BIG GAME HUNTING AND “WILD ANIMAL” SPECTACLES IN THE WOLFSONIAN MUSEUM COLLECTION
It was another era altogether. It was an era of safaris and heroic “Big Game” hunters—white men wearing pith helmets and carrying rifles to shoot “wild” animals in “Darkest” Africa. “Manly” American men like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, and Europeans stationed in the colonies prided themselves on pitting their lives against nature’s most dangerous beast.
But all that is over now, or should be. We have entered an age where most of the world’s wild places have been reduced to national and provincial parks, game preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries, and where cheetahs, leopards, white rhinoceroses, panthers, and countless others have been added to the list of endangered species. The idea of men continuing to kill “big game” for taxidermy trophies is as environmentally atrocious as poachers killing elephants and rhinos to “harvest” horns and tusks. Thanks to the internet, people the world over are now familiar with the pathetic story of Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist (and spare-time big game hunter) who paid $50,000 for the privilege of going on safari and shooting a lion with a crossbow. His victim, Cecil, a celebrated lion fitted with a GPS collar, had been lured out of the Hwange national park, wounded with an arrow, and then killed and decapitated some forty hours later. The dentist and his guides may now be facing serious poaching charges in Zimbabwe.
But this new story is only one in in long line of such scandals. I recall the outrage provoked in April 2012, when it became public that while the Spanish people were suffering through the greatest recession since the Great Depression, King Juan Carlos of Spain was spending more than $50,000 for a safari in Botswana for the privilege of killing and posing proudly with two African buffalo carcases and a dead elephant.
The recent flurry of international righteous indignation that has arisen over the senseless slaughter of Cecil the lion got me thinking about some related material in the Wolfsonian library collection: items from the era of colonialism, “big game” hunting, captive animal spectacles and other antiquated customs.
My own thoughts turn to Frank Buck (1884-1950), an American adventure-seeker who won world-wide fame as a “big game hunter” and wild animal collector in the 1930s and 1940s.
Buck had first sought adventure in South America in 1911, returning from Brazil and making a tidy profit selling exotic birds. Appointed temporary director of the San Diego zoo in 1923, he quickly grew bored and quit after only three months to resume his passion for animal collecting. To recoup his losses after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, he co-authored and published an autobiographical book with Edward Anthony in 1930, titled Bring ‘Em Back Alive.
The book made the bestseller list and Buck published a steady stream of sequels, including Wild Cargo (1932), Fang and Claw (1935), an elementary schoolbook On Jungle Trails (1936) and Animals Are Like That (1939). Buck won instant fame starring as himself in movie versions of Bring ‘em Back Alive (1932), Wild Cargo (1934), Fang & Claw (1935), Jungle Cavalcade (1941), Jacaré (1942), Tiger Fangs (1943), and even encountered the (Bud) Abbott and (Lou) Costello comedy team in Africa Screams (1949). Disney even spoofed Frank Buck’s popularity in a Donald and Goofy cartoon “Frank Duck Brings ’em Back Alive” in 1946.
Buck also won notoriety for setting up his “Jungle Camp” (complete with “Monkey Mountain” on the Midway Boardwalks of the Chicago world’s fair (1933-1934), a brief appearance with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (1938), and another spectacle at the New York World’s Fair (1939-1940).
Scenes from this home movie from a fair-goer includes shots of Frank Buck’s Jungle Camp in which monkeys hang out on a giant rock formation.
“Bring ‘em back alive” Buck had become such a household name in the 1930s, that a poster designed to ridicule overly-popular protests had demonstrating simians clamoring “Down with Frank Buck.”
Frank Buck’s popularity extended even beyond the grave, when a series about his life (starring Bruce Boxleitner) aired in the early 1980s. In this comical clip of one episode, another discontented monkey threatens revenge on the animal collector.
Despite Buck’s “Bring ‘em back alive” trademark, several of his films did include staged “fights to the death” between wild beasts. While Frank Buck’s wildlife harvesting methods would raise more than a few eyebrows today, the tally of wild animals he captured and sent back alive to the world’s zoos and circuses remains impressive. The list includes more than 100,000 wild birds, 120 Asiatic and 18 African antelope, 100 gibbons, 90 pythons, 63 leopards, 60 tigers, 60 bears, 49 elephants, 40 kangaroos and wallabies, 40 wild goats and sheep, 25 giant monitor lizards, 20 tapirs, 15 crocodiles, 11 camels, 10 king cobras, 9 pigmy water buffalo, 5 Indian rhinoceroses, 5 Indonesian babirusas, 2 giraffes, 2 gaurs, and more than 500 different species of other mammals. Perhaps this is why his name and legacy are a far cry from the sullied reputations of contemporary “big game” hunters in pursuit of stuffed trophies.
I thought that a fitting end to this post would be to describe one last item in the library collection. Kubwa Simba is a children’s book written by George D. Lipscombe, illustrated by Joseph Marro, and published by the WPA New Reading Materials Program in 1941.
Most interestingly, even in this story that predates decolonization, the decline in hunting safaris, and the rise of eco-tourism, the hero is not the “great white hunter” but a black maned lion who roams the Athi Plain between Mount Kilima Njaro and Lake Tanganyika. The book tells the tale of the biggest, bravest, and strongest lion in East Africa, Kubwa Simba, who defends his pride against Masai warriors and even vanquishes a huge black buffalo.
Towards the story’s end, Kubwa is pursued by a “great white hunter” from New York determined to trap him and bring him back alive.
This tale, at least, has a happy ending as Kubwa Simba uses all his brute strength to tear a hole in the enclosure and escape into the night, and into legend.
Whenever I step into the public elevator in the museum and look up at the ornamental lions’ heads mounted there, I will think of Cecil and how much more beautiful it is to contemplate this work of art than a grotesque, stuffed trophy head.