Bring ‘em Back Alive by Frank Buck – A Short Review

I’m going to reference this post under both Science Fiction and Fantasy and Current Events.  Under either category an error is being committed.  But that’s the great thing about being the proprietor.  You can break the rules when it suits you.  Frank Buck was a wild animal importer back in the nineteen twenties and thirties.  He brought back never before seen creatures to Europe and America for zoos and circuses and other exhibitors.  He brought in the first Indian rhinos out of Nepal when that country was as isolated and inaccessible as the Moon is now.  His stories are full of hair-raising escapes from tigers and cobras and he fills them with exotic people from India and Southeast Asia.    The language and the characterizations of these non-western people is extremely politically incorrect even by the standards of fifty years ago.  But they are probably closer to reality than the current over-sensitive portrayals of non-western customs in the “thou shalt not offend the non-westerner” popular press.

Now the case for putting this under sf&f is because it ties into the movies King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.  These movies are demonstrably some amalgam of sf&f.  The fantasy of an adventurer heading off into the uncharted jungles of the still partially untamed world and bringing back some fantastic and almost mythological creature is in part based on the popularity of Frank Buck’s stories in “Bring ‘em Back Alive.”  He goes into these jungles and using contacts with the local inhabitants locates and captures these legendary creatures.  Now granted, capturing a verified man-eating tiger or the largest orangutan is a lot less spectacular than fighting dinosaurs or shooting a fifty-foot gorilla off the Empire State Building.  But in the imagination of kids in the 1930s both were more exciting than going to school or working at a shoe factory.

Reading these stories recently, I am struck by the certainty that many of the details have been exaggerated to make the story more exciting.  This is especially true of the poetic justice that catches up to a cruel Maharajah in the story Tiger Revenge.  Also, it is amazing to see how primitive the methods for transporting these amazing creatures were back in the 1920s.  Tropical primates like orangutans were loaded onto freighters that took weeks to cross the Pacific Ocean and the conditions in the hold or on the deck were pretty bad.  Add into this equation storms or even typhoons and it’s amazing that he got anything “back alive.”  If any of the practices employed in those times were used today the ASPCA and the local animal welfare agencies would call for the death penalty for the importers.

But the stories are interesting and exciting on their own terms.  In one story a tiger trapper is caught in his own leg trap.  He is trapped out in the jungle at night with mosquitoes torturing him, ants attacking his wounded leg and the threat of jungle predators all around him with nothing to defend himself with if they attack and no way to escape.  Is the story true.  I doubt there is any way to know.  But the tale is compelling.

There are about twenty of these stories.  Most linked only by the presence of the author and a few other supporting characters like Frank’s Malay “boy” Ali (actually a man in his fifties) who assists him in his adventures and the directors at the zoos and circuses that were his clients.

My father read this book in the 1930s.  He gave it to me in the 1960s.  And I’ve given copies to my grandsons and nephews in the 2010s.  It seems to have a universal appeal to the male animal.  I recommend it highly.

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