The global networks of the animal trading companies Reiche and Ruhe

Two animal trading companies were established in Alfeld in mid-19th century: the firms of Ludwig Ruhe and Carl Reiche. With the opening of the Hannöversche Südbahn in 1953, Alfeld quickly developed from a relatively small provincial town into a regionally important industrial centre. From there, the companies Reiche and L. Ruhe built a globe-spanning trading network that initially shipped canaries from the Harz region to North America and, from the 1860s at the latest, frequently imported non-European wild animals to Europe.

Around the turn of the century, the German Empire became a hub of the global animal trade, spearheaded by the expanse of Carl Hagenbeck's animal trading company. By the end of the 19th century, however, Reiche was hardly inferior to Carl Hagenbeck and from 1910, with the purchase of the Reiche company, Ruhe advanced to become one of the leading animal traders worldwide. Moreover, the Ruhe company remained active as an enterprise in various political contexts until 1993, and managed the Hanover Zoo for over 40 years. Nevertheless, the history of both companies has remained relatively unenlightened. As a result, little is known about the personal and institutional relationships they cultivated overseas as well as in Europe. Equally little do we know about the main routes they used or in which regions they primarily caught animals.

Funded by the German Lost Art Foundation, the project sets out to provide this knowledge by an extensive context research. The aim was to trace the global routes and networks through which Reiche and Ruhe brought not only animals, but also ethnographica and even people from their respective countries to various places and institutions in Europe. Using a global micro-history approach, the project was set to highlight the extensive entanglements of the animal trade and its connections to the trade in ethnographica, and also in people for so-called "Völkerschauen" (“human zoos”).

This research focused on over 200 taxidermy animals that today are exhibited in the municipal animal museum in Alfeld. Moreover, around 100 ethnographic objects are also stored in the depot in Alfeld. The connection of this collection to the animal trading companies was investigated and additionally, the objects will be added into a database accessible online. Both, the research on the animal trade companies and on the collection, was undertaken in order to facilitate further provenance research in the long term.

In cooperation with representatives of the societies of origin, a conference was organised in November 2022 "Colonial Dimensions of the Global Wildlife Trade". It focused on the two animal trading companies and their worldwide networks as well as the provenance of the animals and objects. The project was initiated by the museum of the city of Alfeld and the Netzwerk Provenienzforschung in Niedersachsen and it is conducted at the University of Göttingen.


Associated Researcher: Charlotte Hoes (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Academic AdviserProf. Dr. Rebekka Habermas (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)