Showman and menagerie keeper Stephano [Stephen] Polito was born in 1763/4 at Moltrasio on Lake Como. In the early 1790s he specialised in the exhibition of supposedly exotic (ill or misformed) human beings. In 1792 he took to Bartholomew Fair a menagerie of ‘wild beasts’, many of which had been collected from East India merchantmen.
Expanding year by year, Polito’s became the largest travelling menagerie of its time. He acquired the ‘The Grand Menagerie of Wild Beasts and Birds’ at the Exeter Exchange, Strand, from Gilbert Pidcock in 1810. Politi continued to tour in the summer, and exhibited his animals at the Exchange in the winter. The menagerie was popular and visited by Wordsworth and Lord Byron.
Animals in the collection were painted by Edwin Landseer and Jacques-Laurent Agasse. After Polito’s death in 1814 the menagerie was ran by Edward Cross. Concern about the conditions in which the animals were kept became vocal after the bloody destruction of Chunee, an Indian bull elephant who had been brought to Regency London in 1809/10. On 26 February 1826, while on his regular Sunday walk along the Strand he ran amok, killing one of his keepers. It took some 180 musket shots by soldiers from Somerset House to kill the elephant. Hundreds of people paid an entrance fee to see his carcass dissected by doctors and medical students from the Royal College of Surgeons. The Exeter Exchange was demolished in 1829 and the animals were dispersed.