Carl Hagenbeck Snr, (1810–1887), a Hamburg fishmonger, founded a wild-animal import business in 1848. In 1863, he opened a menagerie near Hamburg’s harbour. In 1866 Carl Hagenbeck Jnr (1844–1913) became its manager. The first Hagenbeck Tierpark was set up on a nearby site in 1874 and, under Hagenbeck Jnr, became the world’s premier wild-animal dealership. In 1896, Hagenbeck pioneered the "fenceless zoo", using ditches to confine the exhibits. Performing wild animals remained a major attraction, but were trained through kindness rather than fear. In 1907, the Tierpark Hagenbeck opened at its present location in the Stellingen, Hamburg. Though destroyed during air-raids in WWII, it was rebuilt.

Hagenbeck also travelled with his wild animal. On the 18th May 1891, Herr Carl Hagenbeck gave a show of trained wild beasts - lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, bears and boarhounds (Great Danes) - at the Crystal Palace in London. There was also a Carl Hagenbeck Circus in the USA, but from 1907 (when Hagenbeck opened his Tierpark) the Indiana-based circus was owned and operated by Ben E Wallace as the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus with animals trained the Hagenbeck way. Hagenbeck sued over the use of his name, but lost the case. The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus closed in 1938.

Several big cat hybrids were bred, photographed and documented by Hagenbeck in the early 1900s at the Tierpark. He kept records on the success of the pairing, whether or not offspring were produced and survived and on the hybrids' appearance and fertility. He also produced hybrids of horses, ponies and zebras and corresponded with James Cossar Ewart regarding the latter's zebra hybrids. Hagenbeck's experiments helped scientists to understand the relatedness of certain species and to dispel various myths surrounding inheritance.

His most successful big cat hybrids seem to have been his ligers; these were described in a letter to Cossar Ewart in December 1900 and they appear to have been used in performances. Another successful and repeated pairing was that of a puma to a leopardess; a pairing suggested to him by a small (unidentified) English menagerie (this was possibly Lord Rothschild). Records from 1900 describe three sets of twins though only one hybrid survived for any length of time and this showed a tendency towards miniaturisation, being about half the size of the parents. Hagenbeck described the puma/leopard mixes as not particularly noteworthy. Hagenbeck also paired a leopard with a lioness, resulting in live leopon offspring though none survived to maturity. His pairing of a Bengal tiger with a leopardess in 1900, described in a letter to Cossar Ewart, resulted in stillborn offspring that had both spots and stripes. The mating was apparently not repeated since no other information seems to have been reported.

To ensure their survival, (relative) tameness and to allow displays of mixed species, big cat cubs were reared by canine foster mothers. Below is an engraving from the 1870s showing a terrier bitch with her full-grown foster child.

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