BOOKS: Reprises of Born Free
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2008:
(Actual publication date 11-5-08.)
The Daily Coyote by Shreve Stockton
Simon & Schuster, 1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2008. 279 pages, paperback. $23.00.
The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog by Nancy Ellis-Bell
Harmony Books (c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2008. 245 pages, hardcover. $23.00.
Of Parrots & People by Mira Tweti
Penguin Group USA (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2008. 300 pages, paperback. $25.95.
Behind The Daily Coyote, The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog, and an entire genre of similar books which since 1960 have reshaped public opinion about wildlife stands the ghost of George Adamson and the influence of Pat O Neill, a Kenyan who later inherited the Broadlands equine stud farm near Cape Town, South Africa, and converted it into the Kalu Animal Trust.
In 1954, in her early twenties, O Neill raised and returned to the wild an orphaned lion cub named Tana. George Adamson, then a game warden in the North-ern Frontier District of Kenya, was among the initially skeptical observers.
Another keen observer was George Adamson s Austrian-born wife Joy. Already in her third marriage, Joy Adamson was known even then for the ferocious temper that led to her murder in 1980. Her killer, a juvenile employee, testified that he was afraid she would kill him for driving her car without permission, and alleged that she had shot at other employees.
George Adamson was not afraid of her, nor was he afraid of much. He died in 1989, in successful defense of a female colleague, racing his Land Rover at a gang of poachers who had him far outnumbered and outgunned.
One day in 1956 George Adamson shot a lioness at close range as she charged him and another man. He then discovered the lioness three cubs. He took the cubs home to Joy. Acquaintances suggested that was the bravest thing he ever did.
Instead of shooting George, Joy emulated O Neill, raised all three cubs successfully, and wrote the 1960 international best-seller Born Free about returning one of them, Elsa, to the wild.
Many dozens and perhaps hundreds of books have followed the Born Free template, including Joy Adamson s own sequels.
In The Wilderness Family (2001), Kruger National Park ranger s wife Kobie Kruger recounted her attempt to reprise the O Neill and Adamson lion cub rescues. She discovered that modern Africa no longer includes safe places to release rehabilitated lions but it barely did 50 years earlier.
Lions are little tolerated in Africa these days, outside of securely fenced and guarded national parks and game farms.
Lions iconic status might be compared to that of the North American timber wolf, appreciated at a safe distance as a tourist attraction, but hated by ranchers in gross disproportion to their actual role in dispatching sick, injured, and ill-attended livestock.
Coyotes, who scavenge far more than they kill, are even more intensely detested than wolves in much of the rural U.S. especially in Wyoming. Notorious for antipathy toward the 1995 Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, Wyoming also has probably the most aggressive coyote-killing program anywhere.
Shreve Stockton in The Daily Coyote begins her version of the Elsa story by moving to rural Wyoming and becoming romantically involved with a government coyote killer.
Years earlier, as single father of two girls, ages 10 and 12, Mike the coyote killer allowed the girls to explore the rugged countryside on four-wheelers while he built a house. The elder girl flipped her four-wheeler and killed herself, leaving Mike to cope with grief and guilt between rounds of trapping coyotes, gassing them in their dens, and strafing them from aircraft.
Though Mike professes to dislike the job, he tells Stockton that if he did not kill problem coyotes, ranchers and sport hunters would kill even more of them. And then he brings Stockton an orphaned coyote pup.
Through taking photos of the pup and e-mailing them to friends, Stockton discovers she can supplement her slim income by selling subscriptions to an online publication called The Daily Coyote. As it becomes an Internet hit, she lands the book contract that produces the book of the same title.
When the pup becomes unruly at about age one, while Stockton is writing the book, she castrates him by banding. This consists of using a tight plastic band to constrict the blood flow to the testicles until they die on the animal s body and drop off. Though often used on livestock, banding has never been considered humane practice, and has never been recommended for use with canines.
Throughout The Daily Coyote Stockton repeats the usual clichés of city folks who move to the countryside about how she is learning oh, so very much that city people don t know about living outdoors with nature and the elements.
Yet, as a rural dweller for most of my life, often with coyotes as closer neighbors than humans, and having done most of the same routine farm chores for far longer, my impression is that Stockton is a much better writer than observer.
For example, Stockton details and documents that her rural Wyoming neighbors are often ignorant, indifferent, and gratuitously violent toward animals, nature, and each other, but opts to assimilate by mostly overlooking the mayhem, rather than exacerbate cultural conflict. Except in a short-lived stint as a substitute school teacher, soon after her arrival, she goes native.
Stockton castrates her coyote only after determining that he has become so habituated to humans as to preclude returning him to the wild. This was probably inevitable. But even after castrating him, she has behavioral issues with him, only partially resolved by her embrace of advice from The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. Her cat Eli, however, keeps the coyote in line.
While Stockton gradually learns that sexual issues are far from the only causes of dangerous behavior by canines, she and the alleged coyote expert Mike appear to overlook or ignore Eli s secrets which are really no secrets at all.
First, Eli is never afraid of the coyote. Second, both the coyote and Eli are hardwired by evolution to recognize that a cat, as a pure predator, is boss. A coyote, as a scavenger, avoids conflict with a cat. Coyotes in suburban habitats routinely kill cats from ambush, but run from frontal confrontations with cats, as do most dogs even those who chase any cat who runs.
To the coyote pup, Eli might as well be a puma, though a puma who will sometimes play with him.
This is not a relationship that Stockton or any human can fully replicate, but Millan s understanding of how humans can maintain dominance over dogs without resorting to abusive treatment could have been derived from watching how cats do it.
The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog is a suburban variant of the Born Free story, featuring a rescued bird rather than a mammal. Author Nancy Ellis-Bell, knowing she cannot return an exotic parrot to the wild in North America, far from any semblance of the parrot s wild habitat, instead allows the parrot to fly freely outdoors by day, hoping she will return home at night.
Such arrangements are not uncommon, but the birds seldom live long. Even parrots large enough to fend off cats and crows tend to become easy pickings for birds of prey. Ellis-Bell s parrot fares no better than most.
Joy Adamson, Stockton, Ellis-Bell, and others writing in this genre walk a dangerous line between educating readers about wild animals and inspiring others to acquire them as exotic pets especially in the alluring and seemingly all-excusing name of rescue.
The first demonstration of the potential perils of success in the Born Free genre came when keeping big cats as pets exploded in popularity after Born Free became a 1966 film hit, declining only after the passage of federal legislation in 2003 that discouraged transporting exotic cats across state lines.
Gaird Wallig in A Red-Tailed Hawk Named Bucket (1980) may have walked the line most successfully. A one-time big cat keeper who was inspired by Born Free, she applied the lessons learned from past mistakes in successfully rehabilitating and releasing the injured hawk, not far from Ellis-Bell s home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Stockton and Ellis-Bell warn that coyotes and large parrots are not ideal pets for everyone but both seem to enjoy the animals so much that their warnings may be ignored.
Mira Tweti in Of Parrots & People opens with a preface about her deceased rainbow lorikeet Mango that might have become the beginning of another Born Free genre story, but Mango died young, at home.
After just three pages about him, Tweti races on into a twelve-part exploration of parrot abandonment, feral parrots, parrot breeding, parrot poaching and smuggling, and efforts to protect parrots in the wild, developed from her work as an investigative reporter and documentary film maker.
Subtitled The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species, Of Parrots & People is largely a plea against keeping captive parrots. Several chapters expose how legislation intended to protect parrots has backfired in key respects.
For example, the 1973 law that prohibited importing wild-caught birds for the pet trade encouraged the rise of birdy-milling, as exploitative as puppy-milling, with even less regulatory supervision. Chapter six opens by reciting the failures of regulation to rectify conditions at Martha Scudder s Parrot Depot in Roy, Washington.
Complaints about this facility and the condition of birds raised there have reached ANIMAL PEOPLE for more than a decade. The Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County has repeatedly pursued litigation and sought improvements to both local ordinances and state laws to deal with Scudder s facility, and others like it, to no avail. Parrots raised for the pet trade still have no more protection than poultry raised for the pot which means effectively none.
Later Tweti points out that the usual fate of parrots seized from smugglers coming across the Mexican border is to be quarantined indefinitely in Plexiglas cages, then be auctioned to buyers who include some of the same dealers who buy from smugglers.
In her concluding chapters Tweti explores the Mexican side of the parrot traffic.
An estimated 65,000 -78,500 wild parrots and macaws are captured illegally each year, Defenders of Wildlife and the Mexican organization Teyeliz A.C. estimated in 2007, More than 75% of the birds die before ever reaching a purchaser.
The Mexican parrot traffic is reputedly controlled by drug gangs whose conflicts in the past two years have killed more than 6,000 people. Amid the mayhem, police as Tweti laments tend to be on the take from drug lords or preoccupied with staying alive.
But Mexican president Felipe Calderon Hinojosa on October 14, 2008 endorsed into a law a bill to ban the export and capture of all 22 species of Mexican wild parrots. The bill cleared the Mexican Senate in April 2008, 66-0 with one abstention.