Four older books offer current lessons:
The Wilderness Family: At Home with Africa’s Wildlife by Kobie Kruger
Ballantine Books (c/o Random House, 299 Park Ave., New York, NY 10171), 2001. 381 pages, hardcover, $26.95.
The Daily Coyote, by Shreve Stockton
Simon & Schuster, 1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2008. 279 pages, paperback. $23.00.
The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog, by Nancy Ellis-Bell
Harmony Books (c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2008. 245 pages, hardcover. $23.00.
Of Parrots & People, by Mira Tweti
Penguin Group USA (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2008. 300 pages, paperback. $25.95.
Behind The Wilderness Family, The Daily Coyote, The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog, and an entire genre of similar books which since 1960 have reshaped public opinion about wildlife, stands the ghost of George Adamson and the influence of Pat O’Neill, a Kenyan who later inherited the Broadlands equine stud farm near Cape Town, South Africa, and converted it into the Kalu Animal Trust.
In 1954, in her early twenties, O’Neill raised and returned to the wild an orphaned lion cub named Tana. George Adamson, then a game warden in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, was among the initially skeptical observers.
Another keen observer was George Adamson’s Austrian-born wife Joy. Already in her third marriage, Joy Adamson was known even then for the ferocious temper that led to her murder in 1980. Her killer, a juvenile employee, testified that he was afraid she would kill him for driving her car without permission, and alleged that she had shot at other employees.
George Adamson was not afraid of her, nor was he afraid of much. He died in 1989, in successful defense of a female colleague, racing his Land Rover at a gang of poachers who had him far outnumbered and outgunned.
The story behind the Born Free story
One day in 1956 George Adamson shot a lioness at close range as she charged him and another man. He then discovered the lioness’ three cubs. He took the cubs home to Joy.
Acquaintances suggested that was the bravest thing he ever did.
Instead of shooting George, Joy emulated O’Neill, raised all three cubs successfully, and wrote the 1960 international best-seller Born Free about returning one of them, Elsa, to the wild.
Many dozens and perhaps hundreds of books have followed the Born Free template, including Joy Adamson’s own sequels.
The Wilderness Family: At Home with Africa’s Wildlife
In The Wilderness Family (2001), Kruger National Park ranger’s wife Kobie Kruger recounted her attempt to reprise the O’Neill and Adamson lion cub rescues. She discovered that modern Africa no longer includes safe places to release rehabilitated lions––but it barely did 50 years earlier.
The Wilderness Family, as published in the U.S. and Britain, is actually two former South African best sellers combined under one cover. The first book, Mahlangeni, appeared in 1994. All Things Wild & Wonderful followed in 1996.
Kobus and Kobie Kruger in 1980 took over management of the remote Mahlangeni ranger station, taking their three young daughters with them into the bush.
The half of The Wilderness Family that was originally issued as Mahlangeni covers the Krugers’ 11 years at the station in vignettes often centered on their relationships with local wildlife.
They rescue, rehabilitate, and release various animals, tolerate some who make pests of themselves, shoot to scare rather than kill a potentially homicidal hippo, fight poachers, and Kobus is much distressed when he shoots a rampaging elephant to save himself.
Kobus appears to have had a very different outlook from much of the rest of the South African wildlife management establishment, whose heavy-handed support of trophy hunting, the sale of ivory from culled elephants, complicity with canned hunts, predator control killing of foxes, jackals, and caracals, and opposition to wildlife rescue are notorious.
After a November 1990 transfer to the Crocodile Bridge tourist camp area, the Kruger family tried to reprise the Born Free story in earnest. All Things Wild & Wonderful closely follows their rehabilitation of an orphaned lion cub and their discovery that there is no wild habitat available for captive-reared lions these days, nor many openings at reputable sanctuaries.
The usual fate of captive-reared lions, the Krugers learned, is death at a canned hunt.
Hard lesson learned
The Krugers found a seemingly decent captive habitat for their young lion at the Pamuzinda Wildlife Park in Zimbabwe, a branch of the Lion & Cheetah Park founded by Viv Bristow and family in 1968.
The Krugers’ lion was used to breed more lions, however, and may have been among the 34 lions and hundreds of other animals who were seized in early September 2003 by “war veterans,” meaning supporters of former dictator Robert Mugabe (1924-2019) who overran the Lion & Cheetah Park.
The Krugers learned that Born Free cannot be reprised. The Wilderness Family spends little time drawing conclusions from their experience, yet the lessons between the lines are clear.
Lions are little tolerated in Africa these days, outside of securely fenced and guarded national parks and game farms.
The Daily Coyote
Lions’ iconic status might be compared to that of the North American timber wolf, appreciated at a safe distance as a tourist attraction, but hated by ranchers in gross disproportion to their actual role in dispatching sick, injured, and ill-attended livestock.
Coyotes, who scavenge far more than they kill, are even more intensely detested than wolves in much of the rural U.S. especially in Wyoming. Notorious for antipathy toward the 1995 Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, Wyoming also has probably the most aggressive coyote-killing program anywhere.
Shreve Stockton in The Daily Coyote begins her version of the Elsa story by moving to rural Wyoming and becoming romantically involved with a government coyote killer.
Orphaned coyote pup
Years earlier, as single father of two girls, ages 10 and 12, Mike the coyote killer allowed the girls to explore the rugged countryside on four-wheelers while he built a house. The elder girl flipped her four-wheeler and killed herself, leaving Mike to cope with grief and guilt between rounds of trapping coyotes, gassing them in their dens, and strafing them from aircraft.
Though Mike professes to dislike the job, he tells Stockton that if he did not kill problem coyotes, ranchers and sport hunters would kill even more of them. And then he brings Stockton an orphaned coyote pup.
Through taking photos of the pup and e-mailing them to friends, Stockton discovers she can supplement her slim income by selling subscriptions to an online publication called The Daily Coyote. As it becomes an Internet hit, she lands the book contract that produces the book of the same title.
When the pup becomes unruly at about age one, while Stockton is writing the book, she castrates him by “banding.” This consists of using a tight plastic band to constrict the blood flow to the testicles until they die on the animal’s body and drop off. Though often used on livestock, banding has never been considered humane practice, and has never been recommended for use with canines.
Throughout The Daily Coyote, Stockton repeats the usual clichés of city folks who move to the countryside about how she is learning oh, so very much that city people don’t know about living outdoors with nature and the elements.
Yet, as a rural dweller for most of my life, often with coyotes as closer neighbors than humans, and having done most of the same routine farm chores for far longer, my impression is that Stockton is a much better writer than observer.
For example, Stockton details and documents that her rural Wyoming neighbors are often ignorant, indifferent, and gratuitously violent toward animals, nature, and each other, but opts to assimilate by mostly overlooking the mayhem, rather than exacerbate cultural conflict.
Except in a short-lived stint as a substitute school teacher, soon after her arrival, she goes native.
Eli the cat
Stockton castrates her coyote only after determining that he has become so habituated to humans as to preclude returning him to the wild.
This was probably inevitable. But even after castrating the coyote, she has behavioral issues with him, only partially resolved by her embrace of advice from “The Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan. Her cat Eli, however, keeps the coyote in line.
While Stockton gradually learns that sexual issues are far from the only causes of dangerous behavior by canines, she and the alleged coyote expert Mike appear to overlook or ignore Eli’ ssecrets—which are really no secrets at all.
First, Eli is never afraid of the coyote. Second, both the coyote and Eli are hardwired by evolution to recognize that a cat, as a pure predator, is boss. A coyote, as a scavenger, avoids conflict with a cat.
A cat is a puma
Coyotes in suburban habitats routinely kill cats from ambush, but run from frontal confrontations with cats, as do most dogs, even those who chase any cat who runs.
To the coyote pup, Eli might as well be a puma, though a puma who will sometimes play with him.
This is not a relationship that Stockton or any human can fully replicate, but Millan’s purported understanding of how humans can maintain dominance over dogs, without resorting to abusive treatment, could have been derived from watching how cats do it.
(Note that Millan’s claims are not always supported by his behavior. See What on earth was celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan thinking?, Will trainer Cesar Millan be charged for “hog-dog rodeo”?, and Cesar Millan walks: what was the L.A. County prosecutor thinking?)
The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog
The Parrot Who Thought She Was A Dog is a suburban variant of the Born Free story, featuring a rescued bird rather than a mammal.
Author Nancy Ellis-Bell, knowing she cannot return an exotic parrot to the wild in North America, far from any semblance of the parrot’s wild habitat, instead allows the parrot to fly freely outdoors by day, hoping she will return home at night.
Such arrangements are not uncommon, but the birds seldom live long. Even parrots large enough to fend off cats and crows tend to become easy pickings for birds of prey. Ellis-Bell’s parrot fares no better than most.
Joy Adamson, Stockton, Ellis-Bell, and others writing in this genre walk a dangerous line between educating readers about wild animals and inspiring others to acquire them as exotic pets especially in the alluring and seemingly all-excusing name of rescue.
The first demonstration of the potential perils of success in the Born Free genre came when keeping big cats as pets exploded in popularity after Born Free became a 1966 film hit, declining only after the passage of federal legislation in 2003 that discouraged transporting exotic cats across state lines.
Gaird Wallig in A Red-Tailed Hawk Named Bucket (1980) may have walked the line most successfully. A one-time big cat keeper who was inspired by Born Free, Wallig applied the lessons learned from past mistakes in successfully rehabilitating and releasing the injured hawk, not far from Ellis-Bell’s home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Stockton and Ellis-Bell warn that coyotes and large parrots are not ideal pets for everyone, but both seem to enjoy the animals so much that their warnings may be ignored.
A plea against keeping captive parrots
Mira Tweti in Of Parrots & People opens with a preface about her deceased rainbow lorikeet Mango that might have become the beginning of another Born Free genre story, but Mango died young, at home.
After just three pages about him, Tweti races on into a twelve-part exploration of parrot abandonment, feral parrots, parrot breeding, parrot poaching and smuggling, and efforts to protect parrots in the wild, developed from her work as an investigative reporter and documentary film maker.
Subtitled “The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species,” Of Parrots & People is largely a plea against keeping captive parrots.
Several chapters expose how legislation intended to protect parrots has backfired in key respects.
For example, the 1973 law that prohibited importing wild-caught birds for the pet trade encouraged the rise of “birdy-milling,” as exploitative as “puppy-milling,” with even less regulatory supervision. Chapter six opens by reciting the failures of regulation to rectify conditions at Martha Scudder’s Parrot Depot in Roy, Washington.
The Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County pursued litigation and sought improvements to both local ordinances and state laws to deal with Scudder’s facility, and others like it, for at least seven years, to no avail.
Parrots raised for the pet trade still have no more protection than poultry raised for the pot, which means effectively none.
Later Tweti points out that the usual fate of parrots seized from smugglers coming across the Mexican border is to be quarantined indefinitely in Plexiglas cages, then be auctioned to buyers who include some of the same dealers who buy from smugglers.
Mexican parrot traffic
In her concluding chapters Tweti explores the Mexican side of the parrot traffic.
An estimated 65,000 -78,500 wild parrots and macaws are captured illegally each year, Defenders of Wildlife and the Mexican organization Teyeliz A.C. estimated in 2007,
More than 75% of the birds die before ever reaching a purchaser.
The Mexican parrot traffic is reputedly controlled by drug gangs whose conflicts in 2018-2021 alone killed more than 135,000 people. Amid the mayhem, police––as Tweti laments––tend to either be on the take from drug lords or preoccupied with staying alive.
But Mexican president Felipe Calderon Hinojosa on October 14, 2008 endorsed into a law a bill to ban the export and capture of all 22 species of Mexican wild parrots. The bill cleared the Mexican Senate in April 2008, 66-0 with one abstention.