Lorenz Hagenbeck, “Animals are my life”, The Bodley Head 1956

Lorenz was the son and heir to Carl Hagenbeck. Carl was the most successful animal importer and founder of Stellingen Zoo, Germany which was fabled for it’s innovate ‘nature’ park designs. Lorenz was an adult at the outbreak of war. While his brother signed up, he was put in charge of business in Northern Europe and America. The Narrative here is extracted from his Autobiography: Animals are my Life. Bodley Head, 1956.

Other articles realting to Lorenz and the Hagenbecks have been transposed retaining the language of the time. From various newspapers found in the British Libraries’ online archive, British Newspaper Archives; Tyne and Wear Archives, Fenwick Collection; The World’s Fair, the Showland newspaper held on microfiles at the National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield.


c. AUG 1914

   Matthias Walter, elephant keeper for Hagenbeck reports:

I was on the SS Axenfals in the Red Sea when the news of war was picked up on the radio and broadcast from the bridge. I had eleven elephants on board with me. The captain picked up speed and sailed as fast as he could to the Italian colonial port of Massawa. From there I was able to transport the elephants to Brindisi on a tramp, and thence went to Stellingen by rail.

Within 2 days of arrival, being a reservist, I had donned the blue naval uniform at Wilhelmshaven and had exchanged my elephant goad for carbine.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L

c. OCT 1914



    Up until now 1914 has been eventful. In May I opened and added to the Stellingen Animal Park. It includes a scenic railway and is very successful, even after the bullets at Sarajevo, as there are still few in Germany who realised how near the unholy conflagration was which has set the world in flames. Even the mobilisation of the Army has failed to reduce our gate, which we expect to be a record one.

    I also crossed to America to visit Zoological Society of St. Louis, to lecture on the construction of Stellingen, as they were mooting starting a Zoo. At the diner I resorted to a little publicity device and produced two sleepy 7 month old lion cubs. The 100 gathered were quickly and keenly awakened, and the pressmen duly paid attention. The Cubs, Hans and Gretchen, I then presented to them for the start of their Zoo.

   The war has set us challenges too. At the very beginning of hostilities my brother Heinrich, being a reservist was called. Meanwhile, Colomban Uncle John was rounded up and interned, in the Far East and I believe has since escaped and is trying to return to Hamburg and is making his way through Java. Consequently the responsibility of managing Stellingen has fallen to me. It is increasingly difficult especially as my nephew Paul Mehrman, and our accountant have also been deployed at the Western Front as have nearly all the other reliable attendants and animal catchers are in the Army including Matthias Walter. Thankfully Richard Sawade who hastened back from South America at the outbreak of war is back with us in Berlin.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L





   A well-known showman in London has received some curiously interesting news from Hamburg concerning the famous Hagenbeck menagerie, regarded as perhaps the finest collection of wild animals in the world. It is rumoured (the “Standard” states) that two of the brothers Hagenbeck have been killed in battle. A large number of keepers and trainers of the menagerie were called to the war, and difficulties of the gravest kind have gradually arisen in the picturesque colony of jungle people who for several years have, with justice, been regarded as one of the sights of the Continent.

   But the war has brought terrible times to Hagenbeck’s beasts. Famine has threatened them, and slowly but surely the spectre of starvation stalks among them. Hamburg’s human population had difficulty in finding a sufficiency of meat and cereal, fruit and vegetable, and daily the difficulty grows. Consequently rations have gradually been shortened at Hagenbeck’s Zoo until the animals have begun to prey upon each other in sheer desperation for food.

(The article continues with snakes eating snakes, eating snakes.)

17/10/1914 World’s Fair


c. DEC 1914


   A good friend of mine from America, the publisher of the Denver Post Newspaper of Colorado, has written very warmly to my most astonished wife to express his condolences when he learned that I had fallen at the Western Front. There was a fine obituary attached to the letter praising me to the skies. I had to hasten to give him a sign of belated life, as I do to you all now.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L



   The Milwalkee Journal has published a letter from Henry Hagenbeck to Otto L. Kuehn, of 286 Milwalkee St, it reads: “We are well and happy… “my brother Lorenz is traveling at this time. We have not been called to the front. The animals are all right, notwithstanding many reports to the contrary. In act they are better off now than before the war. Then they were being fed horse meat, and now they are getting the best kind of beef. The price of beef has fallen 4 cents a pound.

“Everything is quiet and goes along in orderly fashion (at Hagenbeck Park, Hambourg) except that business is at a standstill due to poor shipping facilities.”

   Mr Hagenbeck goes on to talk about difficulty in collecting bills and thanks Washington Zoo for prompt payment.

28/12/1914 Milwalkee Journal  




George Beckman, president of the St. Louis Zoological Society of St. Louis, Mo., received a letter from Germany, Dec. __, saying that Lorenz and Henry Hagenbeck, of the Hamburg firm of animal dealers, had been killed in battle in the European war. They were sons of the Carl Hagenbeck, who made the name of Hagenbeck famous throughout the circus world. They marked the third generation of the family to engage in the supply of wild animals, and practically all the wild animals for the manageries for three continents passed through their hands. 
   16/1/1915 New York Clipper ( War Circus editor note we have already reported that this is old news, and not true. Is Mrs Hagenbeck to expect more condolences?)

 c. JAN 1915

Matthias Walter, elephant keeper for Haggenbeck reports:

   I was at Middelkerke on the Belgian North Sea when I received orders from the Supreme Command to proceed at once to Stellingen and thence bring back a working elephant named Jenny from Hagenbecks. She had suddenly been classed k.f. (kriegsferting) or fit for active service, and so with her draft harness, marching rations and with Me, her Oberbootsmannmatt, we were ordered, to proceed to the Western Front. We set off, and proceeded to Avesnes station, south of Maubeuge, the ordinary infantry men had something to stare at when for the first time in their lives they saw a blue jacket riding high up on an elephant on the way to war.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L



Germans Seize Them for

Transport Service.



(Received to-day).

   According to a telegram from Moscow, the German military authorities are requisitioning all Hagenbeck’s circus elephants for transport purposes. – Press Association War special.


c. JULY 1915

    Jenny and Matthias Walter have been set to work in Felleries, a large wood, just behind the front lines, with Jenny earning her daily bread in the pit-prop industry. Every morning she goes off into the forest. Tremendous old trees come crashing down and are trimmed back to the trunk, and then along comes Jenny with her head, trunk and legs reduced in the confusion of trunks all lying all ways, one on top of the other, to be put in decent order. Next she has to drag all the timber out to the high road and to a sawmill which turns the timber into pit-props for the trenches. Daily Jenny transports fifty trees, some of which 12 horses could not have shifted. On Sundays Jenny does no work and is free to wander through the woods to pick delicacies for herself, faithfully returning to Mathias when he calls.


MAY 1916 

   This is how Jenny, a Hagenbeck War Elephant in service with for the German war effort, can fell a tree 12 feet in diameter, all by herself. Matthias says she is quite systematic about it:

   1 – shake the tree until it is all loose at the roots,

   2 – use your fore legs and powerful shoulders and set them against the trunk,

   3- rear on your hind legs and bring all of your six-thousand-pound weight to bear,

   4 – push with lots of loud reports, until the earth heaves up and the tree comes crashing down.

   Note: She has never yet snapped a tree in two, they always come up at the roots.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L



Food shortages in Stellingen are getting worse now; when the war first began we were able to contrive large supplies of horse flesh from abroad, these have ceased to be sufficient for our needs. Our pride, the sea-lions were first to go through lack of fresh fish. Losses increase – attendances decrease. I do not tell Heinrich about these hardships as he is still in the army, but he reads between the lines.

   I am about to open a circus in Oslo.

It was whilst I was on a trip to Sweden, to buy horse flesh, Adolph Strassburger offered me his circus! Then supported by Uncle John at Stellingen and with the good name of Hagenbeck, I approached the famous banker Max Warburg, he immediately accomodated me with a rather large sum. So I set about starting a new Carl Hagenbeck tented circus. I have brought back two elephants from Hermann Bloomenfeld, he said ” Jolly glad to give you your old elephants back; they are eating me out of house and home.” Otherwise they would have just been standing around on the chain. I am to pay him when I like. There is no lack of performing animals at Stellingen, and we have enough exotic animals at our mangers to be able to send a seemly animal show on the road. They have all been shipped to Malmo, where they joined my newly acquired menagerie of seventy-six horses, 3 elephants and a number of zebras, camels and donkeys. Meanwhile I have painted Strassburger’s waggons orange and blue with our name.

   So I then found myself, for the first time, preparing to enter the ring, with Sawade at my side in support. I only had time for five rehearsals in our Swedish winter quarters with the combined heard of five elephants, including a large Sumatran bull with tusks three foot long. He was insistent on making me, his new master, respect him. Luckily I am good at handling a 14 foot bull whip, cracking it with dramatic effect.

   When the big day came, I kept looking to the skies In case a sudden squall should serve me with the bad luck my Father had with his first tent in Heiligengiest Field. On the first night I had a good dose of footlights fever. Behind the scenes Sawade handed me a big glass of champagne. When I entered the ring the elephants were already racing round at such a speed that I could hardly tell which was first and which was last. I quite forgot the routine and relied on Otto, my faithful footman, to prompt me from the wings and put us all through our paces. Those first few minutes were centuries to me. Finally to the triumphal march of Aïda, all up for the final pyramid, and I exited with my shirt glued to my body. Sawade winked his eye and stepped in to work our tigers.

   For three days the Swedes swarmed in, then I took the chance to ride out in the lovely outskirts of the city, next to the steely Baltic. Suddenly their was a loud burst of machine-gun fire, and before I knew it I was prostate on the soft moss, my black horse bolted through the trees, I learned later that it was trained in a Wild West act and was to bolt out of the ring at the sound of gun shot. This serves as a reminder that we are all overshadowed by anxiety over Germany and the war and the difficulty it poses to us. It has not been possible to take many of my staff to Scandinavia because of the War. Meanwhile, I am also trying to find funds for Uncle John at Stellingen and funds for Heinrich and the banks and lawyers. It is hard work all day and often all night too.

   I thought this would amuse you all; Willy Peters has enterprisingly filled the gap with the polar bears, with only a quick run through of the show with the veteran bear tamer. Now polar bears all look like peas in a pod, so he marked then, with distinguishing marks of red paint. Unfortunately in the show they scratched at their noses and got so hot so as the paint began to run and the audience to complain in a sudden outburst “Brutes, cruelty to animals, get out!” Soon rabid Swedish animal-lovers were in search of me, together with the police, and it took a great deal of effort to convince them of what really happened.

   Taking all things into consideration I have been very happy to be running my circus. My childhood toy circus has come to life, wagons and tent complete. And I do not need to take care not to spoil my mother’s floor.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L


c. OCT 1916

    I have received a telegram from St. Louis Zoo, 2 years after presenting them with the 2 lion cubs, America is a neutral country and they have suggested that I make my way once again to America in one of our U-boats, which are doing their best to break the Allied blockade. They want me to build up their Zoo for them. I’m not sure that I can go. I have also heard that Hans and Gretchen have been rechristened, and now America has entered the war on the other side.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L


c. DEC 1916

   Now in Germany such pleasant things such has ham and salami are rarities and before we returned to Germany each man was anxious to smuggle something out for their folks at home. But somebody tipped off the Oslo police and just as Sawade was going through his last tiger item the police descended on us looking for prohibited goods, inc: gold, rubber and other things of use to the war effort. As at that moment the animal wagons were empty the law surged into them, tapping the walls and boring holes in the floors. For do not the best circus novelettes lay it down that the cages of the great carnivores are the finest smuggling deposits? At this point the Norwegian manager of the Trivoli came on the scene, and mollified his over-zealous compatriots, who for all their pocket lamps and drills had found nothing at all. As I saw him console them with a drink I absented myself as rapidly as I could and had recourse to a nearby butcher’s shop, where I bought a whole hog (slaughtered), quantities of bacon, ham, sausage, and all the rest, all of which I packed into the empty wagon. The police kind enough to put their seals on the door! When it was properly labelled “Lion and Tiger Food” I thought it was the best consignment I have ever had for that purpose. It certainly has delighted our good two-legged Stellingen pets here at home, for it is again Christmas time, and somehow I have not had time to feed a single piece of that meat into my carnivores’ hungry mouths.

I took my boyhood friend and years-long tamer Reuben Castang a big jar of real Hamburg eel soup, and that soup was cooked from stock made from a Norwegian hambone – Reuben’s favourite dish. Together with all the things that go with it, I presented myself at the entrance to the Berlin foreigners’ internment camp, out on the of Ruhleben road, for it is there that as an Englishman the poor fellow has to spend the whole war.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L

 c. JAN 1917

    The circus has continued working in Germany, in the Stettin Central Hall, in order at least to cover the winter costs. Meanwhile Uncle John has managed to hire the empty Chiniselli circus building in Warsaw. Once again the Army Enlisting H.Q. combed through our personal belongings while I with my faithful elephant Jumbo worked all night in driving snow to heave our circus wagons onto the railway platform trucks. 10 hours it took, Jumbo was wrapped in a padded tarpaulin, I shared my last bottle of rum with her.

   What a contrast to our Scandinavian tour! Most of the windows in our filthy circus train were broken. The savage wind swept the fine snow through every crevice. The journey took three days and nights, for we had to spend many hours in sidings, letting military trains go through, before our ark on wheels could move on. We’ve played two months in The Polish capital. There is ample horse-flesh, for the carnivores, but not enough green-stuff for our herbage eaters, so that we have just lost two elephants, one of these being Nauke, a bull with magnificent tusks. Due to the war it is of course out of the question to get substitutes from India.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L


c. AUG 1917

Matthias Walter has updated me on his Military service with Jenny our War Elephant, he says:

   Jenny is now employed anywhere as a large grey maid of all heavy works. They are most impressed with her: she has pulled out a traction engine that the French drove into a ditch to prevent us from using it; she has pulled out a whole column of motorised transport which had got stuck in the mud; worked as a shunting engine making up trains; she has even been harnessed to the plough on the old Floumount parade ground, which has been turned to arable land. Jenny’s triumph was when a visiting General, disbelievingly, saw her lean into the rear truck of a train making all 60 tonnes of it move. The General, speechless, issued her with ginger cake and 6 cigarets for me. It was through this hard work and occasional evening turns for troops seated on an amphitheater of tree trunks, that Jenny has become known all down the front.

   The only thing that Jenny cannot stand is an aeroplane, and it does not matter whether it is ours or the enemy’s. If I am not around to calm her, she pricks up her ears, to try and locate the enemy whose thundering din she would swipe out of the air by swinging her trunk and trumpeting loudly and combatively.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H, L


c. NOV 1917

  We are very pleased to report that we have succeeded in undertaking another Scandinavian tour, this time starting in the Copenhagen circus building. But the War is making it’s mark there too. Coal supplies have run out and the Danish Government has ordered all electric current to be cut to two days a week. That is bad luck indeed. We cannot give performances in darkened buildings. Nor can I use the tent anymore, for it has a starry sky in it now and there are no more materials available for repairs – no canvas, no ropes or spare parts. Still I need to support Stellingen Animal Park, so we have searched all over Germany for stages or empty halls where we can put on a show. I was relieved when, at last, my applications to Holland bore fruit, but before we could go I have had to go through a fancy riding performance with the military authorities.

   In place of my staff now in the forces, I have engaged Danes and Swedes, for whom I suddenly found I lacked visas, we had to unload and re-load three times at Bremen because of this. It was enough to make one despair because each time I had the papers I had to go chasing for rolling-stock again. Having manoeuvred all my men through the red-tape front, even our German Horse trainer, we unloaded at Sloten, an Amsterdam suburb, and finally had our first show.

   When I had just banked our first takings and tossed down my second tot of gin, I nearly choked when the Amsterdam chief of police laconically said it was my first and last performance in Holland. This the result of the press attacks on us claiming that our numerous personnel and animals would reduce the Dutch people’s rations still further.

   I had the sense at once to take a census of all the Dutch workers – tent men, musicians, drivers, porters. At the next performance I told the audience that there were three hundred and four Dutchmen at the moment in our employ, so I hoped that Holland could feed my German staff of seven. I bowed and the band played the Dutch national anthem. Thus I was able to get our permit to continue from the Ministry of Interior at The Hague. Most of the papers are now printing fair criticism, but there were still some which continue to paint our food-snatching presence in the blackest of colours. One even went so far as to warn its readers to keep their cats and dogs indoors lest our folks caught them and stuffed them! However, this warning has a sharp boomerang effect, for the very next morning there was a most enterprising Dutchman at the door with a whole wagon-load of dead dogs and cats, which he tried to sell us. He was furious when we explained that we had no use for them, he withdrew, grumbling, to call upon a certain newspaper editor.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L


    The circus came here because Germany was getting difficult for them. They are hoping to find food and money in Holland. But the Dutch women do not want this, so they have sent a letter to the Queen saying; ”We are shocked to hear that the circus will receive government funding for their 100 people and all of their wild animals. ( they say they’d need 300kg of meat for the animals per day.)” The housewives say that they don’t even have a scrap of meat for feeding themselves and that the zoos don’t’ even have enough food for their animals.

22/5/1918 Het Vaderland: Belgisch Dagblad te Havre (Translated by Leanne Staugaard)  


c. MAY 1918

   We are but a few miles from the front where terrible battles are being fought, yet we have received the most courteous treatment from the manager of the Scheveningen Seaside Resort Company. Here most of the hotels are full of British wounded, and the British military police have set patrols all round us, to prevent their folks coming to our shows. The blockade, however, does not defeat the good British. As the name of Hagenbeck triumphs over war and the artificial hatred of peoples, and the British Officers found their way in as – Dutch civilians!

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L


Dutch government boycotts HAGENBECK’S CIRCUS.

Amsterdam, Tuesday.

 The minister of Agriculture has, according to “Het Volk,” prohibited food cards to the German staff of Hagenbeck Circus performing near Amsterdam and also of meat to the animals. Amsterdam municipality for bidselectricity supply to the circus. – Reuter.

15/8/1918 Western Times


c. SEPT 1918

For more than 2 years Jenny, the first and possibly the only war elephant on the books of the Wehrmacht, has worked at the front, but after her keeper Matthias Walter was wounded badly, she has returned home unwounded to return to her circus work with us.

   Meanwhile I am looking to take the Hagenbeck show onto other places. I have applied to hire the Chiniselli building again in Warsaw, but my application has been refused so firmly by the German military authorities that I feel that we are on the point of losing the war. The Army has begun to withdraw on all fronts.

   So where next? Dresden, Breslau and Berlin all have permanent circuses, but Ruhr another a great conurbation with a densely packed population does not, so I have sent my business representative, Dr. Katz to approach the fathers of the city of Essen. I expect the results of the enterprise to be good for Hagenbecks Circus, we should open in time for Christmas with Caré’s transportable building from the Bremen fleamarket as the main structure.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: H L