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Two legs good, four legs fabulous: Oxford and its animals

Ever since the first Megalosaurus stalked the Oxfordshire meadows, animals have been central to Oxford’s story. After all, wasn’t the City’s location chosen for the convenience of the local oxen? Apparently not strong swimmers...


Even the City’s patron saint, the Saxon Princess Frideswide, apparently evaded her suitor, Prince Algar, and put his dogs 'off the scent' by hanging out with some particularly smelly pigs. When, ultimately, a miracle occurred and Prince Algar was struck by lightening in the eye, thus ending his pursuit, the pious Frideswide naturally prayed for his healing to St Margaret of Antioch. Even the goodly Margaret didn’t appear alone, but brought her trusty dragon.


Dragons are everywhere in Oxford! To test this assertion, simply gather a few children in Radcliffe Square and send them in different directions with their mobile phones to see who can photograph the most dragons in 30 minutes.


Jesus College is an obvious dragons’ nest, its Welsh allegiance spawning numerous feisty examples, however, Brasenose, Magdalen, New College and the Bodleian have their fair share too and they pop up menacingly in all sorts of other surprising places.


The Bodleian has a wealth of magical animals, so see if you can spot the hippogriffs, the phoenix, the unicorns and the owls. For those with an interest in heraldry, the great 17th century door of the Bodleian sports a whole panoply of crests with a variety of animals and is right opposite Hertford with its biblical Hart ‘pining for the watercourses’ over the main door.

Not to be outdone, Magdalen College has a herd of (live!) fallow deer including a beautiful white hart, which can be viewed all year round. Legend has it that during World War II they were classified as turnips to save them from being culled for the war effort (N.B. the Archivist can find no evidence for this story).


Oxford has also seen some exotic pets brought up by its students and faculty. Oscar Wilde apparently used to walk his pet lobster down the High Street from his rooms at Magdalen to the consternation of passersby and zoologist William Buckland supposedly had a pet hyena.

Herpers, however, have won the day, with tortoises today’s preferred college pet. The role of College Tortoise Keeper is keenly contested and many tortoises now have their own Instagram accounts and blogs. The Big Event in the tortoise calendar is (naturally, for maximum wakefulness) in Trinity (summer) term. It is the Corpus Christi Tortoise Fair and emotions run high. The tortoises are carried (this isn’t a marathon, after all) to the centre of the Corpus garden, a large ring of lettuce is arranged around them and the tortoise race is on! The first tortoise to touch the lettuce wins and is Top Tortoise until they meet again.


Corpus is an animal college par excellence, having been founded by a Fox(e) (Bishop of Winchester), and his chum Hugh Oldham (‘Owldam’ - three owls in his crest), who told the students to work like bees. The college evidently decided the best interpretation of its vulpine founder’s instructions was to get some actual bees to work like bees and they can still be found in their hive on top of the college’s lecture theatre.


Other colleges, even today, have working animals. These ‘ratters’, the college cats, have hit the headlines recently after an unseemly territorial spat between Exeter’s Walter and Hertford’s Simpkin, who has apparently been staking a claim to Walter’s cushioned chair in the Exeter College Library.


Simpkin has been unceremoniously deported, and the college has even posted notices warning of his dangerous proclivities. See https://cherwell.org/2022/01/15/hertford-cat-simpkin-banned-from-exeter-college-library/


The most famous Oxford cat was of course the one who could disappear, leaving only his smile behind. You can find a sculpture of him in his entirety up a tree in Oxford’s Botanic Garden. It is in many ways remarkable that in the entire history of Oxford University and its academics, its most famous book is about a little girl and a cast of talking animals that she finds down a rabbit hole.

Lewis Carroll’s Dodo can still be seen in a portrait in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where you will also find the Megalosaurus’ footprints in the grass.

To hear more stories about Oxford’s animals and their human friends, why not come on a tour with one of Oxford’s Best Guides?

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