David Attenborough Memoir Has A Captive Audience Here

9781473665958There is a reason why David Attenborough is the name that appears most frequently in these pages over the last seven years. So how did I miss this publication date nine months ago? Now there are several reviews and I am just late to the table. Nevermind that. Just read some of what Frans de Waal, the most recent reviewer, has to say:

The soothing, authoritative voice of David Attenborough has become such a widely recognized feature of nature documentaries that there are now all sorts of spinoffs. Funny animations show gorillas munching on leaves while gossiping about their encounter with the pith-helmeted explorer. Spoof documentaries of our species’ mating rituals show young men drinking beer in a Canadian bar while Attenborough’s voice-over notes that “the air is heavy with the scent of females.” In my classes at Emory University, I show so many snippets of BBC documentaries that I need to warn students that not all of our knowledge about animal behavior comes from this omnipresent talking gentleman. He is just the narrator.

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David Attenborough searching for armadillos. Photograph from David Attenborough

But “just” doesn’t do justice to his role, because Attenborough co-wrote the programs and the insertion of his persona into almost every scene is deliberate. It is the key to the success of “Life on Earth,” “The Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth” and all those other BBC nature series we love. It all started with a 1950s television program featuring animals from the London Zoo. The animals were brought into a studio, where the famous biologist Julian Huxley handled them while explaining their anatomy, habits and special skills. The occasional escapes and other mishaps on this live program greatly contributed to its entertainment value.People wanted more — and they particularly wanted information about animals in their natural habitat. But how to give them this without losing the human-animal interaction they liked so much? The BBC simply moved the hands-on approach out of the studio, a formula followed by nature programs ever since. Attenborough became their star presenter, filmed in distant locations while capturing or holding wild animals. Even the zoo connection was maintained, because all of those animals, once captured, were then to be shipped to London. It is not the kind of mission we approve of nowadays, but without it the West might never have gotten interested in wildlife to begin with. We started by shooting exotic species for their skins and bones and trapping them for our zoos, and only recently moved to worrying about their survival in the wild and the health of the planet in general. This history is symbolized by the transformation of Attenborough himself from a talking and writing crocodile hunter to the greatest living advocate of the global ecosystem.

The “Zoo Quest” television series as well as Attenborough’s book about it, “Adventures of a Young Naturalist,” report on the action-packed expeditions of a small team of Englishmen to faraway places with names like Wailamepu, Arakaka, Borobudur, Asunción, Komodo and Ita Caabo. The team’s main goal was to bring back live specimens that no other zoo in the world possessed. They captured a 10-foot caiman (by luring him to stick his snout through a lasso), a manatee, a peccary named Houdini (because of its frequent escapes), a baby orangutan, a 12-foot python, a giant anteater, a bear cub and tons of other animals. Many captures seemed extremely dangerous, not only for the humans involved but also for the animals. They even tricked a wild Komodo dragon into a trap baited with goat carcasses. After first having stayed completely silent around these giant lizards so as not to disturb them — to the surprise of the locals, who knew how hard of hearing they are — the camera crew noticed the dragons were unafraid and they walked right up to them to take pictures. It all ended well, but this was before we knew about the dragon’s venomous bite capable of bringing down pigs and deer. The captured dragon was one of the very few animals that regulations forced them to leave behind.

Attenborough relates his adventures of 60 years ago with typical British wit, as when he felt obliged to sample cassiri, a drink made from cassava bread assiduously pre-chewed by women in a Guyanan village. He had to overcome the smell of vomit that rose from the drink: “I felt it would be extremely impolite to refuse it,” he writes, “but at the same time I could not dismiss from my mind the method of its manufacture.”…

Read the whole review here.

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