Since ancient times, it has been customary to train wild animals for useful purposes such as warfare or hunting, or for aesthetic purposes, such as cortèges and parades or to grace the palace grounds. Depending on the region, one could find exotic birds, lions or elephants. Fights between wild and domestic animals were also organized for sport and the animals were ranked according to their survivability. Such were the pleasures of a society that was still warlike. Already, locally unknown species such as bears, lynxes, lions, and sometimes tigers and leopards, and game, such as stags and deer, were being imported.
In the sixteenth century, the aristocracy began to keep wild animals, which were an unparalleled sign of wealth. In Renaissance Italy, enclosed seraglios were already extremely common. The great colonial empires such as Portugal, the German Empire, and France wasted no time in imitating the Italians and building the most elaborate seraglios. Occasionally, some wild beasts penetrated into the royal apartments. Francis I, for example, sometimes slept with a lion at the foot of the bed. Exotic birds were greatly sought after and collected in great numbers. For example, in the Belvédère ménagerie founded by Prince Eugène in 1716, there were59 species. In the same period, exotic plants were introduced and botanical gardens were founded.
Often the animals were presents given by eastern powers, or they were diplomatic gifts, or gifts or exchanges between European countries. At the time of the great discoveries and the colonies, the trade in these animals flourished. Expeditions were organized with the goal of bringing back these rare pearls. A major persistent problem, however, was the animals' high mortality rate, due to acclimation difficulties and extremely long journeys under deplorable conditions. Since all of this was extremely costly, such pleasures were limited to the high aristocracy. However, scientists were gradually taking an interest.
At the end of the seventeenth century, the focus was on the care of the garden setting, based on the Italian model, with rare animals arranged according to their species. This was the case, for example, at the French court at Versailles, where separate areas were developed, such as the ostrich courtyard, for birds and pelicans, adjoining the enclosure built for horses, stag, and gazelles, to which, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, another series of courtyards were added for cervids, galliformes, lions, tigers, and panthers.
Menageries were still visited by honoured guests exclusively. They came to celebrate the glories of the king, his splendour, and his supremacy over foreign powers. It was a way to dominate nature.
At the end of the eighteenth century, a minor revolution occurred! The royal gardens were now open to the middle class; one had to charm the electorate! The lower classes were not invited, but they had already seen wild animals in shows and they had also seen the trainers who travelled throughout the region and stopped at fairs. Soon small menageries sprang up in cities like Amsterdam. They were extremely successful. Above all, the public liked to see monstrous animals, and also bear fights … and that is what they got.