Monday, March 23, 2009

Clara, Zamba & Sharon

"Clara's Grand Tour - travels with a rhinoceros in eighteenth century Europe" - Glynys Ridley
"Zamba - the true story of the greatest lion that ever lived" - Ralph Helfer
"The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw - one woman's fight to save the world's most beautiful bird" - Bruce Barcott

“Clara’s Grand Tour” suffers from the plight of the history writer: lack of personal documentation.

It’s all very well to know the baby rhino was bought by a Dutch sail man and brought home to the Dutch Republic and to have some documentation proving her appearance in public in the European Continent, some references in letters or books about her passage and many famous paintings. But at the end of the day Glynys Ridley had to base Clara’s story on very little hard evidence and the reader will surely feel it.

For starters there are many “he must have thought/remembered/planned” sort of constructions that merely highlight the fact that we don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure Clara was transported by water in some portions of her journey (though Ridley makes a good argument), we don’t know for sure all the places she might have travelled to, or how many made up her entourage, and what kind of difficulties beset her path. If Michael Allin, author of “Zarafa” was able to draw on the extensive correspondence between Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the Mayor of Marseilles as the giraffe made her way to Paris, Douwemout Van der Meer, the Dutch who bought the rhino was obviously not the journal keeping or letter writing sort and it’s a darn pity. I mean, really, if you’re going to bring home an animal no-one’s ever seen and parade it across the land, isn’t the least you could do to drop a few lines about the whole thing? Maybe it’s the lack of documentation but Van der Meer struck me as a cold fish. I figure if he truly loved Clara he would have written a book about her.

Like Ralph Helfer did, about his beloved lion Zamba. “The true story of the greatest lion that ever lived” might be pegged as a light read (a weekend or long afternoon will definitely kill the beast) if it wasn’t for the fact that you keep getting a headache from all the moments when you hold back the tears.

Helfer was one of those little boys who dreamt of having a lion (they are not the stuff of fiction; I live with one; a grown up one) but he actually made good on his dream. And after his absolute nightmare of a childhood he deserved it. An entrepreneurial young man if there ever was one, he started his animal rental business/ pet store barely out of high-school, and pretty soon got his own ranch where he amassed hundreds of animals used on Hollywood productions.

One day he got a call and a few weeks later a crate: inside was a lion cub that would become the most accomplished show-piece of his ground-breaking “affection training”. Zamba would be able to play with children and lay among lambs but his most incredible trait was the deep friendship (for there is no other name for it) he formed with Helfer in the 18 years he lived. In those years I think they must have been apart few times.

More and more I am awe of people who can have such a bond with wild animals. Our domesticated animals are awesome of course, but, like ourselves they have strayed a little from the deep voice of Nature. A wild animal magnifies that sound within us with every breath.

Of course, if we keep going this way we might just eradicate most wild animals in a few centuries (certainly we seem to be on the way to killing off every large predator around). “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” documents what happens when a woman stands up between profit and nature. It isn’t pretty.

Bruce Barcott’s book is a gem and I hope he gets some sort of award (or several). In his real life “Pelican Brief” he tells the story of a corrupt government (in Belize) a greedy Canadian company (Fortis) and the outsider: Sharon Matola an American who arrived in the country in the eighties, and despite having built single handedly its first zoo is still about a hundred years short of being considered anything other than an outsider. Especially when she starts meddling with a proposed dam, to be built on the last nesting site of the endangered scarlet macaw.

Look, I’m not even giving you a summary. Everyone should read this to understand what greedy corporations and governments are doing everywhere: destroying the environment for a quick buck. Oh, and be particularly suspicious when they start shouting “public interest!” because in most cases, such as this one, the general public reaps absolutely no reward. Only a tax hike and more poverty.

Barcott doen’st just stick to the story at hand but digresses into nearby themes which is the way I like it. I know I got a much needed lesson on the workings, history and pros and cons of dams. We should all be more educated about this stuff. So go ahead and read it. I’d be absolutely shocked if you didn’t love it. But be prepared: you will get very, very angry.

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