Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Gorillas missed

In the news (and in comments here) we read about the sad plight of animals under the threat of extinction, most wrenchingly, for me, the polar bear and the gorilla. It is inconceivable that a people who call themselves civilized could allow these magnificent animals or their habitats to disappear.

I grew up in a generation of American boys who idolized Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck, the 20th century's most flamboyant live animal dealer. Buck's clients included many of America's zoos, and he supplied them with elephants, tigers, leopards, apes, monkeys, exotic birds, and every other type of beast imaginable. His base was Singapore, and his hunting grounds the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.

Buck's autobiography was in my father's library, and the great white hunter stared fearlessly out from the frontispiece photograph -- handsome, steely-eyed, macho and courageous. This guy could be charged by an enraged rhino or entwined by a 30-foot python and never flinch. A true boy's hero -- of yesteryear.

By the time my own children started reading, there were new zoologist heroes, Joy Adamson, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey. And the book titles were different too: "Bring 'Em Back Alive" was replaced by "Living Free" and "Gorillas in the Mist." Clearly, a sea change had occurred in public attitudes about animals in captivity and in the wild.

The dashing adventurer of my boyhood was no longer a cultural icon, but a zoological imperialist who never doubted that the wild beasts of Southeast Asia had no better fate than a cage in a Western zoo. Nothing motivates animals more than fear, wrote Buck, and like the other assorted agents of empire who hung about the bar of Singapore's Raffles Hotel, he knew how to use fear to bring his quarry to heel.

But give Frank Buck this: While his friends entertained themselves by blasting away at wild beasts with elephant guns, he brought 'em back alive. Alas, Buck's animals were saved from the trophy room wall only to spend their lives confined in the grim cages of early-20th-century zoos.

The rampant destruction of habitat is a far greater threat to the survival of wild animals than Frank Buck ever was. It is too simple to blame the developing nations; they labor under economic pressures that are largely dictated in the West. As long as wealth generation and conspicuous consumption count for more than zoological diversity, polar bears, gorillas, leopards, pygmy hippos, and all the rest face a bleak future.