Lions, Leopards And Lemurs: London's Most Unusual Pets

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 06 March 2023

Lions, Leopards And Lemurs: London's Most Unusual Pets

London landlords can be reluctant to let their tenants keep pets, and looking at this lot we can see why. Exotic animals from all over the world have been pets in London throughout the years. Here are some of the weirdest.

Christian the lion

Documentary A Lion Called Christian tells his story.

Ronald Reagan once phoned up Harrods to buy a baby elephant called Gertie, according to rumour, and tigers, panthers and camels were among the animals available to purchase at the posh department store. Nowadays, Harrods is better known for handbags than animals, but it used to do a roaring (geddit?) trade in exotic animals. Perhaps the most famous was Christian the lion.

In 1969, Australian friends Ace Bourke and John Rendall bought a lion cub from Harrods for the equivalent of £3,000 in today's money. They named it Christian, and the lion lived with them in their flat on King's Road in Chelsea. They exercised him in the local church grounds, with permission of the vicar.

The documentary A Lion Called Christian tells of the lion cub barging in on a friend having a bath and proceeding to drink the bath water, and of a chef from a local restaurant providing leftover steaks for the lion to eat.

Christian predictably outgrew his London lifestyle, and his owners decided to try to reintroduce him to the wild.

Have a watch of what happened when they were reunited with him in the wild a year after his release. It melted our stone cold hearts.

The 1976 Endangered Species Act put a stop to such exotic animals being sold in Knightsbridge and elsewhere, although hamsters, dogs and the like were still for sale at Harrods' Pet Kingdom until it closed in 2014.

Michael the west London leopard

The star of this video is Michael. Michael was the leopard owned by secretary Angela McWilliams in west London in the 1960s. Every day, she would take him for a walk around the area and in the park, where he tried to befriend the local dogs, most probably believing that he was one of them.

Mah-Jongg the lemur

English Heritage, Courtald painting - © Historic England Bridgeman Images

In the 1930s, Eltham Palace was home to ring-tailed lemur Mah-Jongg, along with his millionaire owners Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. Like Christian the lion, he also came from the Harrods pet department.

Exotic pets were very fashionable at this time, and used as a sign of status and wealth — the more exotic, the better. At home, Jongy, as he was affectionately known, had his own centrally-heated living quarters.

The family were keen travellers, as demonstrated by the map room which was unveiled at the renovated palace last year. When they went travelling on their motor yacht, Mah-Jongg had his own specially designed lemur deckchair.

Mah-Jongg died at Eltham Palace in 1938, although he's still well represented in the decor of the place in artworks and carvings.

George Washington the alligator

Another British Pathe video, this time from Worcester Park near Sutton in 1954, where a woman is bathing her baby alligators, as you do. George Washington is the only one friendly enough to be handled — his snappy friend stays in the tank throughout the clip.

Winnipeg the bear

We've covered Winnipeg the bear — AKA Winnie the Pooh— in detail before, but suffice to say that if the Canadian Regiment hadn't found themselves with a tame black bear as a regimental mascot, we probably wouldn't have Pooh, Piglet and co. today.

Rossetti's wombat

Artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived in London in the 19th century and had a particular interest in exotic animals.

Most famously, he loved wombats, and his first pet wombat (of two) was named Top. Rossetti regularly sketched Top, and allowed him to sleep on the dinner table during meals. Top died in November 1869, after Rossetti had only had him for a couple of months.

Rossetti also had a private menagerie in the garden of his Cheyne Walk house — not unusual for the wealthy at the time — and regularly acquired animals from notorious exotic animal trader Charles Jamrach, including a kangaroo, armadillos and a raccoon.

Which exotic and unusual London animal pets have we missed? Let us know in the comments below.