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.

Making the Greatest Show On Earth Again

When I was about eight years old my father took me and my brothers and sister to see Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus at the old Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.  Before the performance, we walked through the menagerie and saw lions, tigers, zebras, a huge bored gorilla and most importantly the elephants.  They were the stars of the circus and from the point of view of a little boy, the real reason to go to the circus.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked the other acts too, the tightrope walkers, the clowns, the lion tamers and the trapeze acrobats.  They were fun and some were exciting.  But what I wanted to see were the elephants.  Watching these giants go through their routines and seeing the trainers perform their acrobatics on the backs and heads of these amazing monsters was thrilling.

When I had kids of my own, I would bring them every year to the circus.  At this point I preferred the Big Apple Circus because they provided a retro and more intimate experience.  And of course, they had elephants.  My kids loved the clowns and the trapeze acts but what always brought the oohs and aahs was the elephants.  There weren’t as many or as big as the ones I remember from my childhood but they did the trick.  When my kids were a little older I decided to bring them one last time to see the circus.  Much to everybody’s surprise and disappointment there were no elephants.  I assumed that the Big Apple Circus had fallen on hard times and couldn’t afford them anymore.

Over the last few years I had heard that animal rights activists were the reason that circuses had been forced to eliminate the elephants.  They worked to get municipal laws passed making elephant training and control equipment illegal.  They picketed the circuses and harassed the patrons.  Among all the other outrages of the Social Justice Warriors I never considered how this particular campaign would impact the world I live in.  A few years ago, I went with my grandsons to the Ringling Brothers show and there were the elephants.  All was as it should be.

Today I read that Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus was going out of business this year.  The last performance will be this spring.  Reading the article I discovered that the last year or two the circus finally caved in to the pressure and eliminated the elephants from the circus.  The circus officials attributed the large drop in attendance to this change.  The article said the Barnum and Bailey Circus was 146 years old and was actually older than baseball.  So, the SJWs killed the circus.

Well, that’s about the perfect emblem of our era.  Politically correct harassment and knee-jerk regulation strangled one of the most legendary symbols of happiness and childhood adventure.

For the activists who supposedly did all this for the sake of the elephants, I think it might be interesting to consider what the law of unexpected consequences might have to say about this development.  Now that children won’t be thinking about elephants as much anymore there’s a chance they won’t grow up quite as interested in elephants.  Currently, elephant populations are under enormous pressure in their native ranges.  In fact, both Asian and African elephants are being decimated by the combined pressures of habitat destruction and poaching.  A time may come when only a concerted effort by conservationists using heroic efforts will preserve a population of elephants.  This would require a large amount of money on a continuous basis.  This money will not come from Asia or Africa.  I think it is entirely possible that if governments aren’t in a position to underwrite something like this for political and financial reasons it will require the sympathy of individuals in first-world countries to make this effort possible.  However, if elephants are no longer a popular or common concept perhaps there will be little interest in underwriting their well-being.  So, if Dumbo isn’t a figure that parents remember fondly, maybe they won’t bring their kids to see the new version.  And one day the kids will be unaware that elephants are any more interesting than sewer rats.  And when they drop off the face of the earth the activists can rail against the callous ignorance and selfishness of people.  And no one will know or care.

In the weeks and months going forward President Trump may be able to make many American institutions and aspects of life “great again.”  Unfortunately, I don’t see any hope of making the Greatest Show on Earth “great again” or even making it again at all.  And we are all poorer for it.