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Bisset, The Animal Teacher

( Originally Published 1851 )



Few individuals have presented so striking an instance of patience and eccentricity as Bisset, the extraordinary teacher of animals. Ile was a native of Perth, in Scotland, and an industrious shoemaker, until the notion of teaching animals attracted his attention in the year 1759. Reading au account of a remarkable horse shown at St. Ger-main's, curiosity led him to experiment on a horse and a dog, which he bought in London, and he succeeded in training these beyond all expectation. Two monkeys were the next pupils he took in hand, one of which he taught to dance and tumble on the rope, whilst the other held a candle in one paw for his companion, and with the other played the barrel organ. These antic animals he also instructed to play several fanciful tricks, such as drinking to the company, riding and tumbling on a horse's back, and going through several regular dances with a dog. Being a man of unwearied patience, three young cats were the next objects of his tuition. He taught those domestic tigers to strike their paws iii such directions on the dulcimer, as to produce several regular tunes, having music-books before them, and squalling at the same time in different keys or tones, first, second, and third, by way of concert. He afterwards was induced to make a public exhibition of his animals, and the well known Cats' Opera, in which they performed, was advertised in the Haymarket Theatre. The horse, the dog, the monkeys, and the cats, went through their several parts with uncommon applause to crowded houses; and, in a few days, Bisset found himself possessed of nearly a thousand pounds, to reward his ingenuity and perseverance.

This success excited Bisset's desire to extend his dominion over other animals, including even the feathered kind. He procured a young leveret, and reared it to beat several marches on the drum, with its hind legs, until it became a good stout hare. He taught canary birds, linnets, and sparrows, to spell the name of any person in company, to distinguish the hour and minute of time, and perform many other surprising feats: he trained six turkey cocks to go through a regular country dance; but, in doing this, confessed he adopted the eastern method, by which camels are made to dance, by heating the floor. In the course of six months' teaching, he made a turtle fetch and carry like a dog; and having chalked the floor and blackened its claws, could direct it to trace out any given naine in the company. He trained a dog and a cat to go through many amazing performances. his confidence even led him to try experiments on a goldfish, which he did not despair of making perfectly tractable. But, some time afterwards, a doubt having started to him, whether the obstinacy of a pig could be conquered, his usual patient fortitude was devoted to the experiment. He bought a black sucking pig, and trained it to lie under the stool at which he sat at work. At various intervals, during six or seven months, he tried in vain to bring the young boar to his purpose; and, despairing of every kind of success, he was on the point of giving it away, when it struck him to adopt a new mode of teaching; in consequence of which, in the course of sixteen months, he made an animal, supposed the most obstinate and perverse in the world, to become the most tractable. In August 1783, he once again turned itinerant, and took his learned pig to Dublin, where it was shown for two or three nights. It was not only under full command, but appeared as pliant and good-natured as a spaniel. When the weather made it necessary that he should move into the city, he obtained the permission of the chief magistrate, and exhibited the pig in Dame Street. " It was seen," says the author of Anthologia Hibernica, " for two or three days by many persons of respectability, to spell, without any apparent direction, the names of those in the company; to cast up accounts, and to point out even the words thought of by persons present; to tell exactly the hour, minutes, and seconds; to point out the married, to kneel, and to make his obeisance to the company," &c. &c. Poor Bisset was thus in a fair way of " bringing his pig to a good market," when a man, whose insolence disgraced authority, broke into the rooms without any sort of pretext, assaulted the unoffending man, and drew his sword to kill the swine, an animal that, in the practice of good breeding, was superior to his assailant. The injured Bisset pleaded in.vain the permission that had been granted him; he was threatened to be dragged to prison. He was now constrained to return home, but the agitation of his mind threw him into a fit of illness, and he died, a few days after, at Chester, on his way to London.

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