Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Loneliest Liberal: Primates in a panic

Scenes actual or created

By James Knudsen

For anyone who is interested, I still have two kittens available for adoption. They’re up to date on their shots, recently “altered,” playful, affectionate, and best of all, free. Cats have always been in the background of my life. As a child, my bedroom (and box-spring mattress) served as the nursery to a litter of four kittens. As an adult, cats with names like Jimmy, Mo, Gypsy, and Prince have been in my home or the homes of significant others.
    In my youth I educated myself with the help of a pocket-size book, purchased at a museum, that covered all the wild species as well as the domestic breeds. Did you know white cats are a breed and prone to deafness? Later I received a Time-Life book that covered the major wild species of cats. It included Blake’s poem “The Tyger” and the now infamous photo sequence of a leopard chasing and killing a young baboon.
    I add the label infamous because years later it was revealed that the incident, captured in 1966 by photographer John Dominis, was staged. As Dominis explained it, a hunter in Botswana had captured a leopard. Usually, if you put a baboon in front of a leopard, the baboon would take off for the nearest tree. Well, this one didn’t. It took off into open ground and then, with the big cat bearing down on it for the kill, the baboon wheeled around and screamed into the face of the leopard, temporarily startling the predator. But then the leopard tackled its quarry, enveloped its tiny primate head in its jaws, and crushed its skull. And it was all caught on film.*
    Apparently, primates don’t make good choices when they’re in a state of panic. In a 1993 interview, Dominis explained that setting up “shots” was common practice in those days. You want a picture of a big cat with its kill? Shoot a gazelle, tuck it in a tree, a big cat will find it, and Life magazine gets a great picture.

During the 1970’s, I could be found on Sunday evenings watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. (Note to the editor: I’m pretty sure I remember this next part:) During the credits the announcer would inform us, most of whom were not paying attention, that “all scenes whether actual or created depict authenticated fact.” “Or created”? My jaundiced, adult eye now sees all the tell-tale signs in those decades-old episodes that point to Wild Kingdom’s having been a carefully scripted and orchestrated affair. And yes, there were some pieces that were captured as they happened, but there were also scenes that were manufactured.
    John Dominis 1966, Marlin Perkins and Wild Kingdom 1963, and the media that made it to the newsstand or airwaves 50 years ago passed through many filters. Today, there are no filters. The internet and 24-hour news channels are hungry beasts with insatiable appetites for content. Viewing hour-long dramas from that era, we may find the story-lines contrived, the stereotypes offensive and the casting – well, Ben Cartwright is 40 and so are his sons. Still, the presence of craft can’t be denied. And, I would argue, the same can be said for the non-fiction programs of that era. So while we now have infinitely more choice, the median quality is pitifully sub-prime. Not surprising, when you calculate that news departments are now trying to create the equivalent of 48 nightly news programs – each day. And what is the result?

The image of that screaming baboon came to mind several weeks ago when I stumbled upon a YouTube video from the summer of 2009. The scene, actual not created, is a town hall meeting in Delaware, and the guest – or sacrificial lamb, depending on your point of view – is then Representative Mike Castle (R), Delaware’s at-large congressman. The video features a woman, now known as “the Birther in Red,” demanding that Republican office holders do something about the Kenyan occupying the White House, followed by her shrieking, “I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!!!”
    Now, for any Republican – or would-be Republican, if such a thing exists at this moment in time – I am not in any way suggesting that Republicans are apes or their lesser evolved relatives, monkeys. After all, have you ever seen a monkey play golf?
    The other glaring distinction is that the baboon is screaming into the face of real danger as opposed to imagined danger. Still, I can’t help but think that the YouTube scene was created, that, left to their own devices, Republicans, Democrats, and all the other monkeys running around will, when they sense something amiss, run up the nearest tree/country club and chatter amongst themselves while observing their environment for actual threats. But that didn’t happen and I suspect someone tucked a leopard into the gala:

Congressman Castle would go on to run for the Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden, but lose in the Republican primary to Christine O’Donnell, who would later run a television ad proclaiming, “I’m not a witch.” And four days ago, the Republican Party officially made Donald J. Trump its nominee for President of the United States. Like I said, primates don’t make good choices when they’re panicked.
* In photographer John Dominis’s own words:

I had photographed some animals before, though I certainly wasn’t a cat expert. Pat Hunt, the head of Life’s Nature department, lined up a hunter in Botswana who was a hunter for zoos. He had caught a leopard, and he put the leopard in the back of the truck, and we went out into the desert. He would release the leopard, and most of the time the leopard would chase the baboons and they would run off and climb trees. I had photographed all this. But for some reason one baboon didn’t get off. It turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it. We didn’t know that this was going to happen. I just turned on the camera motor, and I got this terrific shot of this confrontation.
Copyright © 2016 by James Knudsen


  1. The analogy is good, but the photographed event repulsive. It harks back to shows that the Romans enjoyed in their coliseums--pitting various animals against one another. The voyeuristic pleasures that these spectacles feed are unworthy of any concept of decent civilization.

    1. Bill, your comment reminds me of nature programs (such as from National Geographic or Disney), which almost invariably shows predators stalking, striking, and eating prey. It's trying to be torn between gladness for the predator and sadness for the prey, or, when the prey escapes, sadness for the predator and gladness for the prey.

    2. Bill, I remembered after commenting on watching "Nature" that each of us experiences predation (at far remove) every time we have animal flesh for a meal. The perhaps single quasi-religious thing I do is acknowledge briefly (silently to myself as I am about to take my first bite) the death of the animal whose flesh I am about to consume. When I am mindful, the sadness is the same as watching a pack of wolves take down a sick bison or a calf....

    3. Bill, you pointed out in an email comment on my comment above that "to cause predation to happen to amuse ourselves is decadent, disgusting, and arrogant." This made me realize that I had conveniently forgotten that the scene had been staged - wasn't "natural" - so my comment was off the mark. But, in the stagers' defense, they don't seem to have been expecting the baboon to die, so I doubt that "caused" is appropriate. But maybe it is: when we take an action to achieve one outcome, but the action has unintended, different consequences, didn't we, in some sense, "cause" those consequences? The baboon's fate, in such a situation, does seem sadder, even somehow tragic.

    4. And I would like to pay further tribute to the unfortunate baboon. I am grateful for the opportunity; I do take seriously my claim to have a "global consciousness" of animal suffering.
          And I think I would go even further in condemning the stagers: they were not just arrogant and decadent, but also forgetful of who they (and the baboon) were - they were not mindful.