Axel Munthe loved bird song and looked forward to seeing and hearing stock pigeons, thrushes, waders, quails, wagtails, swallows, larks, and many others, when they arrived in the spring in San Michele’s garden. They rested on Capri during their migration north.
But he was also concerned because the migrating birds visiting Capri, especially the quails, were in danger of being caught in nets that were set up all over the island.
Quails were considered to be a delicacy and they were captured and shipped to restaurants on the mainland. Munthe tried, unsuccessfully, to get the islanders to stop the bird hunt. He ran into resistance because this was a steady source of income and an old tradition. To make the bird hunt more difficult for the population, he trained his dogs to bark at night, and fired a canon. This was not accepted calmly by the population, who fought back, poisoning one of his dogs. He tried unsuccessfully to get a ban at a higher level, which failed because those in such circles enjoyed eating birds.
To help capture birds, the hunters used decoys, who sang around the clock. The reason they never stopped singing was because they had been blinded with hot needles. This was a common method that was eventually banned.
Monte Barbarossa, a mountain where many birds were caught, was owned by a wealthy man from the mainland. He was a former butcher, who kept raising the price for the mountain, so that Munthe couldn’t afford to buy it. It wasn’t until the butcher became sick that Munthe was able to take over all of Monte Barbarossa, which after the purchase was transformed from a bird trap into, in Munthe’s words, a ”bird sanctuary” (Axel Munthe, “The Story of San Michele”, Stockholm 1930, p. 340). You can read more about this in the article “Ornithological Research on Barbarossa.”
Munthe was a great animal lover and often fought for their rights, for example through newspaper articles and by donating part of his fees for animal protection. In his will he left 100,000 kronor to the Swedish Animal Protection Society, to work to stop menageries and to protect migrating birds. During his life he gave money to the Swedish Veterinary College for the care of Estonian dogs and to the organization “Friends of Small Birds”. In 1944 he paid the dog licence fees for needy elderly dog owners in Stockholm.
He had been a hunter when he was young but later turned against all pleasure hunting. On the other hand, he thought that animal testing was legitimate as long as it benefited science.
Munthe believed that travelling menageries were reprehensible. In “Bref och skisser” he describes in great detail how they worked and the animals’ living conditions.
He describes how the bear sits in such a small cage there isn’t room to walk. The bear sits swinging his head back and forth apathetically.
He also describes a Golden Eagle captured when small, now three years old, which will probably not live much longer since eagles die when kept in cages. These detailed depictions of animal behaviour and their mental condition in ”Bref och skisser” demonstrate that Munthe wanted to influence the reader to oppose menageries. He turned directly to the reader and began by saying that he is going to show the animals to the reader.
The reader is spoken to directly, which I believe is a successful technique by Munthe to capture the reader’s attention and compassion.
Munthe admitted that he too had kept animals in cages when he was young, something he was now trying to make up for. This method of deflating himself, I think, gives a feeling of authenticity to Munthe’s efforts for animals.
Dogs were especially loved by Munthe and at one time he had eight at San Michele. He thought that dogs were the creatures with the highest moral standing and that they deserved our love. He thought that dogs should be raised with patience and rewards, and that violence should never be used on a dog.
He believed in telepathy between dogs and humans, saying that a dog could read his master’s thoughts.
One of his most beloved dogs was a Great Dane called Puck. One indication that Puck was much loved was that Munthe used Puck instead of his own Christian name in his early articles.
Puck died during an hazardous trip to the Alps with his master, and his death was a source of much grief. They were stuck in the snow on a mountain hike and Puck became lame. He died among the monks in a mountain pass on the road over the Simplon Pass.
Besides Puck Munthe also owned a Lapphund called Tappio, a German Shephard named Gorm, a dog called Wolf, a Fox Terrier and a Maremma Sheepdog called Barbarossa.
The dogs were not the only animals at San Michele. There were also monkeys, turtles, a mongoose, a Siamese cat, and a Little Owl. Munthe found the owl in the countryside outside Rome, its wing injured by a hunter’s bullet.
He took care of the owl and when the wing had healed he released it, but it returned and he kept it and took it on the boat back to San Michele.
The owl became very fond of Munthe and wouldn’t let him out of its sight.
She pecked carefully with her beak on his lips, which was a way to for her to show devotion.
On the boat to Capri he also had the monkey Billy and a mongoose, which was also one of Munthe’s pets.
According to Munthe he had gotten the monkey Billy from another doctor in Rome, who left the monkey with Munthe when he left on a journey. The doctor never returned, and the monkey became Munthe’s.
Billy was a very mischievous creature, who made life difficult for both San Michele’s visitors as well as for the other pets.
In “The Story of San Michele” Munthe relates that once when he was away, Billy threw a carrot at a passerby, which broke her glasses, he fought with the Fox Terrier, kidnapped the Siamese kitten, and ate the turtle’s eggs.
He used to tease the turtles by knocking on their shells. When they stuck out their heads the monkey hit them, they pulled in their heads, and he repeated the procedure.
When Billy fought with the Fox Terrier all the dogs got involved. Suddenly the mongoose appeared and the monkey escaped into a tree. Billy was not afraid of any animal, except the mongoose, which used to prowl the garden. All of the animals respected the mongoose. The dogs ran away when it came close, even though it was a small animal.
After the fight with the dogs Billy would no long pick fleas out of the dogs’ fur, something he was very good at.
“The Story of San Michele” contains many anecdotes about animals, which I think is an indication that Munthe really noticed the animals’ different personalities and enjoyed observing their behaviour even if we sometimes are unsure if everything in the book is completely true.
La festa di Sant’ Antonio was a holy day celebrating the patron saint Sant’ Antonio. It was the most important holiday in Anacapri. During the day a procession moved through the streets, including the priest, the most important persons in the village, Sant’ Antonio, animals, children, girls, young women, and the elderly as well as visiting group of musicians. The procession stopped in front of San Michele. The other animals paid no attention to the music, or watched calmly, but they had to lock Billy the monkey in his monkey house where he made a terrible racket. The only human he was afraid of was Munthe.
Munthe believed that monkeys were very intelligent and said that he could fool a dog but not a monkey.
A dog believed everything you said but a monkey could see through deception. On the other hand, monkeys could trick humans, Munthe said, and he believed monkeys to be smarter than people, and describes extensively his studies on the personalities of monkeys in Bengt Jangfeldt’s book “Drömmen om San Michele”. He takes up the monkey’s way of blushing, their intrigues and their tricks. He ascribes human characteristics to the monkey.
He also believes these characteristics are possessed by the dog, which as mentioned, was his favourite animal. Munthe couldn’t put away dogs with poison, which contrary to general opinion was a very painful death. The most merciful way to end a dog’s suffering, which was Munthe’s method, was instead to shoot it through the ear. Axel Munthe’s dogs are buried under the cypress trees in Materita.
Victoria, then the crown princess and later Queen of Sweden, gave two dogs to Munthe. One was called Yallah and the other was a Lapphund named Tappio. Munthe in turn gave Victoria his dog Tom. They would come to give each other more animals. He was her personal physician and she shared his interest in animals. He dedicated “The Story of San Michele” to her with the words:
To the QUEEN the protector of the persecuted animals, the friend of all dogs” (Axel Munthe, “The Story of San Michele”, Stockholm, 1930, p. 5).
Queen Victoria had been, like Munthe, fond of animals since childhood. In her marriage with Gustaf, crown prince and later King of Sweden, they had at least eight dogs, including Borzois, Pugs and Lapphunds. Munthe and she seem to have shared the opinion that there is a special fellowship between dogs and humans.
He believed that to be a good dog doctor you have to not just love the dog, but to understand it.
He also thought that it was easier to understand a dog than a human, and that you could read a dog’s thoughts. He characterised the dog as honest and honourable. If you treated a dog well and gave it small favours it would certainly submit. He also believed that a dog could read its master’s thoughts.
The countless number of animals at San Michele can also be seen by his son Malcolm Munthe’s story that one day his father came to Malcolm and his brother with a box with two guinea pigs inside.
The boys would be allowed to keep the guinea pigs if they took care of them well and didn’t pick them up by the tail, because then their eyes would fall out.
Malcolm and brother spent a long time looking for the guinea pigs’ tails. They were named Philemon and Baucis and lived with the rabbits behind the housekeeper’s house. This anecdote shows how Munthe was as a person and as an animal lover. He seemed to like having many animals around and didn’t seem to care about limiting their numbers.
This way of teasing his sons about guinea pig tails may have also been a mischievous way to tell them to treat animals with care.
We also get an insight into his well-known behaviour towards other people. He seems to have sometimes been rather uninstructive and tactless with his patients, something he admitted himself. On the other hand he seems to have been both patient and respectful towards animals.
We can see that Munthe was a great animal lover not just by his great number of pets and his activities for animal protection, but also from his books. He expresses his opnions in ”Zoologi” in ”Bref och skisser”:
But I love animals, the persecuted, despised animals, and I don’t mind if they laugh at me when I say that I get on better among them than among most people I meet” (Axel Munthe, ”Zoologi”, Bref och skisser, Stockholm, 1920, s. 232)
In one of the prefaces to “The Story of San Michele” he writes the following:
But at least in one regard I can say I haven’t fooled my readers, in my love for animals. I have loved them and suffered with them all my life. I have loved them far more than I ever loved my fellow humans.” (Axel Munthe, “The Story of San Michel”e, Stockholm, 1930, p. 25)
Munthe claims that he loved animals but was, I believe, both a great animal lover and a human lover. He didn’t just help his animals but also worked among the poor on Capri, in Naples and in Paris; which he wrote about, and he often worked almost for free both to help animals and to help people.
He had the opportunity to not take money from the poor because he often received enormous fees from his wealthy patients.
Department of Literature, Stockholm University