If you happened to wander the grand island-capital of the Mexicas for more than a few days, touring magnificent plazas and squares, endless alleys of marketplace and portable bridges stretching across intricately paved canals leading toward industrial and less glamorous parts of the city, you might play with ideas of talking your way across the central canal and into the walled enclosure of the ceremonial center. Here in the heart of the city, the Great Pyramid towered allegedly to the sky, and along with other temples and courts, warriors’ halls, armories and noble children’s school, it hosted the imperial palace and the famous royal zoo.
According to conquistadors such as Bernal Diaz, Tenochtitlan was a breathtaking sight even from the distance of the causeways that connected the famous island-city to the mainland “…gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we,—we did not even number four hundred soldiers!…”
However little could rival the ceremonial center and the palace’s grounds sprawling next to the Great Pyramid, presenting several different buildings, a whole maze of such. Diaz goes into a great detail filling pages upon pages with descriptions of incredible riches and fits of architecture the Spanish invaders had witnessed or the intricately ceremonious meals they had been invited to partake at, honored to dine in the company of the great ruler.
But this, an ordinary visitor of Tenochtitlan wasn’t likely to experience unless of a royal blood himself, arriving in great pomp and with considerable following. And yet, the famous aviary and menagerie might have been opened to the visitors at times.
The famous ‘place of animals’ spread on considerable territory in itself, taking much room with the vastness of its ponds for exotic water creatures and wooden cages and fenced enclosures for the variety of wild animals to roam; a collection that impressed the Spanish invaders so much that, aside from Diaz, famous for his detailed if not very accurate chronicles, at least two more conquistadors of the original expedition wrote about the wondrous ‘garden of beasts and birds.’
It’s hard to tell what exact animals were kept in Tenochtitlan zoo for the imperial family to enjoy and the visitors to behold. When the great capital was conquered in 1521, it has been destroyed thoroughly until nothing was left, not even the Great Pyramid, let alone vulnerable places like markets and palaces. So all we have to go by today is the words of the original conquerors whose acquaintance with the Mesoamerican flora and fauna was minimal, to say the least. When Diaz goes into great detail describing “…many kinds of carnivorous beasts of prey, tigers and two kinds of lions, and animals something like wolves which in this country they call jackals and foxes…” we can assume that he meant jaguars and pumas; and that jackals must have been coyotes, native to this continent but not to others.
According to fragmented descriptions of other conquistadors, one of Cortes’s famous letters among those, as well as parts of surviving diary from an unnamed soldier now known to us as “Anonymous Conqueror” who mentioned the famous zoo in passing, there must have also been monkeys on display, armadillos, a mysterious “mexican bull” (probably a bison according to another Spanish monk’s description), various other mountain felines such as ocelots, along with bears, wolves and coyotes, opossums and such.
A great variety of local birds is also hard to recognize from the invaders’ descriptions, but according to Diaz a separate aviary was maintained on another vast ground, presenting “… every kind of bird that was there and its peculiarity, for there was everything from the Royal Eagle and other smaller eagles, and many other birds of great size, down to tiny birds of many-coloured plumage, also birds from which they take the rich plumage which they use in their green feather work. The birds which have these feathers are about the size of the magpies in Spain, they are called in this country Quezales, and there are other birds which have feathers of five colours—green, red, white, yellow and blue… not to mention the beautifully marked ducks and other larger ones like them… All the birds that I have spoken about breed in these houses, and in the setting season certain Indian men and women who look after the birds, place the eggs under them and clean the nests and feed them, so that each kind of bird has its proper food. In this house that I have spoken of there is a great tank of fresh water and in it there are other sorts of birds with long stilted legs, with body, wings and tail all red; I don’t know their names, but in the Island of Cuba they are called Ypiris, and there are others something like them, and there are also in that tank many other kinds of birds which always live in the water…”
His intake on alligators, various turtles, lizards and snakes was as confusing at times, as those were also most likely unknown to the newcomers from another continent. He goes into some detail describing separate ponds of freshwater and holds in an obvious horror “…many vipers and poisonous snakes which carry on their tails things that sound like bells. These are the worst vipers of all, and they keep them in jars and great pottery vessels with many feathers, and there they lay their eggs and rear their young…”
Modern day historians and scholars are struggling to recognize every mentioned animal for what it might have been in fact according to Central Mexico’s pre-contact flora and fauna, while archaeologists work hard in order to find any remnants of Tenochtitlan under the present day Mexico City, including the royal palace or at least fragments of it.
According to Diaz up to 300 keepers were employed in the imperial zoo alone and an enormous amount of turkeys and dogs that people of Tenochtitlan bred for their own daily consumption was delivered to the royal zoo premises in order to feed the dwellers of those cages. One of the other two conquistadors also claimed that the famous Moctezuma II was fond of strolling through his zoo, feeding jaguars, and even petting them.
For the beginning of 16th century, the concept of caged animals kept for the pleasure of watching them seemed to be largely unknown around the world, besides Kublai Khan’s impressive animal collection mentioned by Marco Polo. This Chinese-Mongolian zoo seems to be the only possible rival to Tenochtitlan’s pleasure gardens dotted with caged animals, even though in Central Mexico itself the custom was not unknown and Texcoco, Tenochtitlan’s partner in Triple Alliance and beautiful city in itself, is reported to have pleasure gardens with caged animals as well.
An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book four
The smell grew worse as they progressed, half creeping half running, following their forceful new leader’s example. The Texcocan was sliding along, half bent and as silent and sure-footed as a predator on a trail. A hair-raising sight. The low rumbling and snarling all around didn’t help against the illusion. Was this man a shape-shifter, the mysterious nahual one heard about only in stories? And what was this place?
“Oh gods, it’s where the Emperor keeps his jaguars and pumas,” breathed Tlemilli into Miztli’s ear when a sudden roar had them jumping aside, even the fearless Texcocan. “I can’t believe it!”
“Keep quiet and talk only in whispers,” was the Texcocan’s laconic response. “We don’t have much time.” Pausing well away from the dark forms of the sheds on both sides of the path they were walking, the man shook his head, his chuckle soft, caressing the night. “Don’t lean against anything and don’t come close to these bars and screens. Stay in the middle of this path and if we are forced to run or walk away, keep to the middle of the pathways until the stench lessens.”
“Why?” asked Tlemilli, pressing against Miztli in force like back in Tlatelolco, but at the same time sounding curious and unconcerned.
“Think for yourself, girl,” grunted the Texcocan. It was easy to see the outline of his wide shoulders lifting in a brief shrug. “Exploratory paws can squeeze through those bars, always ready to pounce. Or just to explore. Neither will be pleasant to you, I can promise you that. They see perfectly well in the darkness, those magnificent creatures. And they are watching, believe me on that.”
In the faint illumination of the moonlight that sneaked here as though reluctantly, Miztli watched the man’s hand coming up, touching the scarred side of his face lightly, contemplatively, the fingers running alongside the invisible-now sight, outlining it. Could it be? he wondered, his mind painting vivid pictures of those “exploratory paws,” massive, sinewy, crowned with terrible claws, striking fast, retreating before finishing their work.
“I didn’t mean that,” protested Tlemilli without her usual passion and force. “I meant, the stench. Why did you say we can wander around freely when the stench goes away?”
“Because then you have obviously wandered far enough from those cages and ponds.” The man snorted loudly, then shook his head again. “Enough silly chattering. Tell me what your emperor wanted you to do. Why did he send you to wander around his southern guests’ windows? And do it fast, boy. Do not anger me into deciding not to help you out any longer.”
Behind his back, something was sniffing the air noisily, spreading more stench. Miztli forced his body into stillness, his instincts screaming, urging him to break into a wild run, no matter where or how. “The Emperor did not tell me to wander under those people’s wall openings,” he said slowly, trying to gain time.
Was there a way to avoid telling it all? Could he try to do that? This man was so mysterious, so obviously set on the course no one seemed to know or understand. Even Necalli admitted that his admired hero must have plenty of hidden goals and purposes, something he wasn’t ready to share with any of them. Should have seen his worshipped veteran now, slinking around Tenochtitlan Palace like a jaguar on a hunting path, spying after spies, knowing where and when and maybe even why, asking questions to missing answers, not even trying to camouflage those with made-up excuses. And why would he? How many people dared to say “no” to such a person?
“I tell what I remember, and I don’t—” he began hotly, but a low growl cut his heated tirade short. Coming from behind their backs, it made his body throw itself away and toward the opposite bushes as the icy wave cascaded down his spine and his arms shot forward, grabbing her on their way, his mind seeking routes of escape.
In the now-generous moonlight, the bear looked monstrous, rearing on its hind legs, huge paws propped against the wooden beams, leaning on those heavily, making them tremble. The grotesquely wide nostrils were sniffing the air, spewing foul odor. Or maybe it was the dreadfully dark mouth, such a fetid crevice, a putrid abyss. Tlemilli let out a strangled cry and he pressed her tighter, his mind amok, calculating their way out, finding none.
“They say those cages are mighty strong.” The Texcocan was still out there, standing in the same pose as before, in the middle of the pathway, seemingly unperturbed. His hand rested easily on the hilt of his knife, drawn already, yes, but not thrust forward; just ready. As though a knife would help against such a monster. “Like I told you two before, you better stay in the middle of the alley. There is no telling what is observing you from those bushes you are trying to dive into, carefully caged or not.”That brought Tlemilli out of the panic-stricken stupor faster than he, his mind momentarily refusing to cooperate, resisting her pull back toward the well-swept ground but only for a moment.
The grunting, quieter but as vicious, was indeed coming from the other side of the shrubs, where a lower construction spread into the darkness, enlivened with several glowing dots, more than one pair, as though ready to back the warning.