Friday, October 21, 2011

A p3 True Animal Story: The seldom-considered down-side of borderline extinction

There's a great moment in Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (the company motto: “We solve the whole crime. We find the whole person.”) when a protagonist finds himself face-to-beak with one of the last of the dodo birds, on the island of Mauritius not long before the poor creatures were finally clubbed into pointless anthropogenic extinction near the end of the seventeenth century:

A large cross bird was looking and Richard and Richard was looking at a large cross bird. Richard was looking at the bird as if it was the most extraordinary thing that he had ever seen in his life, and the bird was looking at Richard as if defying him to find its beak even remotely funny.

Once it had satisfied itself that Richard did not intend to laugh, the bird regarded him instead with a sort of grim irritable tolerance and wondered if he was just going to stand there or actually do something useful and feed it. It padded a couple of steps back and a couple of steps to the side and then just a single step forward again on great waddling yellow feet. It then looked at him again, impatiently, and squarked an impatient squark. It then bent forward and scraped its great absurd red beak across the ground as if to give Richard the idea that this might be a good area to look for things to give it to eat.

“It eats the nuts of the calvaria tree,” called out Reg to Richard.

The big bird look sharply up at Reg in annoyance, as if to say that it was perfectly clear to any idiot what it ate. It then looked back aty Richard once more and stuck its head on one side as if it had suddenly been struck with the thought that perhaps it was an idiot it had to deal with, and that it might need to reconsider its strategy accordingly.

“There are one or two on the ground behind you,” called Reg softly.

In a trance of astonishment Richard turned awkwardly and saw one or two large nuts lying on the ground. He bent and picked one up, glancing at Reg, who gave him a reassuring nod. Tentatively he held the thing up to the bird, which leaned forward and pecked it sharply from between his fingers. Then, because Richard's hand was still stretched out, the bird knocked it irritably aside with its beak.

Once Richard had withdrawn to a respectful distance, it stretched its neck up, closed its large yellow eyes and seemed to gargle gracelessly as it shook the nut down its neck into its maw. Whereas before it had been a cross dodo, it was at least now a cross, fed dodo, which was probably about as much as it could hope for in this life.

It made a slow, waddling, on-the-spot turn and padded back into the forest whence it had come, as if defying Richard to find the little tuft of curly feathers stuck up on top of its backside even remotely funny.

“I only come to look,” said Reg in a small voice, and glancing at him, Dirk was discomfited to see that the old man's eyes were brimming with tears that he quickly brushed away, “really, it is not for me to interfere -- “

Richard came scurrying breathlessly up to them.

“Was that a dodo?" he exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Reg, “one of only three left at this time. The year is 1676. They will all be dead within four years, and after that, no one will ever see them again. Come,” he said, “let us go."

Part of the problem for dodos is -- or, I suppose, was -- that they just weren't shrewd enough to realize the vital importance of keeping their distance from the big featherless bipeds. A bad move, it's true; but there's a reason that “dodo” isn't much of a compliment nowadays.

While Adams was researching dodoiana for that scene, he became interested in learning more about those other creatures teetering on the brink of extinction in our own time. The result was a fascinating, wistful travelog called Last Chance to See.

In 2009, the BBC launched a television series of the same name in which Stephen Fry, as stand-in for his late friend Adams, travels to remote spots on the globe to record some of the creatures still barely hanging onto existence by their toes, claws, talons, or prehensile tails.

(One of the ironies that Adams discovered while researching Last Chance is that some endangered species, such as the komodo dragon, may be able to survive only to the extent that they can be made into a spectacle for public broadcasting documentarians and ecotourism marketers. The fanciful notion that they might deserve to survive simply on their own ontological merits, apart from their place in anyone's business model, has never really seemed to catch on.)

I bring all that up because of this cult-following incident which, at first, reminded me of Adams' fictional human-dodo encounter. An example of an almost-extinct species, sporting a bizarre-looking beak, more grumpy and irritated than alarmed about the presence of these ridiculous looking creatures without feathers, stalks out of the cover of the forest, waddles directly up to a fascinated human, and stares him down, clearly expecting, feeling entitled to . . . something.

Then it all goes terribly, terribly wrong:

(If you're reading this in FB Notes, click here to see the video. 
And believe me -- you really want to watch the video before going any further.)

Oh, dear. Talk about taking one for the team. Zoologist Mark Carwardine, for whom the epithet “the ultimate wingman” does not seem extreme, was an astonishingly good sport about that experience, although he clearly didn't find the whole thing nearly as amusing as (the unmolested) Fry did.

(Before looking it up, I had deduced that the poor fellow must be an extremely dedicated zoologist rather than, say, a mere production assistant or a co-host. The latter groups would surely have contractual protections against that sort of on-camera treatment by the talent.)

Looking at the incident from the point of view of the bird (a male kakapo dubbed Sirocco), though, I suppose we should be at least a little forgiving. A seldom-considered down-side of borderline extinction must surely be the severely limited opportunities for makin' whoopee. And unlike the hapless dodo, this fellow was not about to march blithely into extinction without putting up a fight. No going gentle into that good night for Sirocco. He rode that poor man's head like a rented mule -- a little feathered Slim Pickens astraddle his own H-bomb.

(Of course, why the zoologist allowed the bird to begin a second ascent into the saddle is another and altogether more disturbing question.)

All that being said, though, I should assure p3 readers that my own parrot, Pardoe,  has never behaved like this. But I'm also not letting him watch this clip. No sense putting ideas in his head at his age.

(Hat tip to Mario Piperni.)

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