The titular Cocaine Bear of Cocaine Bear being a bear and doing some cocaine, in the woods, like a bear.
(Universal Pictures)

They Told Byron He Couldn’t Bring a Dog to College so He Brought a Bear Instead

It’s apparently the anniversary of British poet and pre-eminent bisexual disaster Lord Byron embarking upon his college career today, so it seems like a good time to reminisce about how he responded to being told he couldn’t keep a dog at college by going out and fetching a real live bear, and some of the many other appalling things he did.

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Look, there’s no denying Byron was an absolutely terrible person despite his surprising political and personal allegiance to the Radical movement and working people as a whole. (He’s the prototype for every dirtbag leftist with a rich father and a long list of abuse allegations behind him.) There’s a reason he inspired the Western canon’s first ever literary vampire story; The Vampyre, which was basically a poorly disguised hit piece by his former friend Dr. Polidori all about how Byron indiscriminately ruined lives with his penis.

But the thing about Byron is that he’s also a deeply hilarious person to read about, and so thoroughly dead he can’t profit off you reading his poetry or enjoying his escapades from a safe distance of more than a century gone by. So while he was a thoroughly wretched member of the British upper classes, painting himself as a free-thinking libertine just because he didn’t like hearing the words no, stop, and dear God don’t do that, the sheer discomfort and inconvenience he caused the rest of them is highly entertaining. Bring a bear and do crimes (if you must be a hereditary member of the imperial establishment) I guess?

He brought a what?

So about that bear. Like most disgustingly overprivileged young men in Britain and colonized Ireland in the 1800s, Byron was headed to one of England’s two “Ancient Universities,” better known these days as Oxbridge and a source of nervous breakdowns among over-achieving adolescents everywhere. In his case, it was Trinity College, Cambridge. (For those unfamiliar Cambridge is the university, which is sub-divided into multiple colleges where students live, study, and form sporting rivalries against each other.)

The administration, not yet realizing who they were dealing with, made a huge mistake: They told Byron he couldn’t bring his pet dog with him when he began his studies in the Michaelmas (autumn) term of 1805. Byron responded with a truly stunning piece of malicious compliance. After going over the college regulations and making sure it was expressly dogs that were prohibited, he went out and acquired himself a pet bear.

Now imagine for a moment what this must have been like for his contemporaries at college—wealthy, wretched, prepared for several years of debauchery and fun (and a little light studying if you found the time), only to discover one of your classmates is keeping a whole pet bear in the college residence, the same building where you have to sleep at night.

Admittedly, Byron kept him on a chain when he took him for walks around the campus, and probably locked the door to his rooms when he and the bear went to bed at night, but even so. It’s a wonder that it never occurred to the bear one night that a few quick chomps would swiftly pave its way to freedom. Though there is the tragic possibility that the bear had had some or all of its teeth removed by the time Byron got his hands on it, as this was the sort of thing people did to tame bears back in the day (and, unfortunately, still do today, although the practice is now frowned upon if not outright illegal in most places). Still, hopefully it brought at least a certain level of discomfort to the lives of a group of the sort of young men who inflict discomfort on everyone else wherever they go—teaching empathy the kinesthetic way as it were, and failing that, schadenfreude for the rest of us.

Somehow, despite keeping a pet bear in his rooms and his general contempt for the vast majority of his fellow students, Byron failed to be expelled at any point during his tenure at the university. Unlike his beloved “friend” Percy Shelley, who was kicked out for writing an essay announcing his atheism to the world, Byron and his bear hadn’t technically broken the rules (and what rules he did break were small or subtly affected enough that he largely got away with it). As much as the college likely longed to be rid of him (and the bear) Byron’s position in the British aristocracy and the powerful connections that came with it largely insulated him from consequences, not just at college but for some time after as he rampaged his way through British high society, seducing other men’s wives and generally having a grand old hedonistic time.

Until, of course, suddenly it didn’t. Credibly accused of sodomy by his enraged father-in-law and vengeful former lover Lady Caroline Lamb, this was apparently the one thing the British establishment drew the line at. (I’d insert that Community meme of Britta saying she “can excuse racism” here, except, unlike sodomy, at least animal cruelty is actually wrong).

Byron ended up having to nope out to Europe, where he continued causing brilliant new problems for exciting new groups of people all across the continent; inserting himself into political movements, fathering innumerable children, treating most of his lovers absolutely appallingly, and pissing Mary Shelley off so badly that she invented an entirely new literary genre out of spite. He finally decided to throw himself into the Greek independence movement, becoming a cultural hero there, only to finally die of what was probably either syphilis or sepsis instead.

Honestly, given some of the things Byron did with his life—nearly dying of sex induced dehydration in a Venetian gutter, successfully funding Greek liberation from the Ottoman empire by selling one (1) estate, and almost certainly impregnating his half-sister—managing to get away with bringing a pet bear to college seems almost insignificant really. You had to hand it to the man, he may well have been “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (thank you Lady Caroline Lamb), but he was probably a lot of fun, right up until the moment the laughter suddenly turned on you.

(featured image: Universal Pictures)

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Siobhan Ball
Siobhan Ball (she/her) is a contributing writer covering news, queer stuff, politics and Star Wars. A former historian and archivist, she made her first forays into journalism by writing a number of queer history articles c. 2016 and things spiralled from there. When she's not working she's still writing, with several novels and a book on Irish myth on the go, as well as developing her skills as a jeweller.