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Hal Crowther 

Twilight of the tiger

click to enlarge The magnificent Siberian tiger: 200 left, and counting down.
  • The magnificent Siberian tiger: 200 left, and counting down.

It says something about the drift of things--and about me, of course--that I read the morning newspaper in 15 minutes. It used to take me an hour or more. Nearly everything that's happening in the world is something I'd try to stop, if I had the power. But the only power I can exercise is the power to refold the first section and toss it in the recycling bin. I know a smart, well-read man who says he hasn't sampled the news in any form in years, and never felt better about himself.

I keep sampling, stoically, because every so often there's a story I'd hate to miss--like the one from Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, about the rehabilitation of Keiko the killer whale, who starred in the motion picture Free Willy. More than a million individuals, most of them American children, contributed to the crusade that freed Keiko from a wretched retirement in a Mexican aquarium and sent him home to Iceland, near where he was captured 20 years ago. A nonprofit group called the Ocean Futures Society, headed by Jacques Cousteau's son Jean-Michel, has been re-educating the orca in foraging and survival skills, with the romantic goal of setting him free at last in the open ocean.

No captive orca has ever been reintroduced to the wild. After 18 months in a huge floating pen, Keiko, in robust health and foraging for half his own food, now has the run of Klettvik Bay, which is sealed off from the North Atlantic by a barrier net.

"He's successfully met every challenge he's faced," says Cousteau, who admits that the ex-performer's ultimate fate "depends on many unknowns."

On good intentions alone, Keiko's story is the rare point of light, the blessed respite from the newspaper's unvarying menu of war, greed, fraud, hypocrisy, celebrity coupling and electronic options. The human race is still capable of good intentions, which pave the road to hell but also light the narrow footpath to what little hope remains. And that headline "Free Willy" frees me, for some reason, to tell a story I've never told anywhere, except reluctantly to my wife.

Every two or three years I take a sailing trip with an old friend from college; the third member of our crew is his former brother-in-law. All three of us are married to women whom I consider exceptionally good company, but my suggestion that we should include our wives in one of these adventures was greeted with chilly silence by my shipmates. About three days out on this particular sail around the Bahamas, in a group of islands called the Abacos, I began to understand why.

My mates had been under pressure, perhaps, and had made it a mission to heal themselves with more Bahamian rum than most wives would countenance. One night we were drinking late in a secluded island anchorage, in pitch dark except for the mast and bow lights and a small electric lantern. There was a light breeze with the smell of tropical flowers, the usual reminiscences and philosophical disputation--the standard stuff of middle-aged men on holiday--and not a sound except our voices and the slap of the dark Caribbean against the hull.

One of us--it was you, Nick--passed that point where rum can transform idle speculation into violent action. We were talking about the chain-link dolphin pen that seemed to destroy our island's perfection, a commercial enterprise where a top-heavy cruise boat brought tourists every afternoon to swim with a half-dozen unfortunate dolphins (the orca's closest cousins).

It was agreed that we disapproved. I don't remember agreeing to anything else, but somehow I found myself in the dinghy with my mates howling "Free Willy," one brandishing a bottle of rum and the other a pair of wire cutters.

I sat in the bow with a flashlight, full of rum and misgivings. I suppose this was one of the sorriest attempts at eco-terrorism ever launched, a miscarriage of compassion that Greenpeace would scorn and disavow. Between cries of "Free Willy," the outboard motor and Nick singing Springsteen's "Born in the USA," we must have been audible as far as Miami. At the dolphin pen the wire cutters had barely begun their work--the hole might have liberated a slender catfish--when the docklights flashed on and a man came walking down the wharf in our direction.

"He's got a big stick or something--hold it--my God!" and the stick which was a rifle fired twice. We'll never know whether he fired at us or over our heads to warn us, but this was a remote Bahamian out-island, not Myrtle Beach. I was 49 and it was the first time anyone had ever fired a gun in my direction. I was face-down in the bilges breathing gasoline, raising my head just enough to curse my crazy crew and warn them that they had 10 seconds to abort this mission or I'd cut their throats in their sleep--and cut them with a scaling knife so that even if they survived they'd look like a couple of Dr. Frankenstein's early experiments.

They'd never glimpsed this martial side of me, and it sobered them enough to gun the motor and get us out of there alive. But back on the big boat they kept drinking and teasing me with another scheme to approach the dolphin pen on foot, along the beach. I unscrewed the steering handle from the outboard motor and went to bed with it under my pillow.

One of my crewmates was a college president, the other sailor runs one of the largest foundations on the West Coast. The next time you see a couple of well-groomed Ivy League types in their 50s, don't assume that all their wild behavior is behind them.

I think about "Free Willy" and I'm still not sure whether it was one of the dumbest things I was ever involved in, as an adult, or one of the most noble and quixotic. If we'd set the dolphins free it would have been a gesture only, a symbol. The liberation of Keiko, of one aging celebrity orca, is nothing more. But we live in an age that responds to symbols. Where else should we invest our energies, if we're still sane in the 21st century? In NASDAQ IPOs?

The wild things, the animals whose distant presence stirred our imaginations, the exotic creatures who made this half-exhausted planet interesting are almost finished. There's a newspaper feature called "Earthweek: A diary of the planet," which focuses on environmental and biological disasters. It brings us the real news, while the rest of the paper tells us which faction managed to kill more members of the other faction, which faceless politician prevailed in which bought-and-paid-for primary with a relevance rating of absolute zero. But Earthweek's real news is all bad news.

In South Africa, scores of elephants are succumbing to "floppy trunk disease," a mysterious, fatal affliction that gradually paralyzes their trunks and leaves them unable to eat or drink. No one knows the cause or the cure for this illness, which was never observed before 1989. In Arabia, the moronic trade in aphrodisiacs has resulted in the probable extinction of the tahr, a mountain goat whose meat is supposed to restore virility. And the last known Arabian wolf was killed by shepherds.

"Traditional" Chinese medicine (centering on the same epidemic of impotence that doomed the tahr) is now a billion-dollar industry with an insatiable demand for tiger and rhinoceros parts. There are 14,000 rhinos and fewer than 6,000 wild tigers left on the face of the earth.

Six billion humans, 6,000 tigers, and people hope to grind up the rest of the tigers to improve their erections, lots of luck. The deliberate extinction of species is a tragedy beyond words, beyond tears. And beneath notice, in the mainstream media. The handful of celebrities who join protests against the fashion industry's fur and leather products are treated with condescension by the press. Most people don't give a damn.

I give a profound damn. I always have. Though the "Free Willy" episode in the Abacos may go down as a drunken burlesque, I've paid some dues elsewhere. A few years ago in the Magdalen Islands, helicopters landed a group of us on ice floes to protect baby harp seals from "indigenous hunters" who turned out to be French Canadians with new trucks and snowmobiles.

That experience clarified my politics, which were always organized around a simple principle: Stand with the underdog. I guess I was a classic bleeding-heart liberal until some of the underdogs, the victim groups, learned public-relations hardball and organized speech-control movements. Bonding with month-old, snow-white seals that sick people wanted to bludgeon and skin alive, I got back to the roots of my political sentiment. Wild animals are underdogs who never force-feed you inedible rhetoric or call you ugly names when you disagree.

They endure, and then they disappear. Their cause is a hopeless one, I think, but it's one you can embrace with no reservations. Every responsible human life, according to Wendell Berry, begins with stewardship--with preserving, to the best of our ability, the earth and all its creatures the way we found them. But stewardship requires humility; it requires a knee-jerk rejection of Protagoras' primitive maxim, "Man is the measure of all things."

Man is only the measure of all arrogance, cruelty and wastefulness. It took him eons to work his way to the top of the food chain and a couple of centuries to destroy the food chain from the top down. As the human population metastasizes, it's erasing, in an instant of historical time, all the holy wonder and divine whimsy of biological diversity.

If you believe in God, a baby African elephant is compelling evidence of His sense of humor. Seeing those impossible ears you realize that Dumbo the Flying Elephant was no great stretch of the cartoonist's imagination. Staring into the yellow-green eyes of a Siberian tiger, whose face is one of nature's most magnificent visual achievements, you re-experience the awe and terror of remote ancestors who had not outsmarted all their natural enemies.

Or you don't. The animals' most eloquent advocates appeal to our common experience, and generations of human beings have already lived their lives at a great distance from wild animals. A generation soon to be born may never guess that they existed. If they read Peter Mathiessen's brilliant meditation on the snow leopard, or his new book on the Siberian tiger (Tigers in the Snow, North Point Press), they may read them as a kind of science fiction. What will they make of Edward Hoagland, who writes, in Tigers and Ice:

"Tigers are less heartbreaking than the beleaguered elephant because they are not social creatures and are reactive, not innovative. But they are an apex, a kind of hook the web of nature hangs on. To know them, and elephants, marked my life."

Only population control could save some nostalgic remnant of the once-great animal kingdom, and population is a tide that won't be turned in time to save the elephant or the tiger. But lost causes aren't worthless causes. Wildness in its every form is worth defending, to the last wolf howling on the last untimbered hill. Bleeding hearts can bear witness--and resist in the beasts' behalf, if we keep our heads down. Praise the Lord and pass the wire cutters.

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