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Widowmaker on the Wall

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Walter Potter's Cape Buffalo

“That is NOT a water buffalo!”

I turned toward the voice. A bearded man was leaning over the counter toward me with his weight on both palms. He fixed me with a stern eye and repeated, “That is NOT a water buffalo.”

I kept my expression interested but noncommittal. After all, at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop we hear a dozen times a day what things are NOT. As in, “That’s NOT a real mummy,” “That’s NOT a real two-headed cow,” “That’s NOT a real shrunken head,” and so forth. So we learn to take customer outbursts with a grain of salt.

But this gentleman had a point to make. “That mounted head over there,” he waved an arm at our newly acquired buffalo head, which was glowering on the wall behind us. “Your sign says it’s a water buffalo. Well, I hunt, and I tell you, THAT is a Cape buffalo. Water buffalo are domesticated and Cape buffalo are anything but!”

Walter Potter and his mounted friend

The Kittens' Wedding by Walter Potter

I explained that the head came from the collection of the venerable Victorian taxidermist, Walter Potter (pictured left). Potter is best known for his sentimental yet disturbing dioramas featuring mounted kittens and bunnies, posed (and dressed) as schoolchildren, duelists and wedding party attendees. My bosses, Tammy and Andy James, traveled to Cornwall, England when they heard that the contents of Potter’s museum would be going on the auction block. In addition to the buffalo head, they brought home a number of curiosities, among them a four-legged hen, a two-headed black bull calf, and a tiny village made entirely of cork. For signage back in the shop, they relied on the auction catalog for descriptions, so perhaps, I suggested, this is where the buffalo was misidentified.

1895 sketch of African buffaloOur bearded visitor listened politely until I was finished. “Looks like your sign needs to be changed,” said he, then nodded briskly and strode away.

Gotta love Google Images! I searched for “Cape buffalo” and up popped a hundred or so of our mount’s friends and relatives, proving that our visitor was indeed right. Though the term “water buffalo” has been used to describe Cape buffalo -- let’s make this more confusing, shall we? – the two bovines are not closely related. And though they differ in a number of ways, the essential difference is in temperament.

The name says it all. Africans’ chilling nickname for their home-grown Cape buffalo is the Widowmaker.

The Cape buffalo is reportedly responsible for over 200 human deaths a year, making it one of the “big five” most dangerous animals on the African continent and truly hazardous to hunters. Even ferocious predators like the African lion are rightfully wary.

So no wonder our visitor was on a mission...  A Cape buffalo by any other name is just plain wrong.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

Follow Ye Olde Curiosity Shop's board Curiosities at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pinterest.  


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