Years after he became famous as “The Godfather,” Marlon Brando made a movie spoofing his legendary role. In “The Freshman” (1990), Brando played a mobster who ran an exotic restaurant called the Gourmet Club. Never operating in the same location twice, this traveling con job lured obnoxious, ultra-wealthy patrons with the false promise of feeding them endangered species for premium prices. In fact, for the privilege of consuming an animal that was the last of its kind, Brando charged a million dollars.
The scam went like this. No rare animals were actually killed. Brando would have his waiters parade a live Komodo dragon around the room in front of his sleazy (and gullible) customers. He even had the former Miss America pageant host Bert Parks singing “Here he is … your Komodo dragon.” Then, while the marks assumed that the giant reptile was being cooked, the chef would whip up some smoked turkey and serve it to the unsuspecting dupes.
He may have gotten the idea from Leonardo da Vinci. The famous painter once found an oversize lizard in his backyard, and this gave him an idea. He glued some scales all over its body, attached a bat’s wings and somehow even managed to stick a beard to the lizard’s chin. His secret for keeping the animal still for this game of dress-up has been lost to history, but da Vinci apparently kept the fake dragon in his studio and used it to enjoy freaking out his friends.
Ever since I heard that my older brother once caught a large bass, dug a hole in our backyard, filled it with water and charged the neighborhood kids a quarter to see what he billed as a “monster fish,” I have been fascinated with animal scams. One of the most famous was P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid from 1842. Barnum ran a museum in New York City that was filled with eclectic exhibits. He once purchased a “missing link” in the form of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish.
Barnum whipped up a story that this alleged mermaid had been captured off the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific and put the bogus object under glass in his museum. Barnum then wrote anonymous letters to the newspapers denouncing his own exhibit as a fraud and then responded with more letters to the editor, inviting customers to come to the museum and see for themselves. The scheme worked, and people flocked to the hoax.
Incidentally, in one exhibit room, Barnum placed a sign over a door that said, “This way to the Egress.” Thinking that the egress must be some sort of exotic bird, many people went through the door, only to find themselves locked outside the building. To get back in, they would have to buy another admission ticket. If they complained, Barnum could always point out that technically, “egress” was Latin for “exit.”
Even his competitors couldn’t resist animal frauds. When Barnum spent a fortune to have a rare white elephant brought over from Burma in 1884, he was disappointed to see that it only had small splotches of pink coloring. He billed the elephant as a scarce specimen just the same. That’s when his rival, Adam Forepaugh, went so far as to paint an elephant white to attract the crowds to his circus. Barnum retaliated by painting his elephant even whiter. When Forepaugh’s elephant eventually died of old age, Barnum quipped that it was “dyed” already.
As distasteful as they seem to the modern palate, at least these hoaxes had a certain amount of ingenuity to them. Today’s animal scams are just plain sad. Con artists list non-existent puppies available for free on Craig’s List, tricking buyers into paying shipping and insurance fees. Online criminals also make a fortune selling fake legal documents that allow people to bring emotional support pets onto airplanes. 19 states have even passed laws cracking down on people pretending that their dogs are service animals.
Which of course reminds me of a classic joke. A man is out walking his chihuahua and goes into a restaurant. The waiter stops him at the door: “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t allow dogs in here.” So, the man goes home, waits a month, and then puts on some dark sunglasses and takes his dog back to the same restaurant.
The waiter stops him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t allow dogs in here.” The man answers, “But I’m blind, and this is my seeing-eye dog.”
The waiter is incredulous: “Your seeing-eye dog is a chihuahua?”
To which the man answers, “They gave me a chihuahua?”