by John Walsh with Robert Gannon
(E.P. Dutton & Co., 1967. 224 pages, hardcover.)
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
One can still find battered copies of Time Is Short And The Water Rises through online book search services, often selling for less than the orignal cover price of $6.95, plus postage. My copy was discarded years ago by Central School District #1, in the Town of Rockland, New York.
Time Is Short And The Water Rises ought to be reprinted and returned to school libraries, not only as a great animal rescue story but also as an unrecognized classic of the integration era–with a preface pointing out that the Surinamese descendants of escaped slaves whom John Walsh and co-author Robert Gannon described as “Bushnegroes” were at the time usually called much worse. Politically incorrect as “Bushnegroes” is today, it was at the time of publication in 1967 a euphemism used with polite intent.
John Walsh, age 23 when the story began in March 1964, was a young Boston Irish cruelty investigator employed by the Massachusetts SPCA.
The height of career ambition for many of his schoolmates was to become a police officer or firefighter, but because Walsh loved animals–all animals–he became an “animal cop” and rescuer instead. Walsh worked mostly with dogs, cats, and “nuisance wildlife” such as raccoons and skunks. In a neighbor’s basement Walsh kept pet snakes. That made him the closest approach to a jungle wildlife expert that the International Society for the Protection of Animals could find on short notice.
ISPA was formed in 1959 by a merger of programs of the Massachusetts SPCA, Royal SPCA of Britain, and the Humane Society of the United States, then only five years old.
Another merger, in 1981 with the Dutch-based World Federation for the Protection of Animals, created the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which in 2014 renamed itself World Animal Protection.
Summoned to meet the big boss
Walsh became perhaps the most renowned hands-on animal rescuer of his time. He was the public face of WSPA from inception until his retirement, after he helped to lead a rescue mission to the beleaguered Kabul Zoo following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2003.
In early 1964, however, Walsh was among the junior members of the MSPA staff. He had investigated dog thefts for use in laboratories and had assisted in cockfighting raids that led to more than 200 arrests, but was nonetheless a bit surprised to be summoned to the office of Eric H. Hansen, then president of both the MSPCA and ISPA.
Hansen had studied medicine until, as he put it in 1937, he was advised at age 20 that he showed more promise of becoming a successful undertaker. A chance meeting with then-American SPCA president Sydney Coleman in 1923 while swimming at the New York City YMCA led to a job in the ASPCA dog licensing office.
Had witnessed catastrophic flooding
Coleman eventually recommended Hansen to head the Humane Society of Missouri. In that capacity Hansen in 1937 frustratedly witnessed catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi River, unable to do much to help the thousands of animal victims due to lack of funding, equipment, and trained rescue personnel.
Hansen in an article for The National Humane Review, published by the American Humane Association, envisioned the humane community coming together to create a national or even international disaster relief service to rescue animals from hell and high water.
Coleman by then headed the American Humane Association, and hired Hansen as general manager, in part to revitalize the long dormant AHA Red Star Relief Service as an all-animals disaster relief agency. But World War II interfered. Formed during World War I to help horses, the Red Star Relief Service helped horses and war dogs during World War II, then fell semi-dormant again for decades.
Operation Noah reprised
Moving on to head the Massachusetts SPCA from 1945 until his death in 1965, Hansen resurrected his ideas about disaster relief after receiving a desperate appeal from Jan Michels, secretary of the Surinam SPCA. Michels described how the completion of the Afobaka Dam on the Upper Surinam River had begun to inundate 870 miles of dense rainforest, leaving thousands of animals stranded on fast-disappearing small islands and in the tops of trees.
Michels sought funding help for an animal rescue operation modeled after Operation Noah, a now little-remembered and even then obscure rescue operation conducted after the 1958 closure of the Kariba Dam on the Zambesi River in what is now Zimbabwe.
(See also The biggest animal rescue in 10,000 years.)
Concluded Michels, “Time is short and the water rises.”
Hansen dispatched Walsh with multiple purposes in mind. One of them was to establish the global reputation of the International Society for the Protection of Animals. Another was to demonstrate to the world the feasibility of large-scale animal disaster relief.
“You’re not God”
Hansen’s final instruction to Walsh: “You’re not God. You can’t determine what animals should or should not exist. Every animal–I don’t give a damn whether it’s a snake or a deer or a vulture–plays its role in the balance of nature. If we go into this project, you’re to save everything. Pull ’em out–every living creature. Draw no lines. If they’re there, save them. The only question is whether you can do it.”
Walsh recalls a meeting not unlike the famous meeting in 1946 at which then-Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to desegregate major league baseball.
Asked for his opinion, then Dodgers field manager Leo Durocher responded, “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a goddamned zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.”
“Non-white in one way or another”
Assigned to help all animals, Walsh soon discovered that this would require working with all sorts of people, too. His first impression of Surinam was that everyone he met upon arrival at the Zanderji Airport was “non-white in one way or another, with somehow surprising mixtures of Chinese, Negro, White, Indian, and Amerindian stirred up together,” speaking a language which was “a fascinating mixture of Dutch, English, and Portuguese, with a smattering of Yiddish, Spanish, French, West African, and imagination.”
Walsh was of the same background and generation as the parents who stoned black children a decade later during the 1974 court-ordered desegregation of the South Boston and Roxbury public schools. But, after a chapter exploring the often violent racial history of Surinam over the preceding several centuries, Walsh praised how the nation now “revels in happy miscegenation, resulting in a handsome group of Surinamers.”
At the time of publication, seventeen U.S. states still had laws against interracial marriage. Time Is Short And The Water Rises was already in pre-press production when the U.S. Supreme Court on June 12, 1967 struck down the miscegenation laws in Loving vs. Virginia–and the last of those laws remained on the books in Alabama, though unenforced, until 2000.
The Loving case, coincidentally, was documented by Hope Ryden, one of the same filmmakers who documented Operation Gwamba in Surinam. [“Gwamba” is a local corruption of “game”]
“I’d have to surpass them in courage”
Walsh, meanwhile, observed that in Surinam, “Usually the white man stands there and waits until everything is loaded and a place is made for him to sit down.” This struck him as wrong.
“I decided,” he recounts, “that first, I wouldn’t ask the men to do anything I wouldn’t do and second, I’d have to surpass them in courage to gain their respect.”
Walsh with effort learned to speak enough of the two local languages, Taki-Taki and Saramaccan, to direct multiple crews eventually including 246 people. Many of them were hired from the 43 human communities that were inundated as the dam impoundment filled.
9,737 animals counted
Over the next 18 months Operation Gwamba rescued more than 10,000 animals, of whom the participants remembered to count 9,737, constituting the first comprehensive species inventory of the Surinam lowland rainforest.
Most numerous were the 2,104 three-fingered sloths, 1,051 nine-banded armadillos, 973 tortoises, 927 tree porcupines, and 840 two-fingered sloths. There were 671 deer and 528 monkeys. Rarest were a margay and a domestic cat.
Walsh et al also rescued only one capybara, but capybara are semi-aquatic and usually swam to safety without human help.
Relocating the animals to suitable new habitat was apparently not a problem, as wildlife in highlands surrounding the dam impoundment had been hunted to scarcity, and the rising water mostly just moved the marshy water’s edge habitat favored by most of the animals to a slightly higher elevation.
“The Bushnegroes ate rice with fish,” Walsh wrote. “I didn’t allow them to eat any of the [rescued] animals. Compassion for wild things was a wholly new experience for them, and I didn’t want to push my luck too far. For the first time in their lives they were being forced to think of gwamba as something other than food. If the men really wanted meat, they could get it when they visited their home villages, every second or third weekend. In camp, they were vegetarians,” except when they caught fish.
Walsh himself also became quasi-vegetarian, since “meat just wasn’t readily available,” except for dried pigs’ tails. Having apparently never known a vegetarian to that point in his life, he observed with evident surprise that “My health suffered not at all.”
Visitors, besides Hope Ryden, included Queen Juliana of The Netherlands and her husband, World Wildlife Fund cofounder Prince Reinhard.
Operation Gwamba began winding down coincidental with Hansen’s death at age 62 in June 1965.
The Afobaka Dam reservoir would continue to fill until 1971, but after the first phase of the impoundment the water rose relatively slowly, allowing animals more opportunity to relocate themselves. Rescuing more than 100 animals a day at peak, Walsh and crew by September 1965 struggled to find even one animal per day in need of their help.
Wrapping up the project, Walsh was pleased to overhear some of his employees explaining to their uncomprehending countrymen the ethical motivations for the rescue efforts.
“Maybe the sons of Tony, and Wimpy, and Sime, and the other couple of hundred men will have compassion passed on to them,” Walsh hoped.
“Refused to accept that white-manization automatically is good”
“The words ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilized’ don’t mean what they seem to,” Walsh concluded of his work in Surinam. “I refused to accept the maxim that ‘civilization,’ or rather, white-manization, automatically is good.”
Those were radical words in 1967, expressing an idea still difficult for many people to accept.
Walsh returned to Boston with a dog found in a flooded village. Walsh had nursed the once emaciated and parasite-ridden dog back to health, but Walsh himself suffered from a misdiagnosed case of “rabies” contracted from a vampire bat.
His recovery took months. Within the next two years, however, Walsh led an early seal hunting protest in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a rescue of starving huskies inside the Arctic Circle, and a flood relief mission to Italy.
In 2000 Susan E. Goodman reprised Walsh’s adventures in Surinam in Animal Rescue: The Best Job There Is, a Simon & Schuster “Ready to Read” book for young children.
Goodman also summarized Walsh’s work in relief of the Kuwait Zoo, where only 29 of 442 animals survived the 1990 Persian Gulf War, and in Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. But there is as yet no comprehensive John Walsh biography or autobiography.