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Friday, November 27, 2015

Zoo History: Bring 'Em Back Alive

"The truth was, I thought now, Frank Buck was a generally grumpy fellow, always cursing out his 'boys' or jealously guarding his 'specimens' or boasting how many he had sold where and for how much.  He acted superior to the people who worked for him.  He didn't get along with the authorities in the game preserves, nor with the ships' captains who took him on their freighters with his crated live cargo, nor with the animals themselves.  I saw all that now, but I still wanted to be like him, and walk around with a pith helmet and a khaki shirt and a whip for keeping the poor devils in line."

- E. L. Doctorow, World's Fair

For much of their history, zoos were sinks, not sources of animals, and their collections would dry up without constant replenishment from the wild.  That posed no major qualm to most people at the time; the sources of wildlife in Africa and Asia seemed inexhaustible, and all that was required was for someone to go and collect specimens for sale in America and Europe.  Carl Hagenbeck Jr was one such "someone."  Another was Frank Buck.

A rural boy at heart, Frank Buck was never especially happy with his like in Chicago at the turn of the last century.  So when he won some money in a poker game, he decided to indulge his wanderlust and set sail for South America.  While there, he collected a few small animals; upon his return to America, he sold his wild souvenirs to the Bronx Zoo.  Impressed by his early success, he returned to South America for more animals, selling to London Zoo this time.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Hagenbeck family was the world's dominant animal dealing firm.  With the outbreak of World War I, however, the German animal dealers found themselves shut out of their trade.  Feeling ambitious, Buck decided to move in on a more-profitable corner of Hagenbeck territory.  He chose Singapore.

Over the next several years, Buck became one of the leading sources of Southeast Asia wildlife for American zoos.  During the course of his colorful career, he captured a confirmed man-eating tiger, was almost ripped to shreds by an irate Malayan tapir he was attempting to medicate, and wrestled the world's longest recorded king cobra (at that time) into submission bare-handed.  We know about Buck's exploits so well because, to his dying day, he was a vigorous self promoters.  While living in Chicago, he had associated with lots of actors and vaudevillians, and learned some of the trade from them.  Between collecting trips, he arranged for several film crews to follow him through the jungle and make motion pictures of him at work, some genuine, many recreated (foreseeing John Wayne's Hatari).  He also wrote a famous memoir, titled Bring 'Em Back Alive.

As Vicki Croke noted in her The Modern Ark, he probably could have titled it Kill Most of Them Along the Way.  For every animal that Buck produced for American zoos, others died.  Sometimes it was deliberate on his part; it was commonplace at the time to shoot adults of potentially dangerous animals in order to obtain their more tractable offspring, who would ship more easily and would adapt better to captivity.  Other times, death was brought along by inadequate care; for all of his savvy in capturing beasts (or buying them from people to did), Buck was no zookeeper, and his short-lived career with a zoo ended after his "home remedies" seriously sickened some elephants.  Other times, it was the stress and danger of capture itself.  Catching an animal in the controlled, safe confines of a zoo exhibit can be risky enough; my colleagues and I have called off more than one capture attempt because we were worried that the animal was getting too stressed.  Doing it in the jungle with the technology available to the 1920's?  Pitfalls, lassos, and, in some cases, actually shooting out the branches that an animal was perched on?  No thanks.

Buck was aware of the value of his animals and took amazing risks to his own safety to obtain them sometimes.  Besides the alluded to cobra incident, he once tracked an escaped leopard that had gotten loose... at sea... on a freighter ship, refraining from shooting it so that he could capture and sell it (he did).  He faced down an enraged cassowary with nothing but a bamboo pole so that he could crate it without damaging it.  He was doubtlessly personally attached to some of the animals he met in his trade, and reading his books, you come across some glimpses of affection for this gibbon or that sun bear.  At the same time, he really seems to view the animal business as simply that... a business, with no moral qualms.  When he told William Hornaday that the quest for Indian rhinos ("practically extinct," Buck acknowledged) that he'd acquired for the Bronx and Philadelphia Zoo had resulted in the deaths of several other rhinos, Hornaday - arguably America's leading conservationist - was horrified.  Buck found this amusing.

Towards the end of his career, Frank Buck transitioned more from animal dealing to showmanship and writing.  He appeared in Ringling Brothers as a presenter.  He displayed animals at the World's Fair.  He made more movies and did radio shows.  A small zoo in his hometown of Gainesville, Texas is named in his honor.  After a life of danger and excitement, it seemed almost anti-climatic when he died - in a hospital bed - of lung cancer at the age of 66.

For a modern zookeeper - any animal lover, really - it can be hard to read Frank Buck's books (or read between the lines of them, anyway) without a shudder of horror.  The roughness with which animals were treated, the sometimes inept care, and the loss of life are staggering.  If zoos still acquired their animals in such a manner today, I can't say I'd be in this field (though lots of people do think this is how we get our animals).  Fortunately, we don't.  Enough of those animals that were live-captured in the bad-old days  -including some caught and sold by Frank Buck - survived and bred, forming the nucleus of the zoo animal population that we have today.

How we treat their descendants is up to us.  Hopefully, we choose a gentler, more caring life than Frank Buck would have provided.

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