatic Mammal," Journal of the History of Biology, 36:2 (June 2003), 225–247.

Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, "Objects and the Museum," Isis 96:4 (December 2005), 559-571.

Philip McCouat, "The Art of Giraffe Diplomacy: How an African Giraffe Walked Across France and Became a Pawn in an International Power Struggle," Journal of Art in Society (accessed May 14, 2017).

Olivier Lagueux, "Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris [review]," Isis 92:1 (March 2001), 186-187.

S. Mary P. Benbow, "Death and Dying at the Zoo," Journal of Popular Culture 37:3 (2004), 379-398.

Elena Passarello, "Beautiful Animal of the King," Paris Review, Dec. 20, 2016.

Henry Nicholls, "Meet Zarafa, the Giraffe That Inspired a Crazy Hairdo," Guardian, Jan. 20, 2014.

Olivier Lebleu, "Long-Necked Diplomacy: The Tale of the Third Giraffe," Guardian, Jan. 11, 2016.

Today Zarafa stands on the landing of a stone staircase in the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle.

Listener mail:

Julia Baird, Victoria, 2016.

C. Dack, "The Coronation of Queen Victoria," Pall Mall Magazine 48:219 (July 1911), 2-5.

Wikipedia, "East Asian Age Reckoning" (accessed May 26, 2017).

Josh Clark, "How Thoroughbred Horses Work," How Stuff Works, Oct. 4, 2011.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. Here are two corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!