True Grit

True Grit

When a storm surge swept dozens of wild horses and cattle from the coast of North Carolina, no one expected there to be survivors. Then hoofprints appeared in the sand.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 132


J.B. MacKinnon is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, as well as the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. He is the author or coauthor of five books of nonfiction, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches feature writing.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Sky Patterson
Illustrator: Luis Mazón

Published in October 2022.


The wild horses all have names. Ronald, for example, and Becky and Clyde. The names sound mundane, even for horses, but each is something like a badge of honor. For years now, the people of Cedar Island, North Carolina, have named each foal born to the local herd of mustangs after the oldest living resident who hasn’t already had a horse named for them. Every island family of long standing has this connection to the herd.

Cedar Island, located in a pocket of North Carolina known as Down East, is what passes for remote in the continental United States these days. Though it’s only 40 miles as the gull flies from the Cape Hatteras area, with its tourists and mortgage brokers, its restaurants with names like Dirty Dick’s Crab House, Cedar Island remains a place with only a scattering of people and businesses, where you can’t be certain of finding a restaurant meal—not so much as a plate of hush puppies—on a Sunday evening. Upon arrival you might not notice that Cedar Island is an island at all. Crossing the soaring Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge, which connects it to the mainland, what you pass over is easily mistaken for another of the region’s sleepy, curlicue rivers. In fact, this is the Thorofare, a skinny saltwater channel connecting the Pamlico Sound to the north and the Core Sound to the south. The Pamlico is one of the largest embayments on the U.S. coastline, while the Core is narrow and compact. Cedar Island stands between them, and all three are hemmed in by the Outer Banks.

I’ve just written that Cedar Island separates two sounds, and on maps this is true. Reality is less decisive. Swaths of the small island are sometimes underwater, depending on wind, tide, and season—in particular, hurricane season.

The shifting, amphibious nature of Cedar Island was never more apparent than on the morning of September 6, 2019. Under the whirling violence of Hurricane Dorian, maps lost all meaning. The Pamlico and Core Sounds joined to become a single, angry body of water, shrinking Cedar Island to a fraction of its acreage. It was no longer separated from the mainland by the thin blue line of the Thorofare, but by nearly six miles of ocean.

Most of the 250 or so people living on the island were safe, their homes built on a strip of not-very-high high ground precisely to weather the wrath of hurricanes. The wild horses—49 in all—were in much deeper trouble.

There were also some cows. The cows did not have names.

Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday.

There is no such thing as a truly wild cow. While Cedar Island’s cattle range more or less freely, the technical term for them is feral—they are the descendants of escapees from domestication. The island’s mustangs are feral, too, but while visitors often come to Cedar Island solely in hopes of seeing the Banker horses, as the area’s herds are known, next to no one makes a special trip to photograph the “sea cows.”

The cows are striking to look at, though. While they vary in color, many have a bleached-blonde coat, blending in with the pale sand and the glare of the sun on Cedar Island’s hammerhead northern cape, where both cattle and horses roam. Tourists are happy to see the cows, just not as happy as they are to see the horses. Here and across America, a mustang—mane flowing, hooves pounding the earth—is an embodiment of beauty and freedom. Cows are not.

For Cedar Islanders, the cows are part of what makes their home distinctive, a fond and familiar part of the community and its history. In fact, the cattle have been on the island far longer than the mustangs, who were transferred from the more famous Shackleford Banks herd three decades ago. But the relationship people on the island have with horses is different than the one they have with cows, in much the same way it is for people nearly everywhere.

“This used to be horse country,” said Priscilla Styron, who has lived on or near Cedar Island for 30 years and works at its ferry terminal. “Everybody rode, they had pony pennings, they had all kinds of stuff. Everybody was always riding horses.” As for the cows, there was a time not so long ago when an islander might round one up from the beach, take it home to graze and fatten up, then butcher it for meat.

As Hurricane Dorian approached Cedar Island, no one troubled themselves about either kind of animal. One islander, who called himself a “simple country boy” and asked not to be named, scoffed at the idea that wild creatures would brook being corralled and taken off-island to wait out the storm. Not that anyone thought that was needed, according to Styron. “They usually protect themselves. You don’t have to worry about them,” she said. “They can sense more than we can.” Cedar Island had never lost more than one or two members of its wild herds to a storm—and Down East sees more than its fair share of those.

In 2019, there were perhaps a couple dozen cattle on the island—no one knew for sure, because no one was keeping count, not even residents who were fond of their bovine neighbors. For at least some of the cows, Dorian was nothing new. Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday. A cow that was 20 years old in 2019 would have had close encounters with at least ten hurricanes: Dennis, Floyd, Isabel, Alex, Ophelia, Arthur, Matthew, Florence, and two named Irene. The herd could look to its elders for guidance.

Biologists only recently recognized that cows have complex social behaviors, involving depths of comprehension that we might not expect of animals stereotyped as grungy, placid, and dull-witted. A feral herd, for example, will organize nurseries by dividing calves into age groups, each usually overseen by one adult cow while the rest go out to graze. For this to work, the sitters need to understand that their role is to look after calves that are not their own, even if it means settling for low-grade fodder while others enjoy greener pastures. The calves have to grasp that they are under vigilance despite their mothers being out of sight.

No one documented how the cows responded as Dorian approached, but Mónica Padilla de la Torre, an evolutionary biologist, can give us a good idea. “They usually are not afraid of storms. They like storms,” Padilla said. “They like to be cool. They like shade. They appreciate when the rain comes.”

Even before the hurricane loomed on the southern horizon, the herd likely began to move—with that usual cattle slowness, that walking-on-the-moon gait—toward shelter. In the era before hurricanes were tracked by satellites and weather radar, cows were a useful predictor that one was coming. The migration, Padilla said, would have been initiated by the herd’s leaders. Cattle violently clash to establish a pecking order, and once that’s settled a benign dictatorship ensues. Leaders are granted the best places to eat and the best shade to lie in, and they make important decisions—like when to retreat to high ground in the face of a storm.

For Cedar Island’s cattle, high ground was a berm of brush-covered dunes between beach and marshland. There the cows grazed, chewed cud, and literally ruminated, passing rough forage through a digestive organ, the rumen, that humans lack. Far from appearing panicked, the herd was probably a bucolic sight, from the Greek word boukolos, meaning “cowherd.”

A close observer, Padilla said, might have noticed subtle differences among the animals: mothers that were watchful or unworried, calves that were playful or lazy, obvious loners or pairs licking or grooming each other. Padilla once spent several months studying cow communication—I found the urge to describe this as “cow-moo-nication” surprisingly strong—by memorizing the free-ranging animals she observed via nicknames like Dark Face and Black Udder. (She didn’t realize at the time that the latter was a perfect punning reference to the classic British TV comedy Blackadder. What is it about cows and puns?) On Cedar Island, Padilla said, there wasn’t simply a herd that was facing a storm. There was a group of individuals, each with its own relationships, including what Padilla doesn’t hesitate to call friendships.

Dorian arrived in the purest darkness of the first hours of September 6. Three days prior, it had ravaged the Bahamas with 185-mile-per-hour winds, tying the all-time landfall wind-speed record for an Atlantic cyclone. Some observers suggested giving it a rating of Category 6 on the five-point scale of hurricane strength. It had weakened by the time it reached North Carolina, but it was still a hurricane. Thick clouds blacked out the moon and stars; Cedar Island’s scattered lights hardly pierced the rain. Passing just offshore on its way to making true landfall at Cape Hatteras, the hurricane lashed the Pamlico and Core Sounds into froth and spray and sent sheets of sand screaming up the dunes. The scrubby canopy under which the cows likely took shelter, already permanently bowed by landward breezes, bent and shook in the teeth of the storm. A 110-mile-per hour gust on Cedar Island was the strongest measured anywhere in the state during Dorian’s passage.

When the eerie calm of Hurricane Dorian’s eye passed over the island, dropping wind speeds to only a strong breeze, there seemed to be little more to fear. There was still the back half of the storm to come, but Cedar Island residents, both human and not, had seen worse. Even in the off season, the North Carolina shore has hurricanes on its mind. If you see footage of a beach house collapsing in pounding surf, chances are it was shot on the Outer Banks. Drive around Down East and you’ll see many houses raised onto 12-foot stilts; in some homes, you reach the first floor by elevator. Maps show that much of the Outer Banks, including most of Cedar Island and huge swaths of mainland, will be underwater with a sea-level rise of just over a foot. Residents aren’t rushing to leave, though. A hardened sense of rolling with the punches prevails.

Yet with Dorian, something unusual happened as the center of the storm moved northward. At around 5:30 a.m., Sherman Goodwin, owner of Island’s Choice, the lone general store and gas station on Cedar Island, got a call from a friend who lived near the store. A storm surge was rising in the area, the friend said. Fifteen minutes later, as Goodwin drove through the dim first light of morning, the water was deep enough to splash over the hood of his Chevy truck, which was elevated by off-road suspension and mud-terrain tires. “It came in just like a tidal wave,” Goodwin said. “It came in fast.”

By the time Sherman and Velvet, his wife—“My mother really liked that movie National Velvet,” she told me—reached their shop, they had to shelter in the building. Velvet saw a frog blow past a window in the gale. A turtle washed up to the top of the entryway stairs. “It came to within one step of getting in the store,” Sherman said, referring to the water. A photograph shows the gas pumps flooded up to the price tickers.


To understand what happened on Cedar Island that morning, imagine blowing across the surface of hot soup, how the liquid ripples and then sloshes against the far side of the bowl. Dorian did the same thing to the Pamlico Sound, but with a steady, powerful wind that lasted hours.

The hurricane pushed water toward the mainland coast, which in the words of Chris Sherwood, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is “absolutely perfect” for taking in wind-driven water. The Bay, Neuse, Pamlico, and Pungo Rivers all flow into the Pamlico Sound through wide mouths that inhale water as readily as they exhale it. Much of the rest of the shoreline is an enormous sponge of marshes. What accumulated in this series of reservoirs was, in effect, a pile of water held in place by the wind.

People who know North Carolina’s sounds are aware of the tricks fierce wind can play. Coastal historian David Stick once noted that, during a hurricane, half a mile of seafloor in the lee of the Outer Banks can be left exposed as sound water is pushed westward. When that happens, a bizarre phenomenon can occur: A storm surge can come from the landward side, striking offshore islands in what’s sometimes called sound-side flooding. Scientists know it as a seiche (pronounced saysh).

When Dorian’s eye passed the Pamlico Sound, the seiche the storm had created began to collapse. Then winds from the southern half of the hurricane, which blow in the opposite direction from the storm’s leading edge, drove the water back the way it came. In a sense, the seiche was also running downhill; the ocean tide was falling in the predawn hours, while the hurricane, still pressing down on the Atlantic, forced water eastward, leaving behind a depression. These forces combined to send the seiche pouring out of the Pamlico Sound east toward the Atlantic, nine feet above the water level in the ocean.

The avalanche of seawater was truly vast, equal to about one-third of the average flow of the Amazon River, by far the highest-volume river on earth. The Amazon, however, meets the sea through a gaping river mouth. Dorian’s sound-side surge was trying to reach the open Atlantic past what amounted to a levee of Outer Banks islands with just a handful of bottleneck channels between them. At the southern end of the Pamlico Sound, there was an added obstacle: Cedar Island.

The water didn’t go around the island. It washed right over it.

The surge left nearly as quickly as it arrived, carrying on to the Outer Banks, where it hit the island of Ocracoke with a wall of water higher than anyone there had ever seen before. Once Dorian passed, floodwaters began receding. On Cedar Island they left thick, greasy muck in buildings and debris on the roads, but no serious injuries were reported. More than a third of the buildings on Ocracoke were damaged, but there were no known deaths.

The first news of losses from Cedar Island’s herds of horses and cattle came as soon as the ocean had calmed enough for islanders to go back to sea in their boats. “That’s when they saw a lot of them,” Styron said. “You know—floating.” That Cedar Islanders do not wear their hearts on their sleeves about such things is strongly conveyed by an anonymous source’s reaction when I asked how people felt about the dead animals. After an uncomfortable pause, he said, “You can pretty much guess that.” Then he added, “Mother Nature allowed them to be here, and I guess Mother Nature can also take them away.”

If anyone witnessed what transpired with Cedar Island’s feral herds, they haven’t said so publicly. Most likely, though, no one saw it, since the surge came without warning in the darkness, and the horses and cows often roamed far from people’s homes. The animals would not have been sound asleep in the predawn—feral creatures, like wild ones, are more vigilant through the night than human beings tucked tight in their homes. Still, they may have dropped their guard, sensing that they’d survived another hurricane.

Then suddenly, the sea moved onto the land. Nine feet of water covered the beaches. It drowned the marshes where the cattle fed on sea oats and seagrass, and flowed over the lower dunes. We know from Padilla’s research what the scene must have sounded like: high-pitched, staccato mooing—cows’ alarm calls—ringing out in the humid air, the bawling of calves competing with the howl of wind and surf. In waters rising at startling speed, mother cattle would have raced to find their young, as bovine friends struggled not to be separated.

Twenty-eight horses were swept away. No one knows exactly how many cows were carried off—four of them managed to remain on land, and locals would later estimate that between 15 and 20 were taken by the flood. The water likely lifted the animals off their hooves one by one, first the foals and calves, then the adults. They disappeared into the tempest.


The islands known collectively as the Core Banks, located southeast of Cedar Island, are nearly 40 miles long and rarely a mile wide. On maps they look like a skeletal finger pointing ruefully toward the North Atlantic. Like most barrier islands they’re low—about eight feet above sea level on average, with the highest dunes cresting 25 feet—and the whole of them are protected as the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Hurricanes always roughhouse barrier islands, but on the morning of September 7, 2019, the day after Hurricane Dorian hit, it was clear that this storm had been a beast of a different order.

Ahead of the cyclone, North and South Core Banks was broken by a single passage, Ophelia Inlet. After the storm, there were 99 additional channels through the islands—the banks had been sliced into 101 pieces. It didn’t seem right to call these cut-throughs inlets. They formed as outlets: The seiche that poured over Cedar Island then collided with the barrier islands, and when it did, it bored right through them. “We had never in the collective memory of the park seen a sound-side event like we saw after Hurricane Dorian,” said Jeff West, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore. “I did take quite a ribbing about the fact that I lost 20 percent of the park.”

West was on the first maintenance boat to sail from Cedar Island for the Outer Banks. Docking at a Park Service site a few miles up North Core Banks, he began driving an ATV along the beach. Fifty feet later he reached the first cut-through and, wading into it up to his neck, found an animal carcass. He didn’t take the time to determine whether it was horse or cow. “Sometimes large fish find them tasty,” he told me.

Cape Lookout staff would eventually locate the bodies of nearly two dozen dead horses and cattle, along with deer and seabirds. Most were arrayed along the open-ocean side of South Core Banks, likely having passed through Ophelia Inlet before washing up on the beach. The most far-flung horse and cattle carcasses were found near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, about 30 miles from where the animals first washed into the sea.

Cape Lookout workers buried the bodies that the tides didn’t take away.

Most of the media coverage of Dorian’s aftermath focused on the damage on Ocracoke Island. The first report about Cedar Island’s lost herds mentioned only that horses had drowned; the cows had to wait for follow-up articles. It was a blip in the news cycle, soon forgotten as Democrats in Congress sought to impeach Donald Trump.

A pressing question: Can cows swim? Yes, they can. Think of the Wild West, where cowboys guided their herds across deep rivers to fresh pasture or to market. The Cedar Island cattle had been seen swimming, too. One regular visitor described “little bitty calves” lining up to make a crossing to Hog Island, just southeast of Cedar Island in the Core Sound. “I’m like, ‘Don’t go. You’re not gonna make it. It’s a quarter-mile swim,’ ” he said. The calves made the trip with ease.

But it’s one thing to cross a narrow channel in calm seas, and quite another to swim through a hurricane. Only the sunniest optimist could have hoped for survivors from Cedar Island’s herds. “I’m thinking the way the wind was blowing, it was extremely hard to keep your head above water, swimming when you have waves crashing over,” said Pam Flynn, a retired kindergarten teacher and a Down Easter since 1972, who went looking for surviving animals. “I feel like their last few moments were torture and pain and fear. It was heartbreaking.”

A month passed. Wind and waves quickly filled in the channels created by the storm, but what was formerly the southern end of North Core Banks lingered on as a separate island: Middle Core Banks, which would stand alone for two years. One day in early October, members of a Cape Lookout resource-management team hopped on their all-terrain vehicles for a routine sweep up Middle Core Banks—almost daily, they’d search for sea turtle and bird nests in need of protection from the fond American pastime of driving on beaches. This time they spotted something else: the tracks of some large animal or other. They were too big to belong to a deer, and, with two toes instead of a hoof, could not have been made by a horse. They had to be the prints of a cow. A Cedar Island cow.

“Initially,” West said of being informed about the prints, “I did not believe it.”

Then the resource team sent him photos of the tracks, and West knew he had to see this survivor cow with his own eyes.

“It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

West grew up on a ranch near Temple, Texas, and had experience tracking cattle. It seemed like he might need it. In the days after the prints were discovered, the cow that left them proved elusive; to West’s knowledge, no one from the National Park Service had yet seen it. Cedar Island cattle are often active at night, moving swiftly like pale apparitions, and although Middle and North Core Banks are so narrow in spots that you can walk from the sound side to the open Atlantic in three minutes, much of the land is a labyrinth of ponds, marshes, and fly-infested thickets. Additionally, resource crews had spotted hoofprints on small adjacent islands—despite the recent seagoing drama, it appeared that the cow was now making short water crossings too. “No fear of swimming, none at all,” West said, with admiration in his voice.

In the end, he found the animal by accident. West had taken a boat out to Long Point on North Core Banks, home to a cluster of rustic wooden cabins that, in more ordinary times, the Park Service rented to visitors. Dorian’s storm surge had razed two heavily fortified structures that provided electricity and treated water to the wind-battered huts. And there it stood, chewing grass—a dune-colored cow among the dunes, with a coat like gold sand blown onto white sand. It was well muscled, a little heavy, basically an ordinary cow.

“ ‘I’ll be damned. There is a cow here,’ ” West recalled saying aloud. “Nothing like your own eyes seeing it.”

At the sight of West, the cow’s eyes got big. Then it ran away.

West knew that he would need to relocate the cow, both for its own sake and to preserve the wild habitat of the park. For the moment, though, the Cape Lookout staff were too busy assessing and repairing Dorian’s damage to deal with a wayward bovine. Meanwhile, rumors of the survivor began to trickle out as visitors returned to the Core Banks and saw tracks. Pam Flynn and her friend Mike Carroll were among them. “We kept going back and back,” said Flynn, until they lucked into a sighting. “We were so excited to see those cows.”

Not one cow, then, but cows: three in all. There was the classic bleached-blonde that West had seen; another one with large, light-brown spots, like a map of the ancient continents; and a pale young adult, possibly the spotted cow’s calf. Somehow they had survived, found each other, and formed a compact herd. “It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

On November 12, the Charlotte Observer broke the story of the survivor cows, and a media circus ensued on Cedar Island. One unfortunate local figure, wrongly described in the press as the cattle’s owner or caretaker (they have neither), had reporters knocking on his doors and chasing him up his driveway. On television especially, the tale of survival was presented as a quirky good-news story. The Virginian-Pilot would go on to call the cows “the cattle that enraptured a nation.” 

The hook of the story was its element of surprise: We see cows as stupid, physically awkward, mildly comical brutes, not heroic fighters. The media made heavy use of puns, of course, giving the life-and-death story a chuckling, children’s-book quality. Hurricane Dorian had come ashore “like a cattle rustler in the night” and “corralled” the animals. The cows’ survival was an “udder miracle.” An awestruck Raleigh News and Observer tweeted, “Four miles on the moooooove? Who knew cows could swim that well?”

To estimate how far the cows had paddled during their ordeal, journalists seemed to have measured the shortest distance between Cedar Island and the Core Banks using digital tools like Google Maps. Most put the swim at four miles; NBC preferred the precision of 3.39 miles. But when Alfredo Aretxabaleta, an oceanographer working with the USGS, saw one of these straight-line measures, he spied a problem. “During a storm, I just don’t think that’s the path they would take,” Aretxabaleta said. He suspected their journey was longer—much longer.

Aretxabaleta studies the trajectories of objects adrift, using computer models of wind, tides, and currents. He sometimes throws trackable equipment into the sea to float where it will; the science has been jokingly called driftology, but it has repercussions for our understanding of how climate change could affect coastal erosion, where oil spills and other contaminants might flow, and where to carry out maritime search and rescue work. “In a way,” Aretxabaleta said, “the case of the cows is a kind of search and rescue.”

Coincidentally, Aretxabaleta grew up in Spain’s Basque Country, on a farm where the cattle took dips in an irrigation pond. (His assessment: “They are not good swimmers.”) After Hurricane Dorian, Aretxabaleta in his spare time began to model the probable trajectory of the Cedar Island survivor cows once they were swept out to sea. What emerged was far different from the image of cows taking the shortest route across the Core Sound.

In the context of Aretxabaleta’s model, the sea, in the gray pall of first light as the cows are carried away, is a chaos of riptides, breakers, and blowing spray. With the cows’ eyes only inches above water, land is quickly lost from sight among swells as high as ten feet; from the perspective of a single cow, it’s nearly impossible to keep eyes on the rest of the bobbing herd. Each is fighting not so much to swim as to remain afloat. The currents and tides, made stronger by the force of the storm, are in charge.

The animals are first pushed rapidly southeast along the coast of Cedar Island, then into the center of the Core Sound, where they’re gradually drawn close to the powerful outflow at Ophelia Inlet. But as the tide changes from ebb to flood, Ophelia no longer sucks the animals toward it, but pushes them away. With the ocean now flowing into the sound, the herd are swept back to the north. At last the tide switches again, and Core Sound has many dozen new channels through which to send water back to the Atlantic. Like in a tub with many holes, though, it’s the large ones that have the most pull. Any animals still alive are drawn again toward Ophelia Inlet.

The prospect of passing through any channel would be a fearful one. Surfers sometimes dig cut-throughs between the sea and fresh water that has pooled behind dunes; the flow generated in such canals can resemble a river rapid, with waves large enough to surf. The Core Sound is not much calmer. After the cattle are washed off Cedar Island, the wind doesn’t drop below gale-force for seven hours, and white-capped waves linger much longer. Though the Core Sound has shallow areas such as sandbars, Aretxabaleta accounted for them in his simulations and says it’s unlikely that any cow found footing for long, if at all, during its journey.

His model explains how the cows and horses that were found dead on South Core Banks ended up where they did, flushed through Ophelia Inlet and then strewn to the south by the open Atlantic. By his estimation, none of the survivor cows swam four miles on a straight-line path. In fact, Aretxabaleta said, the probable routes taken by the cows, whether living or dead, range from 28.5 to nearly 40 miles. At the low end, that’s considerably greater than the distance across the English Channel. It’s more than ten times what swimmers complete in an Ironman triathlon. By Aretxabaleta’s measure, the absolute shortest period a cow would have been in the water is 7.5 hours; the longest is 25 hours.

“If it had been humans, it would have been incredible—I mean, like Robinson Crusoe,” he said. “The fact that those three cows survived is something close to a miracle.”

Suppose we didn’t settle for miracles, much less the “udderly miraculous.” Suppose we refused to consign the three cows’ survival to fate and chance. There are other factors we might consider, each of which drifts toward reckonings with how humans interact with bovines.

The first possibility is that the Cedar Island cows were able to endure their ordeal because they were a breed apart, not metaphorically but literally. Blood type and DNA tests suggest the feral horses that live on Cedar Island are likely descendants of Spanish colonial horses, which first came ashore in the United States with Juan Ponce de León in 1521. The cows may have Spanish colonial blood too; no one knows, though, because their genetic makeup has yet to be studied. What’s certain is that cattle have been abandoned or shipwrecked along North Carolina’s coastline since at least 1584. The Cedar Island cattle could have more than four centuries of heritage.

Spanish colonial cattle are different from the commercial breeds that predominate today. “They’re long-lived, they’re good mothers, they’ll eat things other cattle won’t,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “And they’re smart. The locals will tell you, ‘Be careful. They’ll eat your lunch!’ ”

They are also notoriously tough. In the days before the Civil War, Spanish-descended Pineywoods cattle, for example, were known for heat tolerance, disease resistance, and a capacity to live in landscapes too harsh for commercial breeds. The rugged nature of the Pineywoods cows resulted in a markedly different relationship between them and their owners than we see in today’s industrial agriculture. Some ranchers had so much respect for their cattle that they would not tolerate the use of dogs to harass the animals during roundup. Others felt it unfair and demeaning to confine the cows with fences.  It was only in the 1950s, with commercial feed and motorized equipment used to clear and mow pastures, that the Pineywoods herds began to fade, though a small number of farmers in the Deep South breed them to this day.

Phillip Sponenberg, a veterinary scientist who has spent 50 years searching for the purest-blood remnants of Spanish livestock in the United States, sees signs that the Cedar Island cows share at least a trace of that ancestry. “Some of them are basically white, but they have dark ears, eyes, noses, and feet. That’s a fairly unique color pattern and, in North America, often of Spanish origin,” he said. Some of the Cedar Island cattle also have horns that twist like a Spanish colonial cow’s.

Several experts I spoke to suggested that the fact that any cows at all survived the Dorian surge is clear evidence that they aren’t ordinary cattle. Most agreed that no modern breed would have made it through such a disaster. In this there is recognition of how we’ve degraded cattle as animals, turning them weak and needy. It also feels too convenient. It allows us to duck a more uncomfortable possibility, which is that these animals that most of us readily eat may have made it through the storm by drawing on the same internal resources that humans do in extreme circumstances. Not just a hard-wired survival instinct, that is, but a fierce desire to live—one strong enough to sustain hour upon hour of mortal struggle.

Pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since as prey animals they evolved to avoid outward signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

I should pause here to say that I eat beef. I put cows’ milk on my cereal. I have leather shoes and belts in my wardrobe. Still, like many other people, I recognize that rearing and slaughtering cattle raises issues that are ethically complicated, contradictory, and sometimes deeply weird. None of this, however, is what led me into the terrain of cow psychology. Instead, I simply wanted to know why one cow might survive swimming through a hurricane while another might not.

Remarkably for an animal domesticated thousands of years before the dawn of civilization, the scientific study of cows distinct from their roles as livestock is mostly a recent pursuit. When Mónica Padilla de la Torre reviewed existing research on cow communication more than a decade ago, she was surprised to discover that almost nothing had been done on the subject—which is why she started from scratch, watching cattle through field binoculars like a Dian Fossey of the rangelands. “I think we have a moral responsibility to know these animals that we have lived with for so long,” she said.

For a 2017 paper, Lori Marino, a biopsychologist, reviewed every study she could find on cow psychology. Again, the trove was not impressive. There’s a lot to learn about these animals,” said Marino. “There is resistance to coming to terms with who they actually are, their cognitive and social and emotional complexities.”

The problem, of course, is that those complexities could upend our relationship with the species. Marino describes the prevailing way we think about cows as an ideology, one that frames them as dull creatures that are fine with their lot in life, even if that life includes crowding, untreated lameness, being burned with a red-hot iron, and having their calves taken away—practices common in modern industrial farming.

In Marino’s review of the available research, however, she found that cows are “very sensitive to touch,” and that they respond to injury or the threat of it in ways similar to dogs, cats, and humans: by avoiding causes of pain, by limping, groaning, and grinding their teeth, and by evidencing higher levels of stress hormones in their blood. On the other hand, pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since they evolved to avoid showing signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

Though data on cow psychology is limited, I still found it surprising. It was somehow troubling to learn that cows readily recognize one another and are able to distinguish cattle of any breed from other sorts of animals. Cattle are able to navigate and memorize physical mazes with flying colors, outperforming hens, rats, and even cats, and leading researchers to conclude in the study that “the problems were too simple.” When cows were tested in more complex mazes, one in five succeeded at the toughest challenges, and could recall how to navigate the maze when retested six weeks later.

Here we enter territory more meaningful to the question of how those three cows might have survived swimming through a hurricane, since mastering mazes involves not just intelligence but also motivation. It’s true that only one in five cows solved the difficult mazes, but that may be because they dislike being alone and are fearful of places with many potential hiding places for predators, such as a maze. Throughout the tests, some of the cattle, despite a food reward for completion, appeared to resist, give up, or become fearful. Others were bolder and more curious. “This may,” the researchers reported, “suggest the possibility of the involvement of personality.”

With cows, some of the clearest expressions of apparent personal motivation are found in near-death escapes from slaughterhouses. In one of the most famous examples, a 1,050-pound cow broke loose from a Cincinnati facility in 2002. After jumping a six-foot fence, the cream-colored bovine was seen on a nearby side street, was subsequently spotted on a major parkway, then finally escaped into a wooded city park. Over the next 11 days, it evaded the SPCA, traps, tranquilizer darts, even thermal imaging from a police helicopter, before finally being captured.

The animals we eat are nameless, yet escaped cattle that make the news are often rewarded with names. Once that happens, they are unlikely to be returned to industrial production. In this instance, the cow was dubbed Cincinnati Freedom, and lived out her days at a rescue shelter where she was standoffish with people but bonded with three other slaughterhouse escapees. When “Cinci” was dying in 2008, her cohorts attacked the car of an attending veterinarian.

The prevailing ideology, to borrow Marino’s term, has been to explain away cattle’s responses to the world around them as exclusively innate or instinctive. By this standard, when the herd of cows was swept off Cedar Island into a violent ocean, survival would have been determined by luck and physical strength.

If individual cows have personalities, perhaps not as complex as our own, but no less singular, then that assessment may need to change. Once the storm had washed the herd into the ocean, some of the cattle, stricken by panic, would have quickly succumbed to water inhalation or exhaustion. Others, dragged farther and farther from land by the powerful currents of the seiche, might gradually have lost the spirit to fight on. But is it conceivable that three would keep going, drawing on exceptional mental toughness to push their bodies far beyond anything they’d endured before, in order to survive?

“I would use ‘willpower,’ ” Marino said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use that term.”

No one will ever be certain exactly what the cows went through. Did the two that were later seen ashore together also make the swim that way? We don’t know. But we can hypothesize that the cows in the water would have tried to stay together. Studies show that even being able to see another cow reduces their stress. Together, they may have faced calamity with less fear. Perhaps that alone made the difference.

We can picture the three cows desperately blinking their eyes against the waves and the wind-driven spray, enduring the creeping cold in their bodies, the gradual ache and depletion in their muscles, the thirst and hunger after what may have been hours at sea, the maddening whine of the wind. Then finally seeing, or perhaps first smelling, land once again. Hearing the roar of the fearsome inlets and fighting to avoid being sucked into one.

Their hooves making contact with the sand.

Scrabbling to gain footing.

Surging onto the land as the water rushed between their legs, then dragged back toward the violent ocean.

Finally walking free, with a feeling like profound relief to be alive.

The question of what happened next can perhaps be told through another tale of animal survival. When Hurricane Fran struck in 1996, the storm surge that hit New Bern, North Carolina, flooded the offices of an auto salvage business to a depth of 16 inches. Inside was a junkyard dog named Petey, who stood ten inches tall. After the flood retreated, Petey’s owner found his dog alive but exhausted. When he saw that Petey was soaked with muddy, oily water up to its neck, he surmised that his pet had dog-paddled inside the building for as long as eight hours to survive. Here’s what animals do after such an ordeal: Petey slept for two days straight.

Though little used this way today, we do have a word for bovines that roam free like mustangs. They are mavericks. The term has roots in one Samuel A. Maverick of Texas, whose unbranded cattle got loose into the landscape around 1850. In one version of the story, the force that scattered his cows was a hurricane.

It’s fitting, then, that on November 21, 2019, it was the duty of six cowhands—complete with lassos, chaps, and spurs—to track down the three mavericks on North Core Banks. One of the men carried a rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts and Jeff West drove a Park Service ATV next to the cowhands astride their horses. The plan had always been to get the cows home, said West. That fact had not prevented fierce debate from breaking out online.

“Some people thought we should just kill them, be done with it,” West said. “Some people complained, ‘Why are we spending taxpayer dollars on this?’ Heard that more than once. Some people said we ought to just leave them alone, let them exist out there on the banks.”

Many assumed that the cows had survived only to be sent back to owners who would fatten them for slaughter. On the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Facebook page, a theme emerged that the cows deserved to live; through baptism by flood, they had transcended their place in the scheme of things. “If they have to be removed then take them to a sanctuary. They deserve life. Do not turn those babies into meat after what they’ve survived!” wrote Misty Romano. Don Riggs of Asbury, New Jersey, wrote, “Really? Why not just bypass the farm and go straight to the slaughterhouse?” Judy Cook of Oak Island, North Carolina, simply declared the cows “as cool as the horses.”

Modern views about cows are messy. Many of us, if not most, seem capable of holding somewhere in our heads the idea that cows are sentient beings that we should have compassion for, but also of suppressing that idea enough that we allow them to suffer cruel conditions along the way to being killed for our benefit. Jessica Due, senior director of rescue and animal care for Farm Sanctuary, an organization devoted to ending the agricultural exploitation of livestock, tells a story that exemplifies the ways this can play out. The sanctuary has been called more than once by the same man to come and rescue an animal from a slaughterhouse. The man is the owner of the slaughterhouse. He calls on those rare occasions when a cow gives birth while being processed. This is where he draws the line; he strongly prefers not to kill these mother cows. Otherwise, he oversees the deaths of cattle on an almost daily basis. 

Curiously, just as research is emerging in support of the idea that cows are something more than most of us thought they were, they are also under scrutiny as environmental polluters. Cattle are blamed for producing 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including their famously methane-heavy belching and flatulence. Cows swimming in a hurricane: It could be a Hokusai print for our times. As a result, progressives and vegans look forward to a future with far fewer cows—to save the planet, to protect the animals from our cruelty, or both at once. Many in the industrial beef industry, meanwhile, remain reluctant even to concede that cows are meaningfully sentient. In the 10,000 years of human-cow relations, it’s possible that cattle have never had as few supporters as they have today.

Stephen Broadwell, the leader of the cowhands trotting down North Core Banks nearly three months after Hurricane Dorian, is one of those supporters. Broadwell is russet tanned and often wears a cowboy hat, but that is where the stereotypes end. He was raised in corn, tobacco, and soybean country, where North Carolina’s Piedmont Plateau meets the Coastal Plain. Yet he dreamed of being a rancher. “It’s one of those things—I guess it’s born into you,” he said. At the age of 13, he took a summer job on an 80,000-acre ranch in southern Colorado, and that was that. He was a cowboy.

After graduating early from high school, he earned a veterinary assistant’s degree and soon hired on at 3R Ranch Outfitters in the foothills of the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo. It was his immersion in an approach to ranching that attempts to mimic natural systems. “Our neighbors were thinking that we had this magical paradise for a ranch around them, and it was just the management practices they’d put in place years ago,” Broadwell told me. “That really got my motor going.”

The company he runs today, Ranch Solutions, might best be described as a holistic ranching consultancy. Broadwell will come to your property and do pretty much anything you need, including building a house from scratch and putting your first cows out to pasture. He has one rule, however: He will not help you raise more cattle than your land can sustain. He has photos of his team riding through the lush, knee-high grass of a client’s property. It’s a field that had already been grazed, but with the cattle moved off before it was eaten to the ground. The pasture was fertilized by manure and supplemented by cover crops that rebuilt nitrogen in the soil during winter, leading to grassland that sequestered more carbon. A cattle ranch, as Broadwell would have it, is an ecosystem.

The claim that holistic management can achieve this state is hotly contested, but research has lately suggested that yes, cattle can live and die without contributing to climate change. (And let it be noted that there is a strong pot-calling-out-the-kettle factor here, given that the average American human’s carbon footprint is twice that of the average American cow’s.) But we need to raise fewer of them, graze them in ways that mimic natural systems, and keep them off land better suited to food crops.

The future of cattle farming, in other words, may look a lot like the Cedar Island herd. Here are cows that can survive heat that would wither modern breeds, in a landscape where nothing we farm will grow. Here are cows adapted to eat what almost nothing else can. “It’s what a billy goat would not want to eat,” Broadwell said. Here are cows that are disease resistant, drink brackish water, defend themselves from predators, and generally require very little in the way of carbon-intensive coochie-cooing. They are the kind of cows that in the past demanded our respect, and one day might again.

“I grew up with stories from my older relatives about working cows in the river breaks”—steep cliff and canyon country—“and how they were more like deer than cows,” said Jeff West, remembering his youth in Texas. “We ran some cows out in North Fort Hood military reservation, and we only messed with them one time of year, during the roundup. Some of those cows were pretty feisty. But not like these Cedar Island cows. I’ve never run across any cows like these cows.”

When Ranch Solutions and West arrived on North Core Banks for the roundup, they had a plan to haze the survivor cows out of the marsh grass, which grows in muck that’s sometimes deep enough to swallow a horse to its belly. Then there was the chaparral. “Thick is a poor word to describe it,” West said. “It is intolerable of somebody passing through.” It took a long time to locate the cows, and then to work them out into the open so that each could be shot with a dart. Sedated, two of the three became pliant enough to be led back to a trailer that had been ferried to the island.

The final cow, the first to be found after the hurricane—alone—did not become pliant. She fled north, managing to hole up in especially dense and convoluted terrain. The team could just see where she was hiding, and managed to hit her with another dart. Then they waited, sure she would gradually go to sleep. She did not. At last the cowhands tried approaching her.

“And she took off,” West said.

Just up the coast was the Long Point camp where West had first spotted the cow a few weeks after the storm. The buildings still stood empty. Wind sucked and blew between weathered wooden walls. Screen doors creaked on rusty hinges. Hooves squeaked in the sand. It was in every way like the setting for a Spaghetti Western shootout. When one of the riders saw a clean line of fire, the crack from his gun echoed among the shacks, then faded into the roar of the tumbling surf.

With three darts’ worth of sedation flooding her system and blood trickling down her pale coat, the cow somehow ran again. She ran out of the camp. She ran up the beach. After half a mile, she couldn’t run anymore. Then she walked. “It was O.J. Simpson all over again. It was the slow-speed chase,” West said. “It was me and all the cowboys at a walking pace, going along until that cow stopped.”

When she finally did, she stared them down. “Like, ‘Try me,’ ” West said. The cowhands closed in, and one last time she managed to run. Then they got ropes on her and brought her down.

From there the job got easier. With the sun on the horizon, they worked a tarp under her prone body and sledded her down the beach. She came to while walled in by the trailer, her fellow survivor cows beside her. Given hay and fresh water, all three refused it.

The next morning, Ranch Solutions ferried the cows back across the Core Sound, drove to Cedar Island’s northern cape, and backed onto the beach. It was Broadwell who did the honors of swinging open the trailer’s gate. The cows stared at the sudden possibility of escape. They made cautious steps toward the opening. Then they burst from their confines. They ran—galloped—down the sand. Heads up, ears forward, they seemed instantly to sense that they were home and free.

On Cedar Island, the return of the cattle brought a sense of normalcy. When I asked one shopkeeper how islanders felt about the cattle now, she responded instantly. “Fiercely protective,” she said. No one I spoke to on Cedar Island knew of anyone who’d witnessed the three cows’ reunion with the remaining herd—the four animals that hadn’t been swept away by the storm in the first place. But according to Padilla, it likely involved muzzling, low and gentle moos, and gamboling. It might also, finally, have involved grief.

People who’ve looked closely at this issue, such as Barbara J. King, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of How Animals Grieve, think the blow would have struck hardest when the survivors came home to find the herd decimated. They might have searched the range for missing herd mates and bellowed in an effort to make contact. King, choosing her words carefully, said, “The potential is incredibly strong for the awareness of loss and feeling of distress that would meet my criteria for grief.”

Yet home also brought a different kind of surprise. The cow that had fought so hard to avoid capture by the cowhands turned out to be pregnant. Could that have played a role in her survival? If a cow has a will to fight for its life, might it also fight for the life of its unborn calf? “Biologically, it wouldn’t be strange to assume that,” Padilla said. “She wants the calf to survive.”

Two months after being returned to Cedar Island, the pregnant cow gave birth to a healthy calf, as blond as the dunes. It was born, as if to mark what it went through in utero, with one brown eye and one blue. The calf was not given a name, but the mother was: Dori. The name is not an allusion to the character in Finding Nemo who sings of how, in hard times, we must keep swimming, swimming, swimming. No: She is named after Hurricane Dorian.


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Long May They Reign

Long May
They Reign

A butterfly named Flamingo, an epic migration, and the crusade to save one of America’s most iconic species.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 103



Nora Caplan-Bricker is a journalist, essayist, and critic whose work has appeared in Slate, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She teaches creative writing in Boston.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in May 2020.

One

The phenomenon that some people in Brookings, Oregon, would later call a miracle began in early July 2019, when the same monarch butterfly appeared in Holly Beyer’s yard almost every day for two weeks. Beyer recognized it by a scratch on one wing. She and a friend named it Ovaltine, inspired by ovum, for the way it encrusted the milkweed in Beyer’s garden with eggs. Each off-white bump was no larger than the tip of a sharpened pencil. Clustered together on the green leaves, they looked like blemishes, as if the milkweed had sprouted a case of adolescent acne.

Brookings sits on Oregon’s rugged coast, and squarely within the monarch’s habitat. Every spring and summer, several generations of butterflies breed, lay eggs, and die, each in the span of about a month. The last generation of the year is different. Come fall, rather than produce offspring, it migrates south. Beyer, a petite retiree with a trace of red in her gray hair, is part of a local group who promote butterfly-friendly gardening practices—planting native flowers, for instance, and forgoing pesticides.

Most female monarchs disperse their eggs as widely as possible, but for unknowable reasons, Ovaltine laid almost 600 in Beyer’s yard. Under normal conditions, fewer than 5 percent of monarch eggs survive to adulthood. Beyer wanted the marvel she had witnessed from her deck to have a happier ending. She snipped the laden leaves and brought them inside, to shield the eggs from wind, rain, and predators. Before long she had hundreds of caterpillars, then hundreds of butterflies. She released them into the wild, and Brookings, with a human population of just 6,500, was suddenly ablaze with orange wings. A person could be taking the trash out or crossing a parking lot and see a flash, like a struck match, from the corner of their eye.

Soon the monarchs had blanketed Brookings in “the second eggsplosion,” as Beyer put it. “Every milkweed plant”—the only flora that monarch caterpillars eat upon hatching—“got egg-bombed.” Over the next several weeks, Beyer counted nearly 2,700 eggs in her yard. Based on other people’s reports from their own gardens, she estimates that there were 5,000 more across Brookings.

Beyer dutifully gathered the eggs laid on her property and put them in a maze of mesh crates she’d set up on the small deck of her 400-square-foot apartment. As the caterpillars hatched, she gave her life over to their care. The tiny creatures do nothing but eat and evacuate, and Beyer spent every day harvesting milkweed to go in one end and sweeping away the droppings that came out the other. “I would start at 10 a.m. and wouldn’t finish feeding them until six at night,” she told me. “I lost 15 pounds because I forgot to feed myself.”

A friend of Beyer’s sent out a grassroots SOS, begging anyone in Oregon with experience hand-rearing monarchs to come and take some of the remaining eggs off her hands. That’s how Amanda Egertson heard about the eggsplosion. A trained ecologist, Egertson is the stewardship director of a land trust in central Oregon. She lives in the city of Bend, almost 300 miles away from Brookings. She called her husband and asked if he could skip work for a day or two. They packed their kids into the car and started driving.

Waiting for them in Brookings was a makeshift incubator for 110 monarch eggs: a foil lasagna pan lined with damp paper towels to keep the milkweed leaves placed inside it from wilting. It would be up to Egertson to usher the butterflies into life. If she succeeded, the monarchs hatched under her care would be the first she’d seen that year. In the weeks leading up to her trip to Brookings, she’d scouted for flickers of orange as she traversed the land trust. For the first time she could remember, she hadn’t seen a single one.

A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that.

While Egertson was retrieving the lasagna pan, I was a continent away, sitting for hours every day on my in-laws’ porch in Massachusetts. From there I could see thick patches of butterfly weed, a variety of milkweed that grows wild on their hilltop property. It was waist high in places, and covered in starburst bunches of brilliant orange flowers. Each tiny blossom had one row of tangerine petals stretching down and another row stretching up, like little dancers with raised arms. The plant is sometimes called orange glory, which suits it. When my husband’s father cut the field, he mowed carefully around the flowers. Once, he motioned me off the porch swing where I was reading to show me a monarch feeding on the blossoms.

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is a large butterfly, and among the slowest moving in North America. It takes no special skill to spot one or to identify what you’ve seen. If you went to an American elementary school, you probably learned in science class how a monarch egg becomes a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. Some lepidopterists (butterfly experts) disdain monarchs in the way that anyone with esoteric tastes looks down on what’s popular. “People call them the cockroaches of butterflies,” one scientist told me.

But the world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth. A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that. The thickness of a piece of paper is one-tenth of one-thousandth of a meter; the thickness of the monarch’s distinctive orange wings—veined in black and dappled with white spots at the edges—is measured in microns, or millionths of a meter. Monarchs can travel even on wings that appear too torn for flight, and scientists estimate that in good weather they can cover 30 miles or more in a single day. East of the Rockies, millions of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, from southern Canada to central Mexico, where oral traditions suggest that the incandescent insects have blanketed forests every winter for centuries. West of the Rockies, a smaller number of monarchs fly south as the weather cools and spend the winter huddled in trees on the central coast of California. No one knows how they find the groves to which they return every year.

The monarch was once as common as it is beautiful—the most ordinary of extraordinary things. As a child, I saw them all the time in the warm months, drinking from weedy flowers at the edges of cornfields. Now, though, the population is in precipitous decline. This is true all over North America, but especially out west, in places like Oregon and California. In 2018, a count of western monarchs turned up only 27,218, fewer than 1 percent of the number recorded in the mid-1980s. Worse still, that figure failed to clear an existential threshold of sorts: Ecologists had recently warned that the western monarch’s risk of extinction could intensify if the population fell below 30,000.

The causes of the decline are many and manmade: loss of habitat, increased use of pesticides, the acceleration of climate change. On the broadest scale, these forces overlap with the reasons that the island where my in-laws live floods more severely with every passing year. Visiting them last summer, I spent more time outside than I had since my childhood, but the pleasure of sunny days was darkened by dread. The monarchs in particular brought me back to a time before I knew about climate change or lived with the awareness that I might someday witness a mass extinction. The idea of a future without them started to represent everything I was frightened to live through.

The world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth.

It’s not news that our impending environmental cataclysm requires urgent action, especially by world leaders and fossil-fuel companies—people and entities with the power to fundamentally change the way we use our planet’s resources. The steps we can take as individuals won’t be sufficient; they won’t even be significant unless millions of people follow suit. For me at least, this made it hard to commit to even small forms of environmental action. I would attempt something—composting, or taking the bus more, or cutting meat out of my diet—only to find that it didn’t allay my sense that I was doing nothing. It was like trying to ride a bike when the gears wouldn’t catch. I wanted to push the pedal down and feel myself move.

I envied my father-in-law’s steady sense of purpose as he mowed around butterfly weed so that monarchs could feed on the flowers. It was a modest act of stewardship that brought him great satisfaction when butterflies landed on the patches of growth he’d conserved. I, too, wanted to do something that mattered in ways I could see and feel.

Near summer’s end, I read a news article in which a biologist made a case for monarch conservation that went beyond butterflies. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin–Madison described monarchs as a flagship species, an animal that captures imaginations and induces people to care about its fate. “We’ve surveyed people and asked, ‘How much would you pay to save monarchs?’” Oberhauser said when I called her. “It’s up there with whooping cranes, polar bears, and wolves—all these charismatic vertebrates.” When people like my in-laws protect monarch habitat, they assist other species they may never have heard of. By extension, they support entire ecosystems. “On some days, I feel like maybe we won’t save monarchs, but if we try to save them, we’re going to do good for the world,” Oberhauser said.

Was this what I had been looking for—an animal to lend its shape to my formless sense of environmental grief? In the book What I Don’t Know About Animals, novelist and essayist Jenny Diski observes that humans have been turning animals into symbols ever since the beginning of language, employing them as tools “to think about anything and everything.” Maybe I could make monarchs my personal shorthand for something otherwise too large to grasp. I didn’t yet know about Beyer and Egertson, who were upending their lives with a feverish energy that comes from believing you can make a difference, but I had arrived at a similar idea: I hoped that, if I trained my attention on a single creature, I would figure out what it meant to do my part. Maybe fear of a loss specific enough to imagine would impel me to act. And once I started, maybe I wouldn’t stop.

Two

Back home with the eggs, Egertson cut air holes in giant Tupperware bins, which covered the floor of her son’s bedroom. “He gets the best morning sunlight,” she explained. After the eggs hatched, the caterpillars grew quickly, sometimes doubling in length in the span of 48 hours. They molted their striped skin five times in two weeks. Egertson returned to the store for more bins, then more again. When she and her family ran out of milkweed to feed the caterpillars, they called on neighbors to harvest it from their yards.

Eventually, Egertson carried the Tupperware condominiums upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the doors to the deck to expose her charges to fresh air and light. At night, when the temperature dropped into the forties, she and her husband piled their bed high with blankets. During the day, when the sun heated the room to 90 degrees, they stripped down to tank tops.

After two weeks, the caterpillars started to crawl to the roofs of their enclosures and hang upside down in a J shape, like a collection of fishhooks. One by one, each creature began to pulse, and its skin went translucent. Slowly, its striped outer layer peeled back from its head, revealing a sticky, twisting green mass whose gyrations gradually stilled. Over the next day, it inflated and hardened into a perfect jade pendant adorned with gold flecks. This was the chrysalis, a shell that looks like a sarcophagus but is really a womb. Inside, a butterfly was taking shape.

Egertson tried to stay close to home so she wouldn’t miss the moment when a monarch emerged. She swims at 4 a.m. every morning, and she perched her cell phone on the edge of the pool so she could check it after each lap. One morning she got the text she’d been waiting for and “flew out of the pool,” she told me. She raced home, “wet suit and all,” and made it in time.

In the hours before a monarch “ecloses,” or emerges from its chrysalis, its wings become visible through the shell. The lacquer splits, and the butterfly pushes itself out on long black legs. It pumps fluid from its abdomen through the veins of its wrinkled, misshapen wings, which slowly unfurl into four fiery orange and black fans. Within a few hours, they harden and dry. If the process is interrupted and the wings remain crumpled, the monarch won’t be able fly.

Handling the new butterflies with great care, Egertson and her family affixed tags to their wings—lightweight but durable stickers bearing serial numbers that scientists use to track the insects’ journey if they are spotted again. Researchers have been tagging butterflies since the 1940s, when the zoologist Fred Urquhart decided to trace the until then unknown route of the eastern migration. The organization he founded, now called Monarch Watch, remains the largest tagging project east of the Rockies. Egertson had requested stickers from a lab at Washington State University that hosts one of several tracking operations out west. When she applied the tags to the butterflies, her fingers came away dusted with glittering scales.

Egertson’s family gave each insect a name along with a serial number: Michael Phelps, for the Olympic swimmer’s butterfly stroke; Chopin, for one of Egertson’s favorite composers. Egertson’s 11-year-old son, who had shared his room with the caterpillars, named one monarch Flamingo, after the species for which he had dyed his own hair neon pink.

Egertson and her kids released Flamingo in a park in Bend on a sunny day in September. Afterward, Egertson went to a tattoo artist to have butterflies inked onto her foot and ankle. They were a 50th birthday gift to herself, a reward for making it through what she told me was a difficult decade. “I’ve been smitten with butterflies my whole life,” she said. “At first glance they seem so fragile, like the wind can just blow them any which way. Like they don’t have a lot of say about where they end up. But in fact they do. They’re incredibly resilient, powerful creatures.”

As Egertson gritted her teeth against the sharp scratch of the tattooist’s needle, she hoped that Flamingo was drifting southward—borne, at least that day, on a light breeze.

Monarchs migrate to the same groves year after year. 

It’s not strictly rational to devote one’s excess energy to protecting a species loved mostly for being beautiful, especially when so much of the world is dying. Insect populations in particular are in free-fall, and monarchs are far from the hardest-hit species among those that scientists are able to monitor. Entomologists estimate that humans have identified as few as 20 percent of all insect species, meaning that millions of unique creatures could be swept off the planet without our knowing that they existed in the first place. No one can make a case for ensuring the butterflies’ survival based on particular usefulness. Though they get lumped in with pollinators, they are bad at the job. They don’t even come close to rivaling bees, without which farmers would need to hire human workers to pollinate fruit trees.

Karen Oberhauser’s argument about flagship species helps explain a recent burst of interest in monarchs. Many conservationists choose to focus their efforts on keystone species, which anchor ecosystems (starfish, for example, keep tide pools from being overrun by mussels), or indicator species, which reflect the health of a landscape (dragonflies can’t live on polluted streams). But prioritizing flagship species like monarchs is a practical choice for advocates competing for the public’s attention. It helps that, unlike some endangered species, monarchs don’t require governments to set aside large tracts of land for them. They don’t need pristine conditions or continuous wilderness. What they need are options: milkweed on which to lay eggs, and nectar plants on which to feed all along their migratory path. An ecologist I interviewed estimated that monarchs might be able to pass through a landscape that is just 1 percent habitat—that is, it might be enough for an urban neighborhood to offer up a pot of milkweed or a flowering window box for every few hundred feet of concrete.

This fact—call it the allure of tangibility—has helped spur tens of thousands of people across North America to get involved in conservation efforts on the monarch’s behalf: people like Beyer, Egertson, and my in-laws. “Pretty much anyone can help,” said Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society, the leading advocacy organization for insect conservation. “This is an area where individuals can have an impact.” One activist I spoke to, a former fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had converted an old school bus into a traveling classroom that she drove around the corn belt proselytizing about planting milkweed for monarchs. “It’s like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus,” she told me.

Hand-rearing, however, is a part of the crusade to save monarchs that most scientists reject. For starters, it can sow confusion among researchers. A bonanza of butterflies in a place like Brookings, where monarchs might have been scarce but for human interference, foil attempts to track—and thus support—the shrinking western population. “We can’t trust the sightings we have,” Pelton said. “In such a critical year, after the population collapses, it’s really frustrating. It’s a huge loss to our ability to understand where the population is so that we can help it.” Some experts also fear that butterflies hatched in captivity may be inferior navigators, making them less likely to survive their long migration. Other studies suggest they may be at higher risk of spreading disease. Most concerning, monarchs have evolved to produce hundreds of progeny that don’t make it, employing a different biological strategy than large mammals that lavish energy on each individual offspring. By protecting eggs and caterpillars that might have been picked off in the wild because of an inherent weakness—and by encouraging inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity—the people hand-rearing monarchs almost certainly introduce inferior genes into a struggling population. “You need to be a really fit monarch to make it,” Pelton explained. “The last thing we want to do is make them weaker.”

Experts consider mass rearing a misdirection of energy: To save a species you must protect its habitat, not keep a few creatures alive on your porch or in your bedroom. Egertson, who oversees the planting of native flowers on her land trust, understands these concerns—to the point that she hesitated before taking the trip to see Beyer. Though she had raised a few butterflies in the past, just for the joy of it, she had qualms about hatching more than 100 in captivity. “Any time you tamper with nature, you have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing,” she told me. “But if you were to ask me, do I regret participating in captive rearing, the answer is absolutely not.” The severity of the crisis made her want to do something that felt more immediate. “The numbers are so low that, if we can boost them at all, maybe that will make a difference,” she said.

Pelton told me that she worries about quashing the energy of volunteers who are just trying to help. It makes sense that adding individual lives to a plummeting total seems like the best, most direct thing a person can do. “It’s hard for people to grasp whole ecosystems—that’s hard for me even in my backyard,” Pelton said. “We all pivot toward something we can grasp, like an animal. But the question is if we can look a little wider. People spend hours every day rearing caterpillars. If you spend hours every day doing anything, you could be a fantastic community organizer working to reduce pesticides, or have an amazing garden that helps lots of animals, not just monarchs.”

To avoid becoming paralyzed by the number and scope of the environmental problems we face, it’s often necessary to narrow our focus. How do we also keep a view broad enough to see how our actions fit into, and sometimes work against, a larger effort? It’s a difficult balance. To avoid losing hope, people need to experience their individual power to change things. But with the fight to save monarchs, as with so many crises, little of the work that needs doing can be done alone.

Three

Monarchs migrate solo. The first challenge facing the butterfly that Egertson’s son named Flamingo was likely crossing the Cascade mountains running from southern Canada to northern California. Clearing a 10,000-foot peak is well within a monarch’s capability; although the eastern and western migrations rarely mix, butterflies have even been known to cross the Rockies. On cool nights, finding shelter from the wind and other elements would have been imperative. Once the sun set and the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, Flamingo’s powerful wing muscles would become paralyzed; another 15 degrees and he would no longer be able to crawl. If he were knocked to the ground in the night, he could become prey for mice or voles. They would eat his narrow body and leave his wings in the dirt like a discarded costume.

There were also human dangers to contend with, starting with busy highways. Along the eastern migratory route, millions of Flamingo’s kind become roadkill every year; according to one study, collisions with cars in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico deplete the monarch’s numbers by as much as 4 percent. Out west, researchers see less evidence of significant losses along highways, but the smaller population can little afford any at all. It complicates the picture that one promising initiative to restore monarch habitat is to plant flowers on roadsides, since the land there has few other uses.

After a few weeks, Flamingo probably reached the wide, flat floor of California’s Central Valley. Most western monarchs are funneled through this corridor, which some 40 years ago was an inviting place: a rich patchwork of grasslands, dotted with bright blooms in all but deepest winter, threaded with streams and rivers, and soaked with sun almost 300 days of the year. John Muir famously described the Central Valley as “the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower bed.” But in recent decades, industrial farming has ironed out all but the last inches of wild land, replacing ungoverned prairies with perfect rows of produce. Roughly a quarter of America’s food comes from the Central Valley, including 40 percent of our fruit and nuts. The region is also California’s fastest growing in terms of population. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that more than 99 percent of the valley’s standing grass consists of green lawns and cereal crops. Cultivation has crowded out native grasslands, with their goldenrod, milkweed, and thistle.

Water is also a scarce commodity. Vast wetlands once fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers shrank by more than 90 percent in the past century as the water was diverted to irrigate fields. A seven-year drought, which ended in 2019, dried up even more marshlands, endangering birds as well as butterflies. The northern end of the valley is famous for vernal pools unlike any on earth: Rain fills them in winter, and they evaporate slowly in summer, leaving rings of wildflowers each time the water level drops. The WWF estimates that more than two-thirds of these unique ecosystems have disappeared, either drained for agricultural use or leveled to make way for pastures and fields.

Where Flamingo once would have found water and nectar there were instead gleaming cattle and tidy crops treated with pesticides. Crops like strawberries and almonds are rendered unsellable by even the slightest damage, so farmers make liberal use of chemicals to keep them pristine. When the Xerces Society tested milkweed across the valley, it found pesticide in every sample, including plants grown in private gardens by people who claimed they had never sprayed. Even if Flamingo managed to find food, he risked consuming poison along with his meal.

Monarchs migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year.

Art Shapiro knows all about poison. He started counting butterflies in 1972. He was new to the West Coast back then—he’d moved for a job in the zoology department at the University of California, Davis, not long after finishing his doctorate at Cornell—but he was accustomed to spending long days searching for insects. Growing up in an unhappy home on the outskirts of Philadelphia, he would slip out the door with a field guide in his pocket and lose himself looking for flashes of color in an undeveloped expanse of land across the street from his house. As a college student in the 1960s, he studied phenology, the scientific term for biological seasonality: how subtle cues such as temperature and sunlight tell fruit trees when to bloom, insects when to hatch, and birds when to migrate. Shapiro began to dream of creating an enormous data set. If he could track many butterfly species over many years—wet years and dry ones, hot years and cold ones—he would be able to see which aspects of a climate exerted the most control over the life cycle.

In California, he selected five sites at various elevations, each with its own diverse ecosystem, and made the rounds every two weeks, weather permitting. He compiled a list of 160 species of native butterflies to monitor, monarchs among them. Unlike scientists who tag monarchs to track their migration, Shapiro’s goal was to compare the size of butterfly populations from one year to the next. The methodology could hardly have been simpler: He visited the same sites on the same schedule and noted the number of butterflies he saw. Since Shapiro didn’t drive, each location had to be accessible by public transportation; he sometimes hiked several miles from a bus stop to get where he needed to go. In those early days, he rarely failed to find his quarry. At a single stop, he would frequently see as many as 30 species. Along with monarchs, there were skippers and sulfurs, swallowtails and painted ladies, henna-colored lustrous coppers and periwinkle Melissa blues.

He planned to do the project for five years, since that was all the time he’d have if he didn’t get tenure. When he was offered a permanent place at the university, he decided to keep going. Gradually, Shapiro added five more sites, until his study covered a large swath of the Central Valley. As local bus systems grew less reliable, he asked graduate students for rides. He became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring. We spoke over the phone for this story, but in pictures Shapiro looks like a hermit in a Georgian-era painting—weathered face, wild hair, enormous white beard—except that he’s often wearing a Southwestern-patterned shirt.

After a few decades, he realized that he had inadvertently conducted what might have become the world’s longest continuous butterfly study, rivaled only by one of similar vintage in the United Kingdom. He soon noticed something else: The number of butterflies at his locations was declining. At first, Shapiro wasn’t too worried. Insect populations are naturally “bouncy,” meaning that numbers can dip in years with unfavorable weather and rebound quickly in good years, since each female lays hundreds of eggs. But in 1999, the populations of multiple butterfly species crashed simultaneously, their totals plummeting well below any natural ebb that Shapiro had witnessed before.   

Shapiro strongly suspected that the butterflies were suffering the effects of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that were introduced in the early 1990s and entered wide usage toward the end of the decade. Neonics, as they’re called, are systemic, meaning that plants absorb them into every cell from bud to stem, and they can be long-lasting, building up year after year and persisting in water and soil even if a farmer stops using them. A growing body of research would ultimately support Shapiro’s hypothesis, showing that even in doses too small to kill outright, neonics shorten the life spans of insects and make them weaker fliers and foragers. Because the pesticides attack a creature’s nervous system, they interfere with navigation, which matters for species like bees, which must find their way back to their hives. The major varieties of neonics are now banned for outdoor use in the European Union but remain popular in the United States, where they have been connected to the widespread collapse of bee colonies.

Art Shapiro became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring.

They also have especially pernicious effects on migratory species like monarchs. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin remembers the world before butterflies began disappearing. In 1997, a boom year, she flew to Mexico to see eastern monarchs in their overwintering grounds. She witnessed millions of roosting insects, clustered on every inch of oyamel fir trees, their combined weight bending the boughs. Seeing them gathered together, Oberhauser felt a shiver of fear: They seemed so vulnerable, as if a single blow could erase them from the earth. In the years that followed, she noticed how much habitat monarchs had lost in the agricultural fields that form a large part of their summer breeding grounds. She realized that crops genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides allowed farmers to blanket their land with chemicals, which eradicated millions of acres of milkweed that once flourished between the soybean plants and cornstalks. Monarch numbers had fallen in tandem. Oberhauser began raising money and advocating for conservation efforts. “A lot of what’s driving monarch loss is changing agricultural practices. Addressing that is going to require policy changes,” she told me.

In California, Shapiro continued to see worrying signs. Monarchs’ seasonal behavior seemed to be shifting. The last generation of butterflies that hatches each fall is called a super generation. During their migration, they enter a state known as reproductive diapause, conserving the energy that other generations expend breeding so they can live six months or more—enough time to make it through winter and breed first thing the following spring. But Shapiro started to hear stories of winter roosts breaking up earlier and earlier. Whereas they used to stay put until March, now they were disbanding in late January or early February. Were they taking their cue from the ever milder weather? Where would they find nectar and milkweed, when most native plants break ground in March at the earliest? Would a freak storm batter them to death or a cold snap freeze them? No one could guess how many migrators might be surviving the winter only to die without finding somewhere to lay their eggs in the spring.

As Shapiro described it, 2018 was the year when “everything went in the toilet.” He witnessed the worst butterfly season he’d ever seen. He counted only 12 monarchs in all of his stops, and for the first time ever he didn’t see a single monarch caterpillar. The once common species had become so rare so abruptly that every individual insect seemed to matter. Would the next year be the one when Shapiro finally saw no monarchs at all?

Four

By October 2019, if he survived that long, Flamingo might have faced fire. In Sonoma County, along the Central Valley’s western edge, the season’s worst wildfire consumed almost 80,000 acres. Acrid smoke blanketed much of the Bay Area. What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? Still heading south, Flamingo might have ridden the same winds that carried embers across the landscape, wisps of fire that shone even more brightly than his vivid wings.

A few weeks after the Sonoma fire died down, I was preparing to fly to California, too. I had arranged to join an annual effort, organized by the Xerces Society, to monitor western monarchs in their winter habitat—groves where butterflies, in an unsolved mystery of migration, return to the same roosts year after year. Some coastal cities have built around these stands of trees, even if they’re in the middle of town. The first scheduled stop on my itinerary was Ellwood Mesa, a sandy bluff of eucalyptus groves just west of Santa Barbara. But by Thanksgiving morning, it too was in the path of a wildfire. Thousands of people in the surrounding county had evacuated. “There’s no way anyone can take you there,” a municipal employee told me when I called from my home in Boston. Ellwood Mesa was vulnerable to stray embers and to mudslides. When I asked if I could go alone, there was silence on the other end. “There are signs telling people to enter at their own risk,” the employee said finally.

I hung up feeling thwarted. My husband tried to comfort me: Even if the fire interfered with my plan to see a species imperiled by climate change, didn’t that only prove my story’s point? I packed a bag and boarded my flight. I landed in Los Angeles and turned on my phone to find a text from another city employee: A snowstorm had dampened the blaze. I could go to Ellwood Mesa after all.

Xerces calls its annual monitoring effort the Thanksgiving count because it takes place over three weeks in November and early December. More than 100 volunteers visit upwards of 240 sites where monarchs are known to roost. The count is not unlike Art Shapiro’s work—volunteers note every butterfly they can find, then tally the numbers into a single snapshot of the total population that made it to the coast for the winter. If they see any with tags—a rare, exciting event—they can compare the serial number with an online database and determine where the butterfly came from.

In 1997, its first year, the count recorded more than 1.2 million monarchs. Two years later, that figure fell to fewer than 250,000, despite an increase in the number of sites being monitored. Though the population still fluctuates, it hasn’t broken 300,000 since 2000. It plunged to the historic low of 27,218 in 2018. Volunteers visit most count sites only once; if a site is subject to more frequent monitoring, Xerces uses the highest number observed in a single day. Between this and the fact that some butterflies might be spotted twice if they move between neighboring groves, the final tally is more likely to overestimate the monarch population than to underrepresent it.

Once upon a time, Ellwood Mesa attracted more than 100,000 butterflies each year. When I pulled into the site’s parking lot on a Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast. The clean, sweet smell of eucalyptus washed over me. Ellwood Cooper, who once owned this land and for whom the site is named, was a rancher and horticulturalist who helped introduce eucalyptus to the United States. He raised his first trees here in the 1870s. Cooper envisioned the quick-growing eucalyptus as an invaluable source of lumber. It turned out to be brittle and prone to decay, but it did provide an ideal winter home for monarchs, which were observed on the West Coast in growing numbers as eucalyptus spread in the late 19th century. Today, the tree is widely considered a scourge on the landscape. With its shaggy bark and fragrant oil, it is quick to catch fire. But it is also monarchs’ preferred home for the winter; though the insects roost in other trees, such as cypress, they choose eucalyptus groves over forests with exclusively native species. This has put monarch advocates in the odd position of trying to protect a beloved native butterfly by fighting to plant a despised invasive tree. 

What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? 

The volunteer coordinator for the monarch count in Santa Barbara County was a woman named Charis van der Heide, a monarch biologist and environmental consultant for the city of Goleta. She wore a straw hat and hiking boots, and the rest of her attire was dotted with images and emblems of butterflies: a patterned scarf at the neck of her purple parka, a crocheted keychain dangling from her backpack. I followed her down a sandy path into a grove of trees, where the light grew dimmer and the smell heavier and loamier as we followed a muddy streambed. The ground was blanketed with strips of gray bark—“eucalyptus are messy,” Van der Heide said—but many of the branches above us were bare. According to Goleta officials, one in five trees here died during California’s long drought. Of those that remained, many were ailing. Giants 180 feet tall leaned against their neighbors or bent into archways over the path.

Changes in the grove have profound consequences for monarchs. Butterflies choose where to roost with extreme sensitivity. New generations not only go to the same groves and trees as the previous year’s butterflies—they alight on the same branches. They seek a precise microclimate, a perfect alchemy of humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and light. Every time a tree falls, the delicate balance shifts.

We entered a clearing. Van der Heide, who is in her late thirties, with wavy chestnut hair and a broad, friendly face, pointed out the features that once drew monarchs here. Perhaps because they are meandering fliers—they flap-flap and glide, flap-flap and glide—they choose groves with high, vaulted ceilings that are “cathedral-like,” Van der Heide explained, gesturing upward. The natural architecture gives them space to flit and float. But a thinning canopy may not provide sufficient protection from winter storms. The grove we stood in was once enclosed on three sides by thick walls of trees; now trunks crisscrossed the forest floor, leaving openings everywhere.

Van der Heide told me that she wanted to plant more eucalyptus where we stood. The controversy surrounding that approach didn’t bother her. “We conserve what we love,” she said—even if a favorite natural phenomenon might not exist as we know it without human influence. She echoed Oberhauser’s point about flagship species, arguing that fighting for monarchs could help a wide array of pollinators that share their habitat. “Having a little pragmatism about what people can get behind can serve you in a larger way,” she said.

But even with new eucalyptus to draw them, would the butterflies return in large numbers? As the climate changes, many species are expected to shift their habitat ranges northward and upward, to higher elevations, chasing the conditions for which they’ve evolved. Monarchs might soon abandon the known groves altogether. Maybe they already have. Some count volunteers told me that, in their most optimistic moments, they imagine the butterflies aren’t declining—they’re hiding, and we just have to find them. But it’s not clear where exactly they could have gone. “If you look in the hills, we don’t have trees up there,” Van der Heide told me. “They’ve all burned.”  

 Charis van der Heide

Van der Heide scanned the trees around us, looking for monarchs. “OK, so we have a few,” she said, handing me her binoculars. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see them. Van der Heide set up a scope and showed me a cluster of 27. The outsides of their folded wings were tawnier than I expected, muted enough to blend in with dead leaves. Somehow they all knew to hang at the same angle, so that their identical wings formed an intricate pattern. Occasionally, a pair of wings opened, looking almost red in the deep gloom of the grove, then closed back into the tessellation.

We followed a path deeper into the woods. Two weeks earlier, Van der Heide had counted 250 butterflies on the mesa, most of them concentrated in the single grove we were now headed to. That wasn’t many for a site where she, along with other volunteers, had counted 47,500 butterflies in 2011. But it beat finding only 27. Van der Heide seemed optimistic that she could show me more.

We reached a small overlook. In past years, volunteer docents brought tours here to gaze into the grove below, as if it were an amphitheater. Van der Heide opened her backpack and pulled out a binder, opening it to a picture taken on this spot in 1975. The photographer had aimed a lens up the trunk of a tree entirely concealed beneath thousands of butterflies, a carpet of orange wings that led straight to the sky. People who rode horses here decades ago have described similar scenes—of sitting, frozen in awe, as butterflies descended on their mounts, drawn by the smell of sweat. Imagine a horse that looked for an instant as if it were made of butterflies, at risk of dissolving into a flurry of wings.

Van der Heide raked the branches with her binoculars. We stood there for a long time. She didn’t move to take out her scope or fill the silence with effusive talk. She just looked, swung around, and looked again. “Wow, I’m not seeing any right now,” she said. “That’s really hard.” The hundreds she’d seen here before the snowstorm that put out the fire were gone, possibly washed away. She turned from the empty grove. “That’s really hard,” I heard her repeat under her breath.

As we emerged from the woods, we ran into a group of teenagers on a field trip, led by members of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of whom conducts the Xerces monarch count in nearby Ventura County. “Did you see any?” the group asked as we drew level.

“I saw 27,” Van der Heide told them.

“How have your numbers been?”

“So low.” “So low,” the woman from Ventura echoed sadly.

“Two weeks ago, I saw 250 across Ellwood Mesa,” Van der Heide said.

One of the Fish and Wildlife employees whistled. “That’s crazy,” he said. “Two years ago, there were literally thousands.”

As the kids started down the path, Van der Heide’s Ventura counterpart lingered with us to talk about her cadre of volunteers, who were finding so few butterflies that their work took almost no time. To keep them engaged, she kept sending them to reconfirm what they’d seen, or rather what they hadn’t. “I feel like I should do something,” she said as she took off after her group. “But I don’t know what to do.”

Five

I was struck by the strangeness of the assignment I’d made for myself: I’d come to observe an absence, to look at the lack of what used to be. In Pismo Beach, another count site, people described the nadir of 2018 in anguished terms. “It was like, uh-oh, where are they?” count coordinator Jessica Griffiths recalled. Sites that had hosted thousands of monarchs the year before had only a few hundred, or a few dozen. So far in 2019, Griffiths had seen more than she did the year prior, but nothing approaching what, until recently, she’d considered normal. “I’m surfing the line between relieved and bummed,” she told me.

As we spoke, we walked a serpentine path through a eucalyptus grove where she had seen a cluster of monarchs two weeks earlier. Now all we found were pairs of wings, left behind by whatever had eaten their owners. None of the wings had tags. None of them had flown here from a makeshift nursery in Oregon.

I did see a tag in another part of Pismo Beach, on a tree blanketed with more than 1,000 butterflies, a big cluster by California’s new standards of scarcity. I was visiting the city’s monarch sanctuary, a tiny park in the dunes where tourists stroll around a viewing area smaller than a city block, sturdy fences separating them from the trees. My guide at the site, a California State Parks employee, beckoned me under a barrier to see the monarchs huddled on the leeward side of a cypress tree.

I willed myself to feel wonder and failed. I couldn’t help but compare what I saw before me with the images I’d seen in photographs, of the same site shrouded in more than 100,000 butterflies. It’s the abundance—the mysterious gathering of monarchs that flew hundreds of miles alone—that makes the migration astounding. One butterfly can make your breath catch; a roost of 100,000 can transport you into a dream. For me the diminished cluster did neither. The monarchs looked drab and windblown. They reminded me of a tattered piece of cloth torn from a quilt, a sign of the undamaged thing that should have been.      

Then I saw a flash of orange too bright to be natural. I squinted and found it again, a neon spot on a wing at the heart of the cluster. I shouted for the State Parks employee. “Look, I found a tag,” I said, too excited to care that I was being pushy. My heart was suddenly beating very fast. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tag.” We took turns pressing an eye to the lens of a scope, struggling to find the right butterfly. When we did, neither of us could make out the minuscule numbers that would tell us where the monarch had come from—who had tagged it and sent it on its way.

It started to rain, first a few drops, then harder. The wind picked up, ruffling the branches so that the monarch swayed in and out of the scope’s view. My guide warned me that we didn’t have much time; the equipment could be damaged if it got too wet. I wanted to stay. I told myself I would stand there as long as it took—never mind the equipment, or interviews, or getting soaked. I felt a wild excitement at the chance to be part of something, to finish what whoever had tagged the butterfly started, to add a data point to the store of common knowledge. I wanted this creature, which had worked so hard to sustain a dying migration, to accomplish something more than its own survival.

Eventually, we made out most of the number, through the zoom lens of a camera. We climbed into a State Parks truck, wet and shivering. Back at her office, my guide checked the tag’s digits and discovered that the butterfly had already been sighted a few weeks before. So much for my contribution.

Sitting in my rental car with the heat on blast, I asked myself why I had crossed the country, trailing my invisible cloud of carbon emissions. For a moment, I’d been sure that my presence mattered—that I’d landed in the right place at the right time. As my sense of significance ebbed, I thought of Emma Pelton, urging me to think about western monarchs as a whole population, not to fixate on particular butterflies. Was there a corollary, one having to do with accepting that my individual impact might be beyond my reckoning or take place outside my view?

I had assumed that monarch advocates found motivation in seeing the imprint of their efforts, but that turned out not to be entirely true. During our time together, Van der Heide brought up her anxieties about climate change, her uncertainty about the world her young children would live in as adults. I asked if devoting her days to butterfly conservation made her feel that, in some way, she was helping stave off that dark future. Not really, she replied. “I feel like I’m at the tail end of something amazing,” she said of the monarchs’ migration to California. “I feel like I’m recording the end of something, and in twenty years people won’t even know that there used to be monarchs here.” 

Volunteers count monarchs at sites along California’s central coast.

When the Xerces Society tallied the final numbers, it found that the 2019 monarch count had barely improved from the year before. Volunteers had seen 29,418 butterflies, still below the estimated extinction threshold of 30,000. When I spoke with Pelton, she told me that she and her colleagues were focused on figuring out where monarchs go if they are indeed leaving their winter roosts early, and how to get milkweed and nectar plants into the ground in those places. The size of each year’s first generation of monarchs matters exponentially for the number of butterflies that will set off on the migration come fall.

A familiar monarch might have been among those that emerged from the roosts. In late fall, a researcher in Santa Cruz spotted a monarch with a white sticker—a Washington State University tag—on its wing. It was perched on a twig of a Monterey cypress tree. The serial number indicated that the butterfly had flown roughly 500 miles, all the way from Bend, Oregon. It was Flamingo—he’d survived the migration.

Egertson indulged in a moment of pure joy when she heard the news, jumping up and down in her office. “For me, that was one of the most profound experiences,” she said. She compared the feeling to giving birth to her children, or to the rush that comes from doing things that scare her. “If this tiny creature that weighs no more than a paperclip can fly from Bend to Santa Cruz, then I most certainly can do whatever it is that I’m facing,” she told me. Recently, she’d been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking. She agreed to address a room of 500 people about monarch conservation. To get through it, she made hundreds of pairs of antennae and asked the audience members to wear them. She told me it was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

By February, 22 of Ovaltine’s descendants had been sighted in California. Holly Beyer, in whose yard all this began, hoped that the number of survivors was evidence that hand-rearing doesn’t necessarily produce monarchs with diminished navigation instincts. For Pelton, the news didn’t allay her concerns. If the monarchs raised in Brookings were genetically inferior, and enough of them survived the winter to pass their weaker traits to a new generation, that could make matters worse for the species in the long run. What looked on its face like a small success could pose a danger to the entire monarch population out west.

For the time being, Egertson was avoiding the controversy, devoting her energy instead to interventions she felt sure about. When we spoke, she’d recently placed an order for thousands of native flowers and plants, including milkweed, to brighten her land trust. She described with relish the exhaustion that descends during a day of hard work outside. “I love that feeling,” she told me. “When your back is sore, and you’re looking at an old roadbed that has now come to life as a meadow. It feels really good.”

Six

By the time I sat down to write this story, the world was facing a faster-moving disaster than the monarchs’ decline. People everywhere were sheltering in their homes to avoid catching the novel coronavirus or spreading it to anyone else. Some environmentalists saw cause for hope in the speed with which ordinary people took action and in the vivid illustrations of our interdependence across the planet. The question seemed to be whether we would succeed in maintaining a sense of urgency once the present danger had passed.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis suggests that we are capable of the kind of collective action that could slow the advance of climate change and repair other forms of ecological devastation. But it also illustrates the limits of what we can do as long as our leaders keep denying reality—as do most politicians, on both sides of the aisle, when it comes to the enormity of the environmental catastrophe before us. Without political action and economic reforms, the world will keep growing warmer, until monarch butterflies, like so much else, disappear for good.  

Karen Oberhauser has provided input for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers whether to list the monarch as a threatened species, which would expand the regulatory protections and funding sources available for its conservation under the Endangered Species Act. A decision, now several years in the making, is expected by the end of 2020. “We can try to get as many people as possible doing things that will support monarch conservation, but I believe, in the long run, it’s going to take regulation,” Oberhauser told me. She wouldn’t share her opinion on the specific matter before the government, but she talked about reversing the fortunes of monarchs by limiting herbicide and insecticide use and by paying farmers to devote parcels of land to conservation instead of agriculture. Meanwhile, the Xerces Society has helped at least 30 local governments pass policies protecting insects from neonics and other pesticides—a modest start, but perhaps a model for the future.  

As long as the coronavirus traps us at home, the only environmental actions within reach for most people may be the smallest ones. In March, I got a message from an ecologist via an email list of monarch enthusiasts. “We appear to have entered a new era of uncertain duration,” Chip Taylor wrote of the lockdowns beginning in many U.S. states. “Yet, we must carry on with monarch conservation—somehow.” He urged everyone to order flats of milkweed and flowers.

“Gardening gets you out of the house,” he wrote. “Social distancing and quarantines will ground many of us, confining us to our properties yet giving us time to garden for monarchs.” I forwarded the email to my in-laws, who were hunkered down on their hilltop, and called local hardware stores to find flower seeds that I could plant in pots on my fire escape.

I knew that I could faithfully water my flowers and still the summer could pass without a single monarch finding them. Maybe, if that happened, I would once again feel like I had done nothing. But it felt like doing something to cover my face with the cloth mask a friend had made me and walk to the store in a light April drizzle. Maybe, like Egertson, I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

I bought seeds to grow dusky purple lavender, mauve coneflowers with glaring red eyes, and pom-pom-shaped Lilliput zinnias in orange, yellow, and pink. And even though the packet said they would take at least a year to bloom, I bought the seeds for orange glory. At home, in the closet, I had a stack of clay pots. I would fill them with soil as soon as the weather turned.

Maybe I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

How long did Flamingo live? There were no sightings to tell us that he made it through the winter. If he survived long enough to find a mate, the female butterfly would have had to locate milkweed on which to lay her eggs. As I write this in early May, it’s possible that Flamingo’s descendants are retracing the path of his migration, fanning north and east in successive generations. If they are sufficiently numerous, maybe a few will survive to reach Oregon.

I’m still chasing a sense of satisfaction in the small things I can do. It feels like the only way to face the possibility of their futility. In California, I tried to find pleasure in wending through forests, scanning patches of sky for flying monarchs, even as I braced myself to see empty blue. I noticed myself getting better at looking for butterflies. At Ellwood Mesa, I’d struggled to pick them out of the gloom, but in the groves of Santa Cruz—my last stop, like Flamingo’s—my eyes went right to them. At the very least, I was learning how to bear better witness. And what I saw was not entirely absence.

I didn’t see Flamingo, but I did see a cluster of perhaps 2,500 monarchs on a towering cypress tree. I was in a field near Lighthouse State Beach, and the air smelled of salt and rang with the cries of seagulls. At first the tree was in shadow, and every monarch sat folded. But then a cloud moved. When sunlight slanted across the upper branches, the monarchs opened their dazzling wings one by one. They blazed like little lanterns. I watched one drift up into the sky, weightless, and I felt it: the joy of living on this damaged planet, and a will to witness whatever comes next.


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Barbearians at the Gate

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Barbearians at the Gate

A journey through a quixotic New Hampshire town teeming with libertarians, fake news, guns, and—possibly—furry invaders.

by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

The Atavist Magazine, No. 79


Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a Vermont-based investigative journalist. He is a grantee of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting whose work has appeared in Popular Science and Foreign Policy, among other publications, and through the Weather Channel’s longform-journalism project. He is a recipient of the George Polk Award, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a Maine Journalist of the Year.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Lauren Tamaki

Published in May 2018. Design updated in 2021.

In the summer of 2017, the survivalists began to worry—really worry—about the bears.

The problem wasn’t the animals’ nighttime behavior; that was just a nuisance. The survivalists were used to catching sight of the hulking intruders emerging from the darkened woods of rural New Hampshire to damage property, steal food, and deposit huge piles of excrement. Recently, though, the bears had started showing up in broad daylight, and not just at the survivalists’ encampment. Throughout Grafton, the tiny town on the outskirts of which the camp sat, residents told stories of furry forest dwellers pushing through porch windows, chasing house pets, getting drunk on fermented apples, and capering on rooftops. One bear had cleaned out a chicken coop by lying on its belly, reaching inside the structure’s tunneled entrance, and scrabbling around with an extended paw. The bleakest anecdotes told of bears swiping their claws through human skin as if it were tissue paper.

The survivalists agreed that something had to be done to defend their makeshift home. But no one suggested calling law enforcement. This was Tent City, a place people came to avoid government. The messy jumble of cabins, trailers, and tarps, anchored by an old carport that served as a communal lounge, was a crucible of self-reliance. Residents believed in untethering themselves from institutions, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives. When society inevitably collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption, they would be ready. Their lodestar was freedom.

Tent City, where the population swelled to 30 or more on any given night, was an extreme manifestation of cherished local norms. Reachable by one paved road and policed by one full-time cop, Grafton has no stoplights, zoning laws, or building codes. Personal freedom springs eternal, so much so that don’t-tread-on-me types from across America have moved there in search of a laissez-faire utopia. People live where and how they please: in ramshackle homes, solitary yurts, old cars, or shared camps.

The survivalists sketched out a multifaceted plan to protect themselves from the bears. Adam Franz, a bearded, restless man in his late thirties, managed the land that Tent City sat on. In his younger days, Franz had studied economics, designed computer programs, become an ordained minister, and played professional poker. Now he was the closest thing Tent City had to a mayor—which is to say that when he talked, people listened. This included both cohorts of the unregulated idyll: left and right. When I remarked on a Confederate flag slung across the front of a cabin, Franz directed my attention to a Bernie Sanders sign attached to another. “If you’re an anarchist of any stripe,” said Franz, who tends toward the left end of the spectrum, “this is a good place to be.”

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories read by audiobook narrators in the Audm app for iPhone.

Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.

The residents of Tent City decided they needed a barrier of some sort. One man scrounged several cheap metal posts and scrap rolls of chain-link netting from local suppliers, and a small crew of volunteers got to work. They inched along Tent City’s winding perimeter, methodically erecting sections of a fence. They adorned it with bells, beer cans, and bottles filled with BB-gun pellets. This would be the alarm system.

One day the workers were hammering posts into the rocky earth when they heard a woman who lived in the camp call out. Urgently. Scanning the area around them, they saw why: A black bear was swaggering along a finished portion of the fence, not 30 feet away. It was as if the bear had appointed itself foreman and was inspecting the men’s progress.

What a goddamned insult, thought Franz, who was working on the fence that day. He shouted at the bear like someone trying to get a kid off his lawn: “Go away!”

The creature paused, as if calculating risk versus reward. Then, on heavy paws that doubled as lethal weapons, it lumbered toward the men. Still shouting, Franz held a lighter to a pack of firecrackers he’d stashed in his pocket. Flick, flick, flick—the fuse caught. He hurled the explosives toward the incoming enemy.

Popping and sizzling, the firecrackers hit the ground between the foes. Startled, the bear reversed course and galloped clumsily away from the men. When the clamor ceased, however, the animal stopped short of the forest. “He started watching us,” Franz recalled.

Several tense seconds dragged by. Finally, the creature slunk into the undergrowth and disappeared from sight. The humans took a gulp of air. They’d won the latest skirmish in Grafton’s escalating bear war.


“In my opinion, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in Grafton.” So said Andrew Timmins, a wildlife biologist employed by the state of New Hampshire. Timmins is tall and muscled, with grizzled hair that he often wears tucked beneath his Fish and Game Department cap. He showed me a spreadsheet that documented the annual intake of “bear complaints,” his department’s name for reports of human encounters with the 6,000 or so black bears that roam New Hampshire. There was Grafton, a community of about 1,000 people in the state’s central region, with 50 complaints over the previous decade. It ranked 29 out of 227 towns, which placed it in the top 13 percent of bear-afflicted places. But was that really so surprising, given its forested location? Timmins insisted it was not.

He diagnosed a kind of xenophobia: People are often frightened of black bears for no good reason. Sure, the creatures are big—they can grow to 500 pounds or more—and they’ve got sharp teeth and claws. But according to Fish and Game’s public-education campaign, “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire,” which is intended to “enhance public tolerance towards bears,” the animals “do not typically exhibit aggressive behavior.”

That was the opposite of what I’d been told in Grafton. I’d first visited the town for an assignment that had nothing to do with bears. It was bears, though, that kept me coming back. I was lured by tales told over kitchen tables, in gardens, and on front stoops about an unprecedented conflict between man and beast.

People in Grafton said that, year after year, the bears were getting bolder. The same anti-authority ethos that gave rise to Tent City convinced locals that the threat needed to be dealt with, no matter what any government data said. It’s illegal to kill a bear in New Hampshire without a special hunting license, yet I heard whispers that a vigilante posse had embarked on a clandestine hunt. Meanwhile, here was Adam Franz, flinging firecrackers and pledging to use his new Judge on a moment’s notice. “This is my baby,” he said when he let me hold the firearm, placing the weight of his trust in my palm. “I fuckin’ love that thing.”

I visited Grafton several times over two years to determine if, to poach Timmins’s words, “anything out of the ordinary” was happening there. When it came to bears, where did truth end and myth begin? What I found was more revealing than I expected: a parable of liberty, disinformation, and fear. A parable, really, of America.


Grafton’s unruliness and disdain for authority dates back centuries. Fittingly, when the town incorporated in the late 1700s, it took its name from the third Duke of Grafton, who’d served as England’s prime minister and scandalized his constituents by divorcing his wife because she was pregnant with the child of a lover, no doubt taken while her husband engaged in a very public affair with a courtesan. By then colonists in Grafton had long ignored the native Abenaki people’s respect for nature, divvying up and then clear-cutting vast tracts of forest. Eventually the settlers decided that royal laws were also impediments to their freedom and joined the revolutionary fight against colonial oppression. At every stage of this history, they turned their muskets against black bears, a species they’d decided was better off dead. They delivered the carcasses for bounties.

Over the century following the American Revolution, Grafton residents demonstrated mastery of their domain by transforming it into New Hampshire’s most intensively farmed region. They denuded hills and covered them with sweeping grasslands, hordes of sheep, and miles of stone walls. In 1868, they banded together to protect their livestock from a bushy-tailed black wolf described in the local newspaper as four feet tall and seven feet long. People built homes, mills, two churches, 12 schoolhouses, and several mines, including one that, in 1887, produced a 2,900-pound aquamarine crystal, the biggest ever found in the nation at that point. Three years later, about 15 miles from town, a wealthy, eccentric land speculator named Austin Corbin built a game reserve for species imported from out of state, including bighorn sheep, Russian boar, bison, and elk.

Then came a seismic change. As the U.S. economy shifted toward industry, farmers abandoned their livelihoods in droves. Over the course of the 20th century, Grafton lost nearly all its agricultural land. Neatly cultivated fields reverted to impenetrable thickets, stagnant bogs, and tangles of young trees. Clearings shrank until they were tiny islands, adrift in an inexorable sylvan tide.

The new forest had a strange, ominous flavor. In 1938, a hurricane breached the fences of Corbin’s reserve, releasing hundreds of animals into the wild, and Grafton residents described frequent encounters with the creatures’ startling descendants. Packs of coyote-wolf hybrids, once unheard of in the area, trailed people who were out walking their dogs. There were taller tales, too, of a Bigfoot-like creature, dragonflies as big as hawks, and birds with claw prints larger than a human hand.  

For a long time, Ursus americanus didn’t rank on locals’ list of worrisome fauna. Though the black bears’ habitat included some 90 percent of New Hampshire, they gave humans a wide berth. Attacks were exceedingly rare; the most recent was in the mid-20th century, and the last fatal one in 1784. Statistically speaking, and not only in New Hampshire, a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.

All was well until 1999. That’s when the cat massacre happened.


I heard about it when I first visited Grafton, in the fall of 2016. I was there to interview 62-year-old veteran Jessica Soule about her difficulties accessing support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As I drove into town on Route 4, I observed that the town had no medical services or grocery store; one of its two gas stations had shut down.

Soule lived in an area of Grafton known as Bungtown, which received that name after an incident in the mid-1800s when bungs—a type of cork—came loose from barrels while they were in transit, allowing the liquid inside to spill out. Soule’s house had white siding and a creaky metal wheelchair ramp leading to the front entrance. When she answered the door, she wore a button-up shirt under two sweaters. A long, neat braid hanging over one shoulder softened her face.

Inside her house, the smell of cats hung in the stale air, trapped by tightly sealed windows. Several felines jockeyed for Soule’s attention. I sat on a lumpy couch with a quilt spread over it and was startled when one of the mounds beneath me began to move. “He’s hiding,” Soule said.

As we meandered through the usual small talk that precedes an interview, I noticed that Soule used a striking phrase: before the bears came. As in, “I used to let my cats outdoors, but that was before the bears came.” I asked her to explain.

One fine July night in 1999, Soule sat down at the picnic table in her backyard to enjoy the cool air. The moon had already risen. It looked like liquid silver—what the Abenaki called temaskikos, or the grass-cutter moon. Soule’s only companions that night were three cats, all less than a year old, wrestling near her feet.

As Soule relaxed, she heard footfalls behind her, quick and heavy. Before she could react, the bear was within a few feet of the picnic table. But instead of snatching her, it scooped up another feast: two of her kittens, whose mewling Soule could hear as the bear blew past her and disappeared into the woods.

It reemerged just beyond the tree line behind Soule’s house, near a small creek. The animal cut a bulky silhouette in the moonlight. Smaller shadows joined it: hungry bear cubs. All Soule could do was watch, horrified, as the creatures finished off their dinner and sauntered away.

Soule hunted desperately for her third cat, named Amber, in the woods. It wasn’t until morning, when the sun was up, that she found the tiny feline, huddled beneath a carpet of leaves. The cat was terrified but alive.

I asked what happened to Amber after that. “She’s right here,” Soule said, pointing to a cat nestled in the center of her lap like pet royalty. The milky-eyed feline, now 17 years old, was so rough coated that she looked taxidermic, and so decrepit that she could no longer retract her claws. Like her owner she was a veteran, a survivor.

“That,” Soule said, “was the beginning.”

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In Soule’s telling, the bears that ate her kittens developed a keen taste for felines. When other cats in Bungtown went missing, locals knew why. Soule said that a bear approached her front door one day. Perhaps it was the same mama bear, she thought, back for more. By then she’d gotten wise; she kept her cats inside, no longer left food scraps in the backyard for birds, and opened doors and windows only when she absolutely had to.

Andrew Timmins told me that he’d never received a bear complaint involving a cat, from Grafton or anywhere else. Plus, the idea that wild bears could acquire a taste for felines seemed dubious to him. When a Grafton resident told me about a bear that drained his biodiesel supply—a five-gallon container of two-year-old French-fry grease—I was reminded that bears will devour even the most loathsome fare, so long as it adds to their winter stores of fat. They’re after calories, not cuisine. Despite local perception, the cats of Bungtown probably weren’t the bears’ preferred target; they were just there.

Perception, though, matters a great deal when people craft stories about how they overcome obstacles and cope with conflict. Once the seed of the purported bear hazard was planted, stories nourished it. Often the light of reality was refracted such that it transformed an animal into a totemic version of itself: bandit or strongman, noble savage or mythic monster, bumbling idiot or cunning predator.

Alongside the stories, a few key ingredients influenced people’s assessment of the bears in their midst. First was a quantifiable increase in New Hampshire’s ursine population. In 1990, the state had some 3,000 bears. Steady annual growth, which peaked at 10 percent around the time that a bear got clawsy with Soule’s kittens, nearly doubled the population in the next quarter-century. During that same period, New Hampshire got serious about bear monitoring. Based on what wildlife experts deemed prudent preservation goals, the state designated population targets and bear-management strategies: how many annual hunting licenses to grant, how long hunting season should last, and even what hunters could use as bait. Chocolate, for example, was banned, because it could be toxic to bears. If a human wanted to kill a bear, they’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

The edicts and regulations didn’t sit well in Grafton, particularly with the town’s newest colonists, who started showing up in 2004. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: A lawyer, a firearms instructor, and the owner of a mail-order-bride business walk into a fire station. The three men were Tim Condon, Tony Lekas, and Larry Pendarvis, respectively, and they were avowed libertarians with the Free Town Project, a splinter group of a national initiative founded in 2001 to convince some 20,000 liberty-loving Americans to move to a chosen place, where they could concentrate their voting power and rid the political landscape of pesky rules. On the anything-goes frontier that Free Towners envisioned, people would be able to keep as many junk cars on their property as they wished, buy and sell sex without shame, gamble at will, consume drugs of all kinds, and educate their kids however they liked. Hell, they could even debate the merits of incest and cannibalism if they wanted.

If a human wanted to kill a bear, he’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

Condon, Lekas, and Pendarvis were scouts, tasked with looking for the right spot to pioneer the project. They focused on low-population states, including New Hampshire. An added bonus of the “Live Free or Die” state was that it didn’t impose income and sales taxes. The trio drove from town to town; some places were too far north—excessively cold and isolated—while others had strict zoning laws or a tight real estate market. Finally, the men came to Grafton, situated on a rugged stretch of 42 square miles. They met up with local volunteer firefighter John Babiarz, who had recently run for governor on the Libertarian ticket and won 3 percent of the vote. Now he and his wife, Rosalie, welcomed the three men around a folding table in Grafton’s firehouse, because there were no coffee shops or restaurants in town. They discussed their shared pet peeves, namely busybody bureaucrats and onerous laws.   

Grafton was the mecca the scouts had been looking for. The town had more land than people and virtually no statutes governing property. There were fewer than 800 registered voters, most of whom didn’t bother showing up at the polls, and because Babiarz already had a base of support, he could help tip the political scales in the project’s favor. What’s more, natives loved their guns as much as they despised meddling government. The scouts stopped their search and sent word to their fellow Free Towners, along with the phone number and email address of a local realtor.

How many people answered the call to move to Grafton is hard to say. Libertarians aren’t exactly known for keeping records. According to the federal census, between 2000 and 2010, the town’s population swelled by more than 200 residents. Soon after the project was launched, Free Towners began purchasing hundreds of acres of land, which they made available, at their discretion, to like-minded people who wanted to establish permanent homesteads or temporary encampments. Tent City, then in its early days as a home base for Grafton’s most extreme natives, served as a model of the type of loosely organized community that might work for the newcomers.

Grafton’s newest denizens infused its relaxed culture with impudence. At the annual apple festival, they encouraged children to dip homemade United Nations flags into a bonfire. At town meetings, which were usually sleepy affairs, they emphatically insisted that Grafton withdraw from the regional school district, condemn The Communist Manifesto, and eliminate funding for the local library. None of those proposals gained any traction; for all the ideological DNA they shared with the new arrivals, longtime Grafton residents thought some of the Free Towners’ ideas crossed the line of common sense. Still, the settlers managed to pass measures to slash the town’s budget by 30 percent (later rescinded on a procedural technicality) and to deny funding to the county’s senior-citizens council.  

Babiarz, who went on to become Grafton’s fire chief, gradually distanced himself from the project’s purists, deciding that he preferred a less evangelical brand of liberty. Yet he maintained common ground with Free Towners on plenty of things, including the threat of bears.


The same year the Free Town scouts came to Grafton, a bear stole onto Babiarz’s farm on Slab City Road, where he and Rosalie live in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse, and eviscerated one of his rams. By the time I visited Babiarz in 2017, bears had infiltrated his property numerous times, making off with chickens sleeping in their coop, sheep locked in their paddock, and apples swinging from tree branches. Babiarz, a tall, lean 60-year-old who has now run unsuccessfully for governor four times, became convinced that one bear in particular watched him from somewhere in the forest. It waited for him to run an errand or visit the fire station, and then it struck. This damn bear was a seasoned criminal, Babiarz told me in his small kitchen, where amid potted plants and household clutter an old sign urged me to elect Libertarian Harry Browne president in 1996.

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them. “It had no fear,” Babiarz said. “Which is a problem.” He decided that pain-based deterrence was called for. He loaded an electric fence with strips of bacon, hoping to zap any hungry bears in the mouth. On the ground outside his chicken coops, he laid down boards with nails or screws sticking skyward to puncture the soles of bear paws. One board I saw had claw marks on it and a screw was missing. “Yep, it went right through,” Babiarz said, referring to the unlucky bear that had stepped on the board. “There was blood pouring. There was nice red all over.”

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them.

One September morning, he came home from town to find a bear—the bear, Babiarz claimed—sitting on its rump and feasting on a chicken. “Like a human at a campfire, munching,” Babiarz recalled with dismay. How had it gotten past every line of defense? Babiarz sprinted into his house and grabbed a Ruger .44 Magnum from his closet, but by the time he got back outside, the bear was galumphing toward the refuge of the forest. Panting, Babiarz took aim and pulled the trigger. The Magnum bucked in his hand, exploding with sound.

“Apparently, I missed him,” Babiarz said. A concerned look crept over his face as he told this part of the story. He gestured toward the woods, adding, “He was a moving target against a black background.”

I realized that Babiarz felt he had to defend his marksmanship. Competition was everywhere, after all. In 2012, New Hampshire had attained America’s highest per capita rate of machine-gun ownership; federal data showed nearly 10,000 of the weapons registered in the state.

“There’s a lot of trees here,” Babiarz continued. “Hitting it would have been a miracle.”

I squinted in the direction the bear had gone. After a pause that felt sufficient for reflecting on a deep knowledge of firearms—which I by no means had—I replied in solidarity.

“That’s a really tough shot.”

Babiarz looked relieved. He went back to talking about the bear. It was out there still, his Moby Dick. He was sure of it.


Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snow bank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

I put the question of bear intelligence to Ben Kilham, a wildlife biologist and leading expert in ursine behavior, who happens to live about 20 miles from Grafton. Before he became interested in bears, Kilham designed guns. Now his personal website features a photograph of his head and upper torso protruding from the entrance to a bear’s den. He has adopted and raised dozens of orphan cubs, which he releases into the wild and tracks for thousands of hours apiece. He has been bitten and scratched more times than he can count, but never seriously. State wildlife officials speak of him reverently, and his fame has gone global. In an Imax documentary released in April 2018, he’s featured as a bear whisperer helping China reintroduce pandas into the wild.  

Kilham suggested that if I really wanted to learn the truth, I should read a book he wrote entitled In the Company of Bears. The book paints a picture of bears—worrying or inspiring, depending on your priors—as the Einsteins of the wild. According to Kilham, bears have a highly developed sense of self. They can also count to 12 (higher than chimpanzees), transport and use tools, observe societal bonds that include a rudimentary sense of justice, remember the distant past, calculate the likelihood of future events, and, if necessary, ask other bears to care for their offspring. Kilham also asserts that bears can screen foods for palatability by mouthing them and inhaling their scent. He came to the idea after noticing cubs gently manipulating leaves, mushrooms, and frogs with their snouts. Kilham developed a working theory that bears have a special sensory organ about the size of a jellybean embedded in their palate, which he dubbed the Kilham organ. He finally proved its function when, he told me, he “boiled a half-rotted bear head and found what I was looking for.”

Kilham comes across as the Jane Goodall of bears, uniquely positioned to understand the species. Also like Goodall, his insights aren’t always backed up by hard data or laboratory tests, leaving him vulnerable to academic criticism. In his book, the only evidence he cites that a bear can out-count a chimp is his experience with one bear, named Squirty, who always seemed to know when Kilham had shorted her one or two cookies from a sleeve of Oreos. Yet formal studies measuring bear intelligence generally support Kilham’s conclusions. Bears in captivity have been observed solving problems—moving stumps to use as stepladders in order to access high-hanging fruit, for instance—and distinguishing between different numbers of dots on a screen.

A more enduring critique of animal behaviorists is their tendency to anthropomorphize, or assign human characteristics to the species they study. Here the question is one of intent: why animals do what they do. If a bear lingers in the presence of a screaming survivalist, is it calculating its odds of getting fed or shot, or processing a more basic fight-or-flight reaction? It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, because we can’t read animals’ minds. That doesn’t stop Kilham from trying, however, nor has it stopped Babiarz and other Grafton residents from ascribing human motivations to the bears prowling around town.

Maybe they do so because it’s easier to think you know an enemy than it is to admit that you don’t and never will. Or perhaps, as scholars have suggested, anthropomorphism is an evolved trait, a kind of shorthand that allowed primitive humans to interpret animal behavior and protect themselves accordingly. Millions of years later, we still feel the urge to think of animals as basically like us, even if we live an infinitely safer existence; we don’t hunt to survive, and we’re not hunted. Tested only rarely in high-stakes circumstances, our assessment of creatures as friend or foe can be exaggerated or ill applied—sometimes to comic effect.


One night in the spring of 2009, in a house on a hill overlooking Grafton’s somnolent downtown, a sheep farmer named Dianne Burrington was awoken by frantic bleating. She reacted instinctively, throwing back her covers, leaping from bed, and racing to the kitchen for her rifle. Burrington, then in her fifties, grabbed a pistol from a drawer for good measure before bursting out the front door “half-assed dressed” in her nightgown and a coat.

Burrington wasn’t a shit taker—she was a shit kicker. If you were casting her in a movie, you’d want Kathy Bates: someone solid, assertive, and able to project a down-home friendliness. Whatever was out there, Burrington would deal with it. A coyote? No problem; she’d shot one before. As for bears, she’d installed an electric fence to keep them out. It hadn’t failed her yet.

She sprinted through tufted pasture toward her barn. As she got closer, she realized that most of the braying was coming from Hurricane, her llama. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing 400 pounds, Hurricane was the farm’s guard animal. Burrington claimed that he patrolled the fence line and kept an eye on the smallest sheep, ushering stragglers into their pens at the end of the day. He was a noisy animal; when a potential danger stressed him out, he hummed. But the sound he was making that night was more like honking, as if he was sounding an alarm.

Burrington rounded a corner of the barn and saw what had Hurricane upset: a bear, which must have slipped through the electric fence wires like a boxer entering the ring. In the ensuing chaos, as sheep stampeded away in fear, a portion of the fence had been torn from its support on the barn. Now a ewe was tangled in the wreckage, panicking. Juggling her firearms in one hand, Burrington reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors. A few snips and the ewe was free.

By then the bear had fled, with the llama hot on its heels. “Hurricane!” Burrington bellowed. “No!” She took off running, too, a distant third in a race toward the fence line separating pasture from forest.

Burrington feared that if the bear turned around, Hurricane would be done for. As she ran, she cocked her pistol. But the bear, flustered no doubt by the llama and the farmer, seemed not to see the thin, electrified wires he was barreling toward. He ran into them full force; their tension bowed and rebounded. The bear caromed back at an angle, spinning across the ground. When it regained its feet, the bear turned to face Hurricane. Burrington looked on helplessly.

She learned something surprising that night: Despite their cartoonish appearance, llamas can fight like hell. They have six pronounced, razor-sharp “fighting teeth” at the front of their mouths for that purpose. In a whir of gnashing incisors and pummeling hooves, Hurricane assaulted the prone bear until it managed to pull itself away, slip through the fence, and disappear from sight. The llama snorted and stamped the ground and brayed some more—this time, Burrington was sure, with pride.

Of the clashes in Grafton’s bear war, Hurricane’s triumph was an instant classic among dinner-table tales. It elicited gasps of horror and laughs of delight in equal measure. Another attack, though, prompted only frowns and solemn vows of retaliation.

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Tracey Colburn lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the woods. She was used to seeing bears in her yard, up in her trees, and raiding her compost pile, where they chucked aside cabbage in what she could only interpret as disgust. Colburn was in her forties, with long brown hair and a youthful face. She’d had a tough go of it; a breast-cancer diagnosis cut her college career short, and a long string of clerical and municipal jobs were unfulfilling. In 2012, she was in and out of work, but she had enough savings to care for her dog, Kai, a Husky-Labrador mix she’d rescued from a shelter. Kai had developed allergies to wheat and corn, two of the main ingredients in cheap dog food, so she was trying not to give him the stuff.

One muggy weekend, the kind where you leave the windows open to welcome even the slightest breeze, Colburn sliced up a cold pot roast and fed it to Kai. Then she let him out to pee. She was startled to see that her small porch, eight by ten feet, was “just full of bear.” Two of the animals, young ones, were down on all fours sniffing the deck. A bigger, older bear stood right in front of Colburn. Kai rocketed at it, and Colburn screamed. The bear lunged at the sound. “They move like lightning,” she told me.

The bear raked Colburn’s face and torso with its left paw. Its claws dug into one forearm, thrown up in self-defense, and then the other. Colburn, who’d fallen onto her back, tried to push herself inside but realized she’d accidentally closed the door when her head thumped glass. “She was going to frickin’ kill me, I just knew it, because her face was right here,” Tracey said, holding her hand about eight inches in front of her nose. “I was looking right into her eyes.”

Kai must have bitten the bear’s rear legs then, because it jerked away from Colburn. The two animals started snarling and fighting in the yard. Colburn regained her feet and scrambled inside the house, shaking from adrenaline. She looked at her right hand. It didn’t hurt, but it made her stomach turn. The bear had unwrapped the skin from the back of her hand like it was a Christmas present. The gaping hole showed ligaments, muscles, and blood. Colburn looked around her kitchen and picked up a clean dishcloth to wrap the wound.

Kai, only slightly injured, came trotting back toward the house; the bear was nowhere in sight. “Huskies prance. He come prancing out of the shadows, big grin on his face,” Colburn recalled. “Like it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever done.” But she was worried that the bear and its cubs were still out there, waiting for her. It was a terrifying prospect, because she needed to go outside. She didn’t get cell reception in her house, and she couldn’t afford a landline, so there was no way to get in touch with anyone to help her stanch the blood pouring from her injuries.

Carrying a lead pipe to defend herself, Colburn made a desperate run for her white Subaru, only to realize, once she was safely inside, that her mangled right hand couldn’t move the stick shift. Reaching across her body with her left hand, she got the car into gear and puttered down the driveway. She rolled along until she got to the home of a neighbor named Bob. When she rang his doorbell, he stuck his head out an upstairs window.

“I’ve just been attacked by a bear,” Colburn said, breathing heavily.

“Hold on,” Bob replied, and he ducked back inside. A few seconds later, his head popped back out.

“Uh, you’re kidding, right?” he asked.

Colburn conveyed, in painful shouts, that she was most certainly not kidding, and Bob quickly gave her a ride to the fire station. John Babiarz happened to be on duty. “Those goddamn bears!” he kept repeating. He called emergency responders, who whisked Colburn in an ambulance to the nearest hospital, then he phoned the Fish and Game Department. The person on the line was incredulous, like Bob before him. “It’s been a century since we’ve had a bear attack on a person,” the man said, referring to the whole of New Hampshire.

“I’m here!” Babiarz yelled back. “I see the blood!”

Doctors told Colburn that her body would heal. When she was released from the hospital, a warden from Fish and Game showed up at her house to erect a box trap in her yard. After he left, Colburn peeked at the single pink doughnut resting inside. That night she heard a bear banging on the side of the trap, but the next day the doughnut was still there. A few days later, the warden decided that the trap was useless, packed it up, and took it away.

Colburn thought about the bear all the time. She wondered how often it had ventured into her yard, onto her porch, and up to her windows without her knowing. Not like a Peeping Tom. Peeping Toms were people, and bears, she now knew for sure, were nothing like people. “If you look at their eyes,” she told me, “you understand that they are completely alien to us.”


At least one theory of aggressive ursine behavior supports the takeaway that bears are monstrous. Jaroslav Flegr, a biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, studies Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that lives inside warm-blooded animals and reproduces inside cats. (T. gondii is the reason pregnant women are told to steer clear of litter boxes.) When the parasite gets into an animal’s brain, the effects can ramify through the central nervous system. Flegr explained that infected people can become less risk averse. Men with T. gondii, for instance, have higher levels of testosterone and less regard for authority than they otherwise would.

Homo sapiens aren’t the only species that T. gondii can cause to act strangely—black bears are at risk, too. A study from the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found that 80 percent of black bears examined in a lab tested positive for the parasite.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town. But that’s more likely the stuff of science fiction than of good science. A more probable explanation for bold bear behavior is bold human behavior—which, in Grafton, means people embracing individual liberty. And one person’s freedom, it turns out, can be another’s burden.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town.

Take the case of two women I’ll call Doughnut Lady and Beretta, for reasons that will soon be clear. (Neither wanted to be named in this story.) They both live deep in Grafton’s forest, and Beretta’s house is just down the hill from Doughnut Lady’s. When I met her, Beretta spoke in a sharp, clipped way, and she favored pronouncements like “My handyman is such a leftist” and “Do not write a story glorifying it.” The “it” in this case was her neighbor’s behavior. Beretta suggested that Doughnut Lady was treating a serious threat like it was all “fun and games.”

For some 20 years, dating back to around the time that Jessica Soule’s kittens were gobbled up, Doughnut Lady had been feeding Grafton’s bears. She was now in her seventies and owlish, with glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor. She told me that she started feeding the bears accidentally; they stole grub from her two cows, Princess and Buttercup. Then, several years ago, she felt sorry for the bears and got into the habit of feeding them directly. The ritual was this: Every day at sunrise, and again in the late afternoon, she tottered outside with two buckets of grain. Up to eight bears at a time waited for her at the edge of the forest, where she poured the grain into two piles and topped each one with six sugared doughnuts. The animals ate in an orderly fashion, side by side on the ground, and then the cubs would clamber up nearby trees or Doughnut Lady’s satellite dish.

The number of bears grew, and food costs ballooned. Doughnut Lady didn’t want to admit how much the enterprise cost her—“I’m embarrassed, I really am,” she admitted to me—except to say that it represented a significant portion of her monthly budget. But the bears were darn cute, and they never once bothered her cows. Doughnut Lady showed me a homemade calendar she’d compiled featuring pictures of the bears.  

Hadn’t she been worried that she might fall down in the midst of her unusual chore, leaving her vulnerable to animals the size of sumo wrestlers? In a tone that suggested I was being silly, Doughnut Lady said that the thought hadn’t fazed her. Not because she was sure-footed. Indeed, she told me that she fell frequently in winter, when the ground was slick with ice.

I soon learned that there were four or five other families in Grafton who fed the bears, in defiance of state recommendations. Fish and Game was intolerant of such generosity: If you fed one bear, the department said, more bears will want to be fed, and once a bunch of bears get accustomed to food and its human sources, they’ll keep coming back whether you like it or not. Fish and Game recommended that, in addition to not deliberately offering bears tasty snacks, people should use airtight trash cans, keep meat scraps out of compost piles, and take down bird-feeders in early spring, when bears emerge from their dens.

Late one night in 2017, the long-simmering debate about bear feeding took on added urgency when Beretta heard noises outside her house. She grabbed her gun, the brand of which you can guess, and went to investigate. Paw prints littered the ground, and she was sure she knew which doughnut-fattened creatures had left them. This wasn’t the first time the bears from up the hill—a “sleuth” of them, to use the correct collective nomenclature—had gotten too close for comfort. Once, when she was preparing to leave the house for a shift at a volunteer job, she’d been stymied by several bears prowling in her yard, blocking the route to her car. Beretta had called her boss to say that she’d be late, due to unforeseen bear. On more than one occasion, she’d seriously considered shooting a bear and turning it into a rug, but she never acted on the impulse; fashioning the style she really wanted, with the bear’s head intact, would be too expensive.

After discovering the paw prints, Beretta called Grafton’s police officer to complain about her neighbor’s feeding habits. He said he couldn’t help, so Beretta called Fish and Game, which agreed to look into the matter. That’s how a uniformed warden wound up on Doughnut Lady’s doorstep.

Like many Grafton residents, Doughnut Lady referred to Fish and Game as “F and G,” but she put her own spin on the name, so that it sounded like “effin’ G”—as in, “The effin’ G came to attack me.” The warden showed her a printed copy of the state’s public-nuisance laws and told her that her daily feedings could lead to prosecution.

“You deserve a budget cut,” Doughnut Lady told him before slamming the door.

Angry, she called a lawyer, who said that while a legal case against her wouldn’t be airtight—the state would have to prove that her actions, not some other cause, were clearly the root of a defined problem or danger—she should probably stop feeding the bears. What if they hurt someone? She was sure they wouldn’t, but she wanted to avoid further scrutiny. The next morning, she didn’t go outside for the morning grain dump. She felt terrible. Doughnut Lady couldn’t look out her window for fear of making eye contact with the hungry bears waiting for her.

“So that was it,” she said, her eyes moist.

Then, brightening, Doughnut Lady suggested that she could try a new strategy. She could plant blueberries and other calorie-rich flora that bears enjoy. She hinted, too, that she could stretch the definition of planted. Take sunflower seeds, for instance: Bears loved them, and she could scatter them on her property however she wanted. “I could just put them on the ground,” she mused, “and they’re planted.”


Fish and Game contends that “the majority of human/bear conflicts can be avoided,” to the tune of 86 percent, if people act responsibly with their grub. It was no surprise to learn that, in 2012, the year Tracey Colburn was attacked, New Hampshire suffered a drought that limited the animals’ usual fare of bushes, berries, and bugs. Fish and Game got more than 1,000 bear complaints that year, many of them describing animals anxious to get their paws on human food.

Regardless of the reasons for the attack, some locals saw it as a breaking point, a violation of the line between man and nature that demanded recompense. The day after the incident made local news, Colburn stood on her porch and watched as a pickup truck bumped up the dirt road past her house. Inside the cab were several men. The bed held a large wooden box containing hunting dogs, whose acute sense of smell and loud baying would lead the men to their prey. The men didn’t acknowledge Colburn, and she never saw them again. She was fine with that; if an illegal bear hunt was happening, she didn’t want to know about it.

I very much wanted to know about it, so I asked around. As soon as I did, I got what I learned to be a mainstay of small talk in Grafton: friendly advice. It came in various forms, like “I’m a proud gun owner” slipped with a smile between someone’s descriptions of their pets. Tom Ploszaj, a scruffy guy who lives in a trailer in an encampment where the preferred method of keeping bears away is pouring cayenne pepper all over the garbage, explained the subtext to me. “There’s a lot of places around here where they’ll never put a shovel into the dirt,” Ploszaj said. “You don’t want to find one of those places.” I had no idea what he meant, so he clarified: “If you ask too many questions, you might be in a hole in the woods, and no one’s going to find you.”

“It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews. You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

It never came to that, but getting answers was still like pulling teeth. During one of my trips to town, a pair of men standing on the wooden porch of the Grafton Country Store told me that an illegal posse had hunted and killed 13 bears in one day. When I pressed for details, the men clammed up, as if suddenly remembering that they shouldn’t brag to a journalist about breaking the law. Another resident said he knew about the vigilante hunt and opposed it, but would never have put up any resistance. “It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews,” he said. “You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

I asked the town’s police officer, Russell Poitras, about the posse, and he said he didn’t know anything about it. Would it have been possible to hear the bear hunt, I asked—all those gunshots fired in the woods? Sure, Poitras said, but gunfire was to Grafton what traffic is to a big city: background noise.

Another local resident, who asked not to be named because she feared repercussions, was more helpful. She told me that one day, in the middle of winter, when hibernating bears were easier targets than they were during legal hunting season, she answered a knock at her door. Standing there was John Dodge. He spoke of “us,” and the woman understood that Dodge was there with a few other men. They were probably behind him on the road, bundled up inside their trucks and away from the freezing air.

Dodge told the woman that the group wanted to kill a bear whose den was inside a hill on her land.

“I got nothing to do with it,” she replied.

“We need to know if we can get on your property,” Dodge explained.

“What I don’t know won’t hurt me,” she told him with a shrug. “I won’t look out my window.”

After that she heard gunfire in fits and starts. She stayed inside and didn’t peek out, as she’d promised. A few days later, Dodge told her that the posse had finished its work, which had included much more than shooting the single bear on her property. “He said they got them, emptied them out,” the woman told me. “He said it was 13.”

Would Dodge or the other men talk to me? I wondered. “They agreed that they’re not going to,” the woman said. Word had gotten around about the questions I was asking, and an omerta was in effect. This surprised me less than the revelation that I’d already spoken to Dodge some months prior. His door was one of many I’d knocked on while first sussing out tales of Grafton’s bears, before I knew about the posse.

“I just moved here,” he’d said. “I haven’t seen any bears.” Then he’d shut the door.

In fact, I learned, Dodge was raised in Grafton and had lived alongside bears his whole life. Armed with this knowledge, I drove to his house, parked across the road, and approached him when he came into his yard. Rangy, with a sun-browned forehead, skullcap of white hair, and mouth that cut a straight line across his skeptical face, Dodge listened while I explained that I wasn’t trying to get him in any trouble—I just wanted to know the story.

“I still ain’t going to talk to anybody. I don’t want nothing to do with it,” he said. “You can explain it, but I don’t want to get involved with it.”

Dodge denied taking part in any posse. He added that he’s part Cherokee, and killing bears was a violation of that heritage. Then he offered me some friendly advice: “If you find out about this bear hunt that you keep mentioning, you’re going to have a problem.” I took him to mean that the members of the posse would wield some brand of street (forest?) justice at me and anyone who snitched. I thanked him for his time and walked toward my car.

“Just leave me out of it,” he called after me. “Because a war’s going to come, and I’m going to be right in the middle of it.” What role he’d play exactly he didn’t say.


It’s easy to see locals like Dodge as foolhardy and eager to use the bear threat, whether real, imagined, or embellished, as an excuse to live out action-movie fantasies. But when I looked under the hood of New Hampshire’s law and order, I found deficiencies—the kind that people might take as evidence that they needed to act on their own.

Budget troubles in recent years have forced Fish and Game to reduce its staff size. Wardens, of which there are 32 statewide, are stretched thin. They handle upwards of 600 bears complaints annually, among thousands of other calls, and Andrew Timmins admitted that it can be hard to do much more than keep track of the number and type of reports. When I asked him if I could review the department’s paperwork on the Colburn attack, he said that none existed. “Given the magnitude of the work, sometimes details slip through the cracks,” Timmins wrote in an email, speculating on why a responding warden didn’t write the incident up. “I can tell you from experience that there are times when I would not have time to do the same.”

To a journalist, it was a frustrating answer. I imagined it might be the same for people who prefer that bears not devour pets, destroy property, or get violent with innocents like Colburn. “If the government won’t do its job, the people will,” Babiarz told me one day.

But what is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist? Only a well-funded, organized state agency can efficiently safeguard communities from bears, and Grafton is full of people who tend to support the depletion of government coffers. Babiarz, I realized, probably didn’t want a state agent coming to his farm to capture or kill the chicken-eating bear. More likely, he wanted New Hampshire to lift restrictions on his right to shoot the animal or, if he felt like it, to feed it chocolate. That was the state’s job: to protect his freedom.

“I feel, on my property, I have the right to defend and protect,” Babiarz told me. “If I see a problem bear, I will deal with it. We can argue about it in court later on.”  

What is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist?

Driving around Grafton, I passed dilapidated houses that stood like rotting teeth against a yawning green mouth of New England forest. Other fossils of town history were submerged in the intruding wilderness: platforms that once held church revivals, cemeteries in various states of senescence, foundations of long-abandoned homesteads. This, nature’s relentless fecundity, molded the town’s Great Bear Drama—a mix of luring, feeding, shouting, shooting, and storytelling. History also played a part, as did politics and culture. Vital, too, was the prism of individual experience.

One day I found myself thinking of C.I. Lewis, a New England–based philosopher who wrote a book called Mind and the World Order in 1929. At the time, his college-age daughter was dying of leukemia. Lewis used the term qualia to describe the unique properties that someone senses during a life event. His daughter, for instance, likely felt pain, the weight of her body, and the speed of time in ways that he, at her bedside, could not. What did qualia mean, Lewis wondered, for the concept of shared reality and objective truth?

Perhaps Grafton’s relationship with bears was a huge bundle of qualia, stacked like cords of wood. Every resident’s experience looked awfully like the one next to it, as if cut from the same tree, and they were all bound by the ties of a communal existence. Yet up close, each one was distinct, shaped in various ways by ferality and freedom.

Late in the spring of 2018, I visited Grafton one last time. At the end of the day, in a deepening dusk, I steered my car up a rocky dirt road and around tall, twisting trees toward Tent City. I wanted to talk to the survivalists again, to see whether their bear troubles had faded or intensified in recent months. I got there later than I’d intended and could barely see the camp in the gloom. I made out the finished barrier, more motley than originally conceived: a crude network of chain-link, metal gates, and picket-fence sections, all of it trussed together in a common function.  

I reached the road’s end; I would have to walk from there. Rolling down the window of my car, I squinted at an indistinct shape moving in the woods. Was it a survivalist, foraging for mushrooms or firewood? Or was it a bear, foraging for something else? If I couldn’t tell what it was, would the survivalists know I was human when they saw my figure approaching their camp in the creeping darkness? If not, would firecrackers or worse come flying my way?

I spent a long moment considering unwanted consequences, whether wrought by man or by beast, and the fact that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Then I rolled up my window and drove back the way I came, leaving Tent City to another restless night.

The Arc of the Sun

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The Arc of the Sun

Chasing history in the great South African pigeon race.

By David Samuels

The Atavist Magazine, No. 50


David Samuels is the author of two books, The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Feuilleton, and n+1, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editors: Katis Bachko, Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Riley Blanton, Cara McGoogan
Photos: Jonathan Torgovnik Video: Courtesy of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race

Published in July 2015. Design updated in 2021.

I met Paul Smith, the man responsible for shipping the Queen of England’s pigeons, near a sunlit pigeon loft in Linbro Park, a light-industrial section of Johannesburg, South Africa. The loft, home to 2,453 pigeons, has a corrugated aluminum roof with translucent plastic panels to let in the sun and high-grade chicken-wire walls to encourage the circulation of air. Each of the pigeons inside the loft has a perch where it is accustomed to roosting. In two days’ time, the pigeons will be loaded into crates, put on a truck, and transported approximately 325 miles from here, to a point along the Vaal River, a tributary of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. There they will be set free, in the hope that they will fly back home.

Paul, a voluble little white-haired man in his early seventies who wears a white polo shirt, baggy cargo shorts, white Nikes, and white tennis socks, has won nearly every honor that pigeon racing has to offer. Before taking up the sport full-time, he made women’s stockings. “I first raced pigeons in 1959, when I was 15,” he says. “I couldn’t win a race to save me life.” He has traveled to Thailand, a haven for pigeon fanciers, 34 times. He helped organize pigeon races at the Seoul Olympiad and at the Berlin Wall. He has won the UK championship ten times and come in second ten times. The race that is closest to his heart, he confides, is the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, which bills itself as the most lucrative pigeon race in the world. The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000, with subsequent finishers taking the balance of the million-dollar purse.

The Million Dollar, Paul tells me, was the brainchild of Zandy Meyer, a Johannesburg businessman who died two years ago. “Can’t tell you too much about him, can I?” Paul offers, in the curious way he has of emphasizing the first-person pronoun while providing only occasional dabs of specific detail, a habit that sometimes results in his conveying exactly the opposite of the meaning that he appears to intend. “There’s a lot of stories about him.” He first met Zandy, he says, in 1994 at a pigeon race in Thailand that Smith helped arrange on behalf of the country’s national tourism board. “We were sitting out there with a bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal. There were no pigeons home”—by which he means that none of the birds had yet returned to the loft—“and we were gradually getting worse and worse for wear. And I said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have one of these in South Africa. Lovely climate. Cheap labor.’”

Zandy, whose six brothers were all well-known athletes in South Africa, had a crippled leg, which didn’t prevent him from becoming a famous ladies’ man who also keenly enjoyed all other available forms of competition. As soon as Paul raised the idea, he began to imagine a pigeon race with the kind of purse that would rival Sun City’s $2 million golf tournament. “Zandy said to me, ‘Wherever you think you can get pigeons for the race, go,’” Paul recalls. “‘I know a few people who’ve got money.’” According to Paul, the original backing for the Million Dollar supposedly came from 17 Swiss millionaires, who preferred to remain anonymous, although he also suggested that at least some of the money came from Zandy’s own pocket. For that first race, in 1996, Paul managed to attract 893 pigeons. The race lost money. The next three races also lost money. After five years, it began breaking even, and in years since it has turned a reasonable profit.

As Paul goes on about the history of the Million Dollar, I find myself soothed by the deep, throaty “blu-blu-buu-buu-buu” call of the thousands of pigeons in the lofts beside us. With their solid metal frames and high plastic ceilings, the two buildings where the pigeons sleep and eat seem like a nice home to fly back to. The buildings are divided by chicken wire into 16 cross-sections, each of which contains approximately 250 pigeons, which roost on inverted aluminum V’s that are fixed to the chicken-wire walls in undulating rows. The positioning of each pigeon on its perch exists in a clear hierarchical relation to the perch of every other pigeon. Their stillness broken by brief, fitful movements, they cock their heads to the side and fix one eye on the curious humans outside their cage. While the eyes of birds are often described as unblinking, they blink plenty, at regular intervals, like they are transmitting messages in Morse code from their Pleistocene ancestors. If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

Every pigeon in the loft arrived in South Africa between the ages of four weeks and four months old from one of 33 countries, with Germany (532 birds), the U.S. (505 birds), and Kuwait (213 birds) sending the most. After spending 30 days in quarantine, they took up residence in the loft, where they live under the round-the-clock care of three on-site trainers, who prepare them for the race. It is impossible to tell which of the pigeons belong to Paul Smith without scanning the bands on their ankles. Inside each band is a numeric code, which corresponds to another code that exists inside a digital black box, which remains untouched until the race is over.

The two lead trainers, Andre van Wyk and Corrie Naude, speak to the birds in Afrikaans. They have relatively little interest in talking to humans. Andre, a tall, cadaverous man whose bony ass does nothing to fill his well-worn blue jeans, talks in the halting way that is common among people who spend most of their days communicating with animals. He has been training pigeons for the race for the past eight years. He grew up in the Free State and received his first pigeon when he was three years old.

“On my third birthday, somebody gave me two white fantails,” he tells me. “From then until now, I am with the pigeons.”

“How do they make you feel?” I ask him.

“Good!”

If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

The pigeons in the loft here in Johannesburg are less than a year old, which is young for racing. Newborn pigeons, known as squeakers, are shipped to South Africa between May and July. Once the birds are released from quarantine, Andre first teaches them to circle, directing them from the ground with a flag. After a month, if they can stay aloft for one hour, they are ready to fly home. Their first time out, the pigeons are taken three miles from the loft, then, in subsequent weeks, progress to a distance of six miles, then nine, then twelve. When they return home, they get extra food. After two months of training, they know to go out of their baskets and fly back. They then compete in preliminary races, including five “hot spot” car races, in which the owner of the winning pigeon wins a new vehicle.

In Germany, Andre says, they fly their pigeons 14 weekends in a row, without rest, which is why the pigeons there are so strong. “If a pigeon can make it, they’re a great pigeon,” he says. “If they can’t make it, they’re out.” It is not unusual, he adds, for pigeons to go missing on race day, then make their way back to the loft a year or two later.

Throughout his life, Andre has always kept his own birds, but now things are different. “I live here at the loft,” he says, gesturing toward his rooms near the pigeon coop. “I can’t keep my own pigeons here.”  

The science of how exactly pigeons return home is frustratingly incomplete. The British ornithologist G.V.T. Matthews proposed in the 1950s that pigeons use “the arc of the sun” to fix their course. His theory was soon eclipsed by the work of William Keeton of Cornell University, the father of “magnetic cue theory.” While the sun did play a role in helping pigeons to return home, Keeton asserted, the birds took a far greater share of their guidance from the magnetic field of the earth, which allowed the birds to orient themselves through a kind of internal compass. Keeton’s theory held sway until the 1970s, when its primacy was undone by Floriano Papi of the University of Pisa. Through a clever series of experiments, Papi proved that while pigeons could fly straight home when their magnetic receptors were blocked, they were lost without the use of their olfactory organs. (I am relying here on a very clear and elegant discussion of the various theories in A Very British Coop, by Mark Collings.) Papi’s “olfactory theory” proposed that pigeons smell their way home, a view that remains dominant today despite a challenge in the 1990s from Tim Guilford of Oxford’s zoology department, who advanced the theory that pigeons rely on visual cues, or “steeple-chasing,” a suggestion that was in turn challenged by Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, who suggested that pigeons rely on something he identified as “morphic resonance,” which as far as I can figure out is total nonsense.

While all the pigeon fanciers I have ever met or read are awestruck by the pigeon’s homing abilities, none seem to display much interest in any of the theories that purport to explain the behavior for which the birds are bred. What unites fanciers is a strong personal attachment to the idea of home. In the Pocket Sports edition of Ron Bissett’s Pigeon Racing, a cheaply printed castoff from Islington Libraries that I purchased for $1 at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I found the following observation: “I have asked many of my friends in the sport today to pin-point the exact start of their interest in the sport, and many of them cannot, although the stock reply seemed to me to be ‘I have been in it as a boy’ or ‘it has always been in the family.’” Bissett adds that “pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part.”

Because fanciers appear to be united by a deep longing for home, it makes sense that they come from all walks of life. King Edward VII of Great Britain raced his pigeons in the name of one of his gardeners. Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, flies her pigeons from the royal pigeon loft at Sandringham House in King’s Lynn. Historically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England have produced the greatest homing pigeons and pigeon fanciers, and as the populations of those countries have spread out across the world, the pigeons have followed. The mining districts of Newcastle are also famous for the excellence of their pigeons, which presumably benefited from the pleasure that men who spent their days underground took in seeing their birds fly free. The best-known pigeon fancier in the world today is probably Mike Tyson, who grew up fatherless on the streets of Brooklyn, before being taken in by the legendary trainer of human pugilists Cus D’Amato, and who kept 4,000 birds in a Harlem mansion at the height of his brutal career of knockouts and ear biting. “A pigeon fancier is very caring,” Tyson observed. “There is a great gentleness about them when they handle the pigeons.”

Fanciers agree that the body of a good racing pigeon should feel hard and firm, and should sit snugly in the hand. The skull bone should be bold and well formed, and the bird’s eyes should be clear and bright. They agree on the importance of feathers, which should be plentiful and very soft. The long wing feathers, known as flights, should fold to a place about ½ an inch to ¾ of an inch from the end of the tail feathers. According to the precepts of “wing theory,” the wing of a good long-distance racer will show very little enlargement between the ten secondary and ten primary flights. The tips of the primaries will be more rounded, and the outside primaries will open up like the fingers on your hand. Quality short-distance flyers show a pronounced step up between the secondaries and primaries, which have sharper tips. The most important flights for both types of flyers are the three outside ones—the eighth, ninth, and tenth—on the outer joint of the wing, which push the air back like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.

Trainers are gentle with their birds because they love them and in order to inculcate the idea that home is a good place to come back to. They are up to date on the latest treatments for common avian diseases, can fashion a splint for a broken leg out of a wooden matchstick or coffee stirrer and a few strips of plaster, and promote themselves to their birds from a very young age as calm, protective, and trustworthy. They will often bring parental gifts of corn, maple peas, tic beans, watercress, and other healthy foods that pigeons like to the loft. After a few weeks of gentle treatment, the trainer will start to accustom the birds to their baskets. A trainer will generally put corn in a basket, then introduce the new birds and leave them there overnight.

The history of the relationship between pigeons and human beings, which might be said to begin with the pigeon, or rock dove, that Noah sent aloft after the flood, is certainly worth many paragraphs on its own, if such a digression didn’t threaten to interfere with the story of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR). So I will skip quickly from the domestication of the pigeon by the ancient Egyptians, to their pioneering use as a means of commercial communication by the merchants of Aleppo, to the use of carrier pigeons in the far parts of Europe by the Romans, as described in the works of Pliny and Marcus Terentius Varro, to the establishment in the 12th century of the world’s first true pigeon post by Sultan Nuruddin, caliph of Baghdad. Seven centuries later, Nathan de Rothschild’s farsighted investment in carrier pigeons allowed him to receive news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the Rothschild fortune for the next two centuries. The French emperor’s use of pigeons in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was so decisive that by 1891, France housed and fed a population of approximately 250,000 pigeons devoted to government use. The newly united nation of Italy set up 14 strategically located pigeon lofts, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon followed suit. In 1900, the British successfully used pigeons to communicate across South Africa and win the Boer War.

During World War I, pigeons played an important role in numerous engagements, including the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when 178 pigeons assigned to tanks safely delivered their messages back to Allied military headquarters. Many of the greatest heroes of the American Expeditionary Forces, which turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, were pigeons whose names have gone down in history books, including Big Tom, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes under heavy machine-gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne action of 1918; Spike, who carried 52 messages for the 77th division without injury; and President Wilson, who had a leg shot off while delivering a message that helped decide a particularly hectic firefight in the Ardennes. The most famous of all American war pigeons was Cher Ami, who at the cost of a leg and a wing saved the “lost battalion” of the Argonne from being obliterated by its own artillery fire. After his death one year later, in 1919, Cher Ami was mounted and displayed at the National Museum in Washington.

At nine on Thursday morning, Andre and Corrie begin shooing the pigeons out of their loft for basketing, which involves loading them into rectangular wire-mesh transport boxes, which are known as baskets. The deep thrumming of the pigeons reminds me of the sound of ocean waves, over which the trainers shout, “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” The birds waddle together down the concrete walkway like subway passengers during morning rush hour, until all of a sudden one pigeon stops, at which point the whole group stops. The trainers resume their cry: “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” Shades are drawn over the last two sections of the loft, and the baskets are inserted into a slot at the bottom. The baskets are then slotted into their places on the pigeon truck, which looks more or less like a rolling bank vault.

“I’m a pigeon fancier. That’s for the last day of the race. Please come out,” pleads Willi van Beers, the owner of the legendary Birdy, a top bird at the 2008 Million Dollar, to a photographer who is angling for a better shot of the embarking birds. The unfamiliar interaction, Willi worries, might spook some of the birds and affect the outcome of the race. Behind him are workers from Malawi, outfitted in yellow T-shirts and bright blue pants, who carry the baskets to the truck and place them in a grid that measures seven box slots down and twelve across. “Both of you, do it nicely!” Willi commands. The entire process of loading the pigeons into the baskets takes less than an hour. When they are done the loft’s buildings stand empty, stained with pigeon shit and stray feathers.

On a shady covered patio a safe distance from the loft, Paul Smith is talking with several other fanciers about new treatments for herpes and chlamydia, which appear to be as common among pigeons as they are among clubgoers in Ibiza. “That’s water-based, innit?” he inquires of a new vaccine.

Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. 

The baskets, currently containing all 2,453 pigeons entered in the race, aren’t the race baskets, it turns out. They are only temporary baskets, which will be unloaded from the truck in a big gymnasium-like hall down the block. There the pigeons will be removed from the baskets one by one and brought over to long tables, where their ankle bracelets will be checked against the master list. Then their wings will be stamped and they will be put in the official race baskets, which will be loaded onto the truck, which will be parked by the loft until early the next morning, when we will begin the long trek up to the Northern Cape.

The baskets are laid out near the door of the hall beneath a festive neon sign that reads “South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.” At the other end of the hall are the big white travel baskets, smelling sweetly of hay. Paul Smith sits at one of the inspection tables, instructing wing stampers in the proper way to ink a pigeon. First you take the bird in a tight, firm grip, so you can feel its fast-beating heart, then you fan the wing open on the table. Structurally speaking, the wing is definitely the most interesting part of the pigeon. Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. “If you get a nice cover with no gaps, that’s good,” Paul says, spreading out a pigeon wing for me to inspect. “This one has good cover all the way through.”

White flights are often thought to be superior in hot climates because they reflect the sun, but in fact they are not, he says, because they fray. If it rains, and there is no oil in the feathers, they will become soggy, and the bird will go down. Dark feathers are the ones with the oil. He presses his stamp on the inkpad and then on the wing. Then he removes the white sticker on the bird’s left foot, in order to check each number against the log, and covers it up with another sticker.

“Yeah, we’re all nuts,” Paul answers when I ask him whether pigeon people have particular characteristics in common. “We can all talk about pigeons. We’re all hoping.” The oceanic thrum of the birds doesn’t make him feel one way or another. You don’t mind if it’s a winner that’s doing it, he says. But the losers make the same noise.

The line halts. Men stand patiently at the tables, gently cradling pigeons against their pot bellies. Paul passes the time talking to a cheetah biologist who is originally from San Diego but has lived in Botswana for seven years. She is here with her boyfriend, whose pigeon won a preliminary race. Paul tells her that he is from England but spends a lot of time outside the country.

“Your accent hasn’t dimmed any,” the cheetah biologist says.

“Well, everything else has.” The line still isn’t moving. There are only about another 2,000 pigeons left to stamp.  

Not every pigeon that is shipped to South Africa has a chance to win the Million Dollar. Most are owned by breeders and rival syndicates, which may ship anywhere from several dozen to over a hundred birds. Once the results of the first half of the preliminary races are in, the owners choose whether to pay the $1,100 per team of three pigeons, two of which act as backups to the first, preferred competitor, to enter the Million Dollar. All the birds fly the race, but only the results of birds whose fees have been paid are included in the official results. Last year, for example, 96 pigeons from Holland were shipped to the race. The owners paid to enter 95 pigeons in the race at $1,100 a head. The 96th pigeon went onto an online auction site, where unclaimed pigeons are available to the highest bidder, but nobody bought it. On race day it came home first, costing the guy who shipped it $200,000 in race and auction winnings. The lesson is that it can be dangerous to skimp on entrance fees.


Paul Smith looks out at the well-feathered baskets that are piling up at the end of the room and sighs. He has reached the bargaining stage, willing to sacrifice his own slight chance of victory—which based on the number of his own pigeons he has entered is somewhere around one in fifty, or 2 percent—for the even smaller share of glory that he perhaps might claim for having shipped the winning pigeon. “All I want is to see the Union Jack,” he says wistfully.

The pigeon handlers who carry the birds from the table area to the racing baskets are all from Malawi. They earn 90 rand a day, about $7, for their labor, and they sleep together in the bunkhouse on the far side of the pigeon loft. “They make sad sound,” says Ronnex Msimeko, whose smooth, unlined face, boyish stature, and gentle demeanor do little to betray the fact that he is 38 years old. If you squint at Ronnex and his fellow workers, they could easily pass for pupils in a missionary school. They speak Tumbaka to one another, which is the language they use at home, where they farm maize, groundnuts, and tobacco, and keep animals, including goats, pigs, chicken, and kudu. In two months, they will return to Malawi on buses and in minivans, and use the money they have earned to buy more land and goats.

It has been three hours, and maybe half the pigeons have been unloaded. I take a seat by the wall and read a copy of the Johannesburg Star. “Looting Frenzy,” the headline proclaims, above a picture of laughing township dwellers running through the streets of Soweto. One is carrying a crate of tomatoes, and another is carrying a bottle of soda. The article below describes “scenes of widespread looting playing out all day across the township’s many suburbs,” represented photographically by four young men carrying off a beverage display case imprinted with the Pepsi logo. Shop windows were smashed and two people died in the riots, which were directed at traders from Ethiopia and Somalia. “It’s one thing if they take all these things to their families, but they’re just wasting it,” a man named Buhle Mguda told the Sunday Times. Only foreign-owned shops were destroyed and looted. “I’m not safe in Somalia. I’m not safe here. We’ve got too many problems,” said Faisel Ali, a shopkeeper whose business was spared. “Wherever you work, they want to take your life.”  

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a home, or to keep the home they might make for themselves elsewhere, is a message that can be found on nearly every page of the Star. Grab this land, says Godrich Gardee, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s radical leftist party, urging the expropriation of acreage belonging to white farmers. “They used guns to take over our land. Now, you must erect your shacks there.” The best time to take land that might once have belonged to your ancestors is during public holidays, Gardee is quoted as saying. “This country has a lot of public holidays. You must occupy the land during the public holidays, when the police and Red Ants”—a security brigade that removes squatters—“are on holiday. You must do it secretly. Do not make announcements on radios. They must just find you staying there.” He has renamed the farmland Zimbabwe, which is a nice hat-tip to the land-expropriation policies of South Africa’s neighbor to the north. There a minister of Mashonaland East province named Joel Biggie Matiza has presented “offer letters” to 19 of the province’s 33 tribal chiefs—an offer letter being a legal document frequently used by the regime of Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, that overrides all previous title deeds and other documents governing ownership of any piece of agricultural land. According to these offer letters, the 200 to 300 white farmers who are still working small pieces of their onetime holdings in Mashonaland East must leave land that might not exactly be theirs but would be equally hard to describe as “belonging” to the government or to the chiefs. White farmers who openly support Zanu-PF—Mugabe’s political party, which has ruled the country since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1980—will be spared.  

Lucky Countess, one of Paul Smith’s pigeons, has won three weeks of preliminary races “on the bounce” or “on the spin”—both are British sporting lingo for consecutive victories—and is therefore looking good for tomorrow’s race. Despite having led the English teams for the Olympiad and winning plenty of big races, Paul has never won the Million Dollar, a race he personally helped found and the one he clearly cares the most about. His best showing was in 2001, when he came in second with Nicolodon, a Hungarian pigeon he bought online after its owner failed to claim it; eight of the top 32 pigeons that year were Hungarian. To cover costs for the 48 pigeons his personal syndicate has entered in the race this year, he will have to win $52,000 in prize money just to break even. When I ask him about coming in second again he grimaces, and then he says: “How happy would it make me if I won this race? Very happy.”

Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love. They make pigeon fanciers happy, even if no one understands exactly how they find their way home. They appear in the eighth chapter of the Bible, returning to Noah’s outstretched hand. They facilitated human communication over long distances before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet.

In addition to their critical role on the battlefields of World War I, pigeons also played an important part during World War II, especially in anti-Nazi movements in occupied Europe, which is still within the living memory of some of the older fanciers here, and is therefore one of several hot subjects of conversation at the hotel bar after the day’s basketing is done. The most affecting of the many stories I am told is recounted by an 85-year-old American fancier, Dr. Alfred Piaget, who flies Tournier pigeons in New Jersey and is a distant relative of the pioneering child psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget. He heard the story firsthand during a trip to Belgium to visit members of the Cattrysse family, who live in a small Flemish town called Moere. There, in a simple farming community of 1,200 inhabitants, the Cattrysse brothers, Gerard and Oscar, painstakingly built what by 1939 was widely regarded as the single greatest pigeon loft in the world.

According to an account they gave to a pigeon fanciers’ magazine after the war, the Cattrysse brothers were instructed in the art of breeding and flying pigeons by the great Belgian fancier Charles Vanderespt, who between 1923 and 1935 won an astounding total of 4,635 prizes, including the international prize in the Bordeaux Belgium-Holland race of 1935, which was famous for its dreadful weather. In 1923, the brothers read a news article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir about a man named Pierre Decnop, from Anderlecht, who had won the three top prizes in a race from Dax. They purchased some of Decnop’s hens and began crossing them with Vanderespt cocks, but the pigeons they bred showed no interest in flying, even after three years in the loft, which ran the length of the attic above the warehouse of the brothers’ grocery store in town. Still, there was no question about the quality of the Vanderespt cock, which, coupled with a different hen, had bred Goliath, a famous prewar long-distance racer.

In 1936, the brothers purchased a magnificent blue hen from a fancier in Gistel and paired her with a checkered Vanderespt cock. Among the offspring was an outstanding blue cock named Grote Blauwen, who became the sire of the Cattrysse line, which was quickly recognized as one of the greatest in all of Europe.

Four years later, the Germans occupied Moere, and the Cattrysse brothers’ houses in town were commandeered as quarters for German officers. The brothers and their families moved into what had been their garage. According to the laws of the occupation, all pigeons in the area had to be turned over at once to the German authorities, who feared that the birds could be used to carry messages to and from resistance groups. Gerard and Oscar were permitted to continue caring for their pigeons under the direct surveillance of the German commander. Other families in Moere refused to turn over their birds and continued caring for them in secret, despite increasingly draconian punishments as the war dragged on and the local resistance linked up with the British, becoming a major thorn in the side of the German occupier.

A few weeks after the Normandy landing in 1944, the local German commander came to the brothers and informed them of an urgent new directive he had received from Berlin. “My orders are to kill every bird and cut their legs off,” he told the brothers. But the German officer had fallen in love with the birds, and with the Allied armies now moving inland from the beachhead, he also may have known that the war was lost. So he came up with a solution that would allow him to present his superiors with the required number of pigeon legs.

“Look, you and I both know that you have a lot of friends hiding their birds,” the commander told the brothers, at least in Alfred Piaget’s version of the story. “If by tomorrow night you can give me thirty to forty birds, I will spare thirty or forty of your birds.”

The famous Cattrysse line would be saved—if the brothers could convince their neighbors to substitute their own birds. That night, and through the next afternoon, Gerard and Oscar Cattrysse made the rounds on their heartbreaking errand, searching for substitute birds for the slaughterer’s knife. The brothers knew what they were asking of their neighbors. They also knew that they had something valuable to offer in return.

“If you can find it in your hearts, then we will breed you young ones,” they offered the local farmers. In return for handing over the birds that they had nurtured in secret throughout the war years, they would gain a share in one of the greatest bloodlines in Europe. The brothers returned before dusk with several dozen birds, whose throats were slit by the German officer, who fled town shortly afterward. Thanks to the willingness of the people of Moere to sacrifice their own birds on behalf of their neighbors’ superior bloodline, Cattrysse pigeons play a part in pigeon racing to this day.

I arrive at the pigeon loft at four the next morning, when it is still dark. There is a light on in Andre’s small kitchen, which is decorated with pictures of his children and a homey painting of a Voortrekker homestead alone in the middle of the veld. I pour myself coffee from a fresh pot on the kitchen table, where a radio is playing country music with lyrics in Afrikaans. The three men talk among themselves in their tribal language and shuffle their feet in the presence of a guest. Andre’s dog goes from man to man, nuzzling legs and hands, searching for the comfort of a pat on the head. After making his rounds, the dog ceremonially sniffs Andre’s worn leather motorcycle jacket, which is slung over the back of a chair.

Like Nazi-occupied Europe, apartheid South Africa seems like a strange backdrop for musings about the idea of home. Yet the Afrikaners, who are the poor whites of South Africa, have their own language and manners, and their own sense of rootedness in the land. With the country’s first free elections in 1994, the Afrikaners became yet another African tribe that lost its homeland, having been made constitutionally equal to the darker-skinned tribes they had so casually and brutally discriminated against. In fact, the Afrikaners lost their homeland twice, first to the British in the Boer War, and then to the definition of South Africa as a non-racial democracy in which power would be shared equally among all citizens on the basis of one man, one vote. While the idea of the Afrikaners as a white-skinned African tribe may seem wildly at odds with more common narratives of racist European colonial settlement, it is congruent in many ways with the history of the Afrikaners themselves, as well as with the history of the Zulus, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, Tswana, and Khoi, dark-skinned northern tribes that also traveled south between the 16th and 19th centuries to populate the country they now share.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else.

Outside, the headlights of the pigeon transport go on, and the rumble of the truck’s motor drowns out the cooing of the birds in their baskets, which are airy and lined with straw. Inside, they are safe with the flock.

I will be traveling with Corrie, who has generously allowed me to ride along in the back of his buckie, a vehicle that is somewhere between a large station wagon and a small panel truck. Because of the low ceiling, the only comfortable way to ride in the back of the buckie is to lie flat on the plywood feed bins. Everything fits together well, and nothing is dirty. A blanket and pillow I took from my hotel room soften my makeshift bed, which has been scoured by a decade or so of hard use. It’s like lying flat on my back in a longboat from the Pequod.

The city of Johannesburg is dark, which is how things usually are at night, or, more recently, during the day. The city’s overburdened electrical grid frequently goes out during the daytime, and blackouts are now a more or less normal feature of life, just like the carjackings, home invasions, large-scale public thefts, and outbreaks of xenophobic violence that target Somalis and Eritreans. The acrid smell of burnt rubber wafting in through the open window of Corrie’s buckie is a reminder of the apartheid-era fashion for filling rubber tires with gasoline, hanging them around the necks of suspected informers, traitors, and enemies, and then setting them ablaze. Now the people of townships burn tires for fuel; the smell is unfamiliar to most Americans and Europeans but familiar to everyone else in the world as the olfactory precipitate of poverty and inequality.  

The windows offer a 270-degree panorama that reminds me of driving down the California coast at night. The sand berms outside look like the walls of beach castles built by giants, remainders of Johannesburg’s gold mines, which are now being worked by Chinese companies that reprocess the leavings for leftover gold.

Dawn soon washes the stars from the sky, and the sun comes up quickly over the highway. Sixty miles from Johannesburg, the savanna is a flat green with single trees in the center, like an illuminated picture in a children’s Bible. The farms have their own water tanks and provide watering holes for cattle.

We stop for coffee and inflate the tires of the pigeon truck. The road ahead runs two lanes in each direction, separated by a Mohawk of tall grass that has been bleached white by the sun. At the next truck stop, an hour later, I get out of the buckie to stretch my legs and peer inside the baskets. A pigeon looks back at me. Our eyes meet amid the rustling of the straw. The journey ahead is a strenuous one, and not without some real risks. There are hawks, electrical lines, and boys with guns. There is the sun, the wind, and a chance of rain. Depending on the weather, somewhere between half to three-quarters of the birds will actually make it home.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else. As the sun grows hotter, I decide to conserve my energy and enjoy the feeling of my back on the plywood, rolling with the bumps. The highway is now only two lanes, one going to Johannesburg and the other heading toward the Cape. We are hurtling through landlocked seas of grass toward an object that I have imagined but not yet met. Corn is in season but not yet up to the breakdown lane. The water towers out here are placed high off the ground, on stilts.

We stop in Bloemhof, which resembles a central Kansas shit hole, in front of Champion Chicken, which offers “lekker gaar hoender” or “tasty cooked chicken.” Inside the truck, the birds are hitting a note that sounds almost electric—“b-b-woomp!”—in anticipation of being fed and watered. The inside of the truck is cool, with a shady central aisle running between the two solid walls of chicken-wire baskets. At the foot of each row of baskets runs a trough made of stoppered white PVC tubing, where the larger birds have positioned themselves. The white mustache-like bands above their beaks, known as the cere, give them the unexpected look of mid-period Victorian gentlemen.

Corrie opens the bins in back of the buckie and pulls out a white bag of kernel corn, which he lugs over to the truck. He opens up the bag and pours, showering kernels down the tubing. The most aggressive birds push to the front of the baskets and peck first. Then they retire to the back of the cage and let the next birds have a go. When they are done eating, Corrie brings out a hose and floods the tubes with drinking water. Tomorrow at 6 a.m. they will have their last meal before the race. The men fold down the gate of the buckie and eat roasted chicken with their hands, washing it down with Coke.

Our next stop will be Kimberley, where we will pass by what was once the world’s richest diamond mine and is now the world’s largest man-made hole. In 2013, a dog fell into the hole and was stuck there for a week, until a rescuer rappelled down 500 feet and brought him out. Being in diamond country means that you can buy uncut two-carat stones at the garage across the street for 100 rand (about $9). Taking a piss in the bathroom is two rand.

François, the young Afrikaner veterinarian who tends to the pigeons, tells me that his friend gets more than $40,000 to live-stream ANC rallies that no one watches. He is a sweet, moonfaced boy who wears a black beret and respects his elders. “The big divide is between the men over 40 or 50 who fought in the Boer Wars,” he tells me, referring to the wars that South Africa fought in Rhodesia and elsewhere, in the hopes of beating back challenges to apartheid, “and those who are younger, like me.” Unlike many of his white peers, he has no interest in moving to Australia, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any of the other places to which white South Africans are fleeing in droves. South Africa is his home, and the wildlife here is better than anyplace else in the world.

On the telephone pole nearby, someone has posted a mimeographed tone poem above a smudged photograph of an ample woman:

LOST LOVER

HERBALIST 

IN 3 DAYS ONLY 

AND PEOPLE WHO WANT BABIES.

A local phone number is written by hand beneath the photograph.

An elderly couple pass by the truck filled with cooing pigeons without a second glance. The woman is dressed in the southern African uniform of a piece of cheap printed cotton wrapped around her waist and a cotton polo shirt on top. Because this is a wealthy area, her sandals are leather rather than plastic. The man, who looks older than she is, is dressed in a churchgoer’s black gabardine trousers and white cotton shirt, which has been turned yellow by the sun.

Anton, a tiny, strutting, red-faced man who drives the pigeon truck, is wearing a green and yellow Superman T-shirt with a giant cartoon S on the front. The S stands for Springboks, the national rugby team, which is beloved by Afrikaners. His shirt catches the eye of another one of the locals, a skinny young black man in a red T-shirt, who curses at him. Andre nearly goes berserk, like one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, for the honor of the Springboks. In his agitation and insistence you can hear it all, pride and yearning and racism and befuddlement at a world in which belief in what is right, in what should be his—his rights, his land, his home—doesn’t rhyme with the history that has unfolded around him. But this is a black town in the new South Africa, and today is about the pigeons.

The men get back in the truck, and I climb into the back of Corrie’s buckie, and we head south once more. A lone hawk circles the camouflaged roof of an old military depot or staging area, which is now a used-car lot. We are close to Vierfontein, with its graveyard filled with orderly rows of headstones in Afrikaans. The midday sun through the windows is boiling hot. Jurassic-type ostrich roam the veld. The trees here have been trimmed and shaped by sun and wind, like bonsai that are several hundred times the expected size. The elegant netting of the cables strung overhead has a touch of asymmetrical whimsy that reminds me of a steel-and-wire work by Paul Klee, on a Soviet scale. 

In Kimberley, the City that Sparkles, we pass by Samy’s Dial-A-Veg, a deli that delivers produce, and Samy’s Trading, an adjacent enterprise whose scope is unclear. In the shops I see Goldrush slot machines, which I have moved into towns like these in the American South with my uncle. Slot-machine parlors in towns like Kimberley are sinkholes for the wages of men who are too exhausted to think straight about what they are having for breakfast, which is often when they start gambling.  

Outside Kimberley, the air coming through my window feels like someone set a hair drier on high and pointed it directly at my face. Every field we pass has been burned brown by the sun. In one there stand a flock of shorn sheep whose black faces are turned toward the road while their white bodies stay parallel with the train tracks. We drive past the large fenced-in compound that houses the district jail in Wolmaransstad, then turn down an unpaved farm road lined with farms, until we pass one of the most remarkable agricultural structures I have ever seen—a grain silo with 16 separate compartments, eight on each side, each of which is at least ten stories high, and resembles a launch bay for ICBMs. In the center is a gigantic Italianate brick tower that looks like it was transported directly from Venice, where it housed the doge. Here the master of the house is corn.

We park at a guesthouse along the Vaal River. Pigeons are fed and watered beneath a stand of willows. Fishing rods for the guys are laid out on picnic tables so they can catch fish for supper. I sit with the state health inspector, James, who is Xhosa. We talk about South African president Jacob Zuma’s house, which cost almost $20 million. The real theft, James says, is being committed by the six big Zulus behind Zuma, whose names are never in the newspapers. It is wrong when tribes use state power to deprive other tribes of their share of the pie.

After dinner I sit outside with the men and swat mosquitoes. Above the Vaal River is the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen, with the Milky Way spread open in a way that is lush and obscene. Anton laughs. “That’s South Africa!” he says.   


In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing.

Years later I moved back to Brooklyn and had a son, who played in the same playgrounds that I did and also loved pigeons. When his mother and I split up, I moved to an apartment with a view of the waterfront, three blocks away from what was now his other home and half a block from the playground with the pigeons. One day he became angry, crazily angry, at a boy who threw a stone at a pigeon that was standing by the swings and would not listen to any explanation for why the other boy might have been so cruel. “Someone should throw a stone at him, hard, and crack his head open,” my son insisted between sobs, a large rock clenched in his hand. We both had lost whatever previous idea of home we each might have had, him for the first time, which I knew from experience is hard. Still, the loss had come to seem inevitable.

Home was not with the woman I married. It wasn’t even in the Brooklyn where I grew up, which had turned into a playground for rich people with quadruple-size bathrooms and walk-in closets. America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American, my teachers told me, which made me feel better intellectually if not emotionally, until I went off to college, where I discovered that America wasn’t actually a place, either: It was an idea that people disagreed about. There was a lot that I didn’t know about home then, and very little that I know now.

America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American.


We drive out of the gate at four the next morning, on the move to liberation point, where the pigeons will be released from their baskets. A little tsetse fly buzzes in front of the glowing screen of my iPhone. The motor rumble merges with the ocean sound of pigeons, a warm, low, guttural sound to welcome the dawn.

We park on an airstrip in Douglas, and as the men open the grates on either side of the truck, I ask Corrie if he has a hunch about which bird is going to win.

“I have no idea,” he answers. “One of them.” The birds in the top rows of baskets will be let out first, he tells me. Otherwise the birds in the lower baskets will be crushed to the ground. “They look for space,” he explains, which is as succinct an explanation as any of how pigeons fly. At the end of last year’s race, three pigeons landed at more or less the same time on the roof of the loft. Then they had a walking race to the finish line.

Like many quiet people, Corrie does his talking in a rush, all at once. “I was born in a pigeon loft,” he says over the thrumming of the pigeon truck. “I started racing on my own when I was nine years old. So I have more than 50 years of racing, and every year they amaze me. I love the birds. And you think you know, but in fact you know nothing.”

A team of young videographers hired by SAMDPR are busy setting up complicated-looking suites of GoPro cams to shoot the moment of liberation from every angle. Corrie and I watch them work for a few moments, and then I ask him what the pigeons know about the race and whether he thinks it is hard for them to be so far from home. “They are trained to do this race. It’s not a problem for them,” he said. “We breed them for the love of the loft. They want to go back to the loft. If they don’t want to go to the loft, they are free,” he continues, and then he squints up at the truck. “For the pigeons, their reward is that they come home,” he says softly. “They must come back home.”

The doors are open. The wire baskets are now the only thing standing between nearly 3,000 pigeons and open sky. They will fly 325 miles on the greatest journey of their lives, and most of them will never fly again, living out the rest of their days at stud. A crown plover calls saucily from the grass outside, and some of the pigeons respond with loud squawking: You think you are free, but your life is aimless, pointless. We are going back home, where we are fed and cared for.

Anton is standing on top of the truck as the mass of pigeon sound rises and falls beneath his feet. When they are released, the pigeons will head toward the windmill, perhaps 1,500 feet away, and then veer left toward the river. Bending down, Anton starts cutting the white plastic ties on the baskets. Each basket has two ties. By 5:28 a.m., he has finished the first side of the truck.

“It’s one of the greatest wonders of the world,” he says when I ask him whether it is worth working 36 hours straight at the car park in order to spend his weekend driving a truckload of pigeons up the Northern Cape. “How do they get home again?” When they come out, there is a droning noise, he explains, and then a wind comes over you.

There are four minutes still to go. Anton gently knocks on the metal of the truck to rouse the laggards. The pigeons are ruffling their feathers and crowding forward. They seem eager to go. “Opgewonde,” Anton says, which is Afrikaans for “eager.” The birds will cross the river many times. If we hurry back, we should be able to beat the winner by maybe an hour or two. I tuck myself between the two joined pigeon trailers so I can feel the whoosh of liftoff.

Alles alrecht, 100 percent guarantee,” Anton tells Corrie, with one minute to go. On the back end of the truck is a silver lever, which is held in locked position parallel to the ground. When Anton pushes the lever up, the doors to the baskets will fold down, and the pigeons will fly out.

A split second later, he does, and they do. The men bang on the sides of the truck, and the pigeons swoop upward, then gather together in the sky in a loose ball, which thickens and darkens as the pigeons already in the air are joined by those in the bottom baskets. When all the pigeons are out, the banging stops. The pigeon ball drifts over the field for a few moments and then turns left. A line of pigeons stretches out toward the horizon. Four seconds later it is gone, and the sky is empty.

The SAMDPR video guy, who was standing on the roof of the second trailer, looks befuddled. “Where are the birds?” he asks. It all happened so fast, and now it is impossible to get his shot. As it happens, the GoPro cams didn’t work either, and now there is no footage of the liberation. Luckily, François captured the moment on his cell phone, and he shows it to everyone.

When I play the liberation video backward, I discover something even more spectacular: A ball of pigeons emerges from the sky and hovers for a few moments over the field. Single pigeons then peel off and fly low and straight toward the camera, backward. Two seconds later, the black ball breaks apart in the sky. The pigeons fly back to the truck, and the cage doors shut, making their temporary home permanent.  

It is our job to get back to the lofts before the pigeons do, by driving at double speed across the grassy plains. Somewhere up in the sky, the pigeons are seeing an aerial version of what we are seeing now, the grass giving way to the blinding white-silver gleam of aluminum-roofed shacks, then to the cinder-block homes with tires on the roof. Some will glide and surf the thermals. Others, arriving a few minutes earlier or later in the same exact airspace, will beat their wings against strong gusts that threaten to blow them off course. The pigeons will get thirsty and drink from the Vaal River below. Those that continue the journey home will get back up into the air and fly over the township houses with their rooftop solar collectors, courtesy of the ANC’s last election victory.

We stop only once before we reach the city limits, where the highway maintenance is noticeably worse. Exhausted from the drive, we head directly to the loft and climb a short flight of steps to the control room, which overlooks the pigeon trap on the loft roof, which looks like a birdhouse and has food and water inside. The difference between a pigeon trap and a birdhouse is harder to spot but should be obvious from the word trap: The birds can go in, Corrie explains, but they can’t get out.

Michael Holt is waiting in the control room, which has four airy windows looking out on the loft roof, where the winning bird will land. When the first bird enters the trap, there will be a gap of one-twentieth of a second while the code is inputted. The results will be visible to Michael within 20 seconds, after which the victory chime sounds and a fanfare is played. “They were seen somewhere an hour ago,” Michael offers when we walk in. Michael, two SAMDPR workers, and a photographer, Corrie, and I are the only people here. “Owners get too excited,” Michael explains. “They make noise and scare the pigeons. So they’ve never been allowed near the lofts on race day.”

The only exception is Paul Smith, whom I can see from the window is pacing around the loft grounds. Every 20 or 30 seconds, he nervously checks his watch. “We’ve seen him get sick,” Michael says.  

After my third bottle of water, to counteract the dehydration of the long drive, I am feeling woozy but no longer feel like I am going to pass out. I am anxious for the pigeons that won’t make it. I haven’t talked to my son in a week. I imagine him sitting on the couch and reading a C.S. Lewis book and wondering when the pigeons will come. I am homesick.

Two pigeons land on the roof. One is plainly bigger than the other. “Go! Go!” I start to cheer. The pigeons ruffle their feathers, turn away from the trap, and stare back at us. It is a strange moment. Michael, the photographer, and the other three guys in the control room are all looking at me.

The bigger one starts to walk toward the trap, and then he stops, allowing the smaller one to catch up to him. The smaller one then takes three steps forward and stops. Now everyone in the control room is laughing. Over the course of ten minutes, the pigeons trade the lead three times before they reach the halfway line I imagine running the length of the roof.

Now the race is really on, or so I am hoping. But crossing the finish line is a formality that doesn’t seem to interest the pigeons at all. As they stop and start and then stop again, it seems entirely possible that a third pigeon will suddenly appear in the sky, fly into the trap, and win the race. But no other pigeons are visible. It’s like watching a spider race. It strikes me at this moment that while the pigeons have flown 325 miles across the length of South Africa, and crossed the Vaal River many times, this is the only part of the greatest pigeon race in the world that I have actually seen with my own eyes, except for the moment when they left their cages. The leisurely walk across the roof continues, until the smaller of the two pigeons has had enough and dashes across the finish line, followed by the larger pigeon.

Twenty seconds later, the results of the race are official: First place belongs to Sanjay 1, a blue bar cock with pearl eyes owned by Karl-Heinz Koch of Germany, with a flight time of nine hours, four minutes, and 18 seconds, which marks a surprising improvement from his previous finish of 1,158 in the fifth and final preliminary race. That, in turn, represented a great improvement over his finish of 3,014 in the first prelim, close to dead last, results which, depending on how you read them, show the bird’s unique passion for self-improvement or else illustrate the maxim that every bird has his day. He is followed by Robben Island, a Kuwaiti bird from a distinguished racing lineage who finished in the top 100 in ten races so far this season. Melton Moment from Australia arrives at the finish line nearly two hours later. “Fuck, that was fast,” Corrie offers. But because his owner failed to pay his fee, third place goes to the fourth-place bird, Welfen-Fuerst, who came in five and a half minutes later.

Most of the birds are still 60 miles away, with storm clouds closing fast. No one wants to think for very long about the birds that won’t make it home. It’s an Episcopal moment. I imagine a hail of drenched pigeons falling out of the sky onto the green-carpeted veld. They will have to wait for the rain to pass and their feathers to dry out before they can continue their flight. Those who break their wings will be unable to fly home. They will lie there on the ground, looking up at the sky.


Back at the Hilton, the fanciers gather for the post-race banquet, where “well done” alternates with “best of luck” and expressions of concern for the birds who are sleeping out tonight. The top ten pigeons get gold medals, five of which go to Germans and are collected by Willi van Beers, who looks gleeful when the German national anthem is played. “They are really driving the sport right now,” says Frank McLaughlin, an American fancier seated to my right. While pigeons, like people, can be a crapshoot, the great fanciers have a knack for selection, he says. Out of a group of 2,500 good birds, there are a handful of truly exceptional birds that are from another planet. “I can put two fingers like this and feel the electricity in the superstars,” he says.

I ask him about Zandy Meyer, the patron saint of the Million Dollar. “He was a wonderful speaker. Spoke about seven languages,” he remembers. “He was very smart and had an incredible amount of integrity. And he knew a lot about people. He told me once, ‘If you ever want to know what people really think of you, watch how their kids react to you, and then you’ll know.’”

I spend the rest of the evening table hopping, meeting fanciers, including Dr. Alfred Piaget, who started at age seven with a pair of pigeons he got from the farmer across the street, only to discover that they were both male, which is why they didn’t have babies. Raising pigeons helped him make friends. He is proud of having published one of his earliest articles in the American Pigeon Journal. Five years ago, he went to the great Barcelona pigeon race, where 25,000 birds were released from 24 open-sided freight containers, with two fanciers on each car to make sure the birds were OK. “It sounded like thunder,” he remembers. “They were out of sight in three minutes.”  

Though Frank and Albert are both expert fanciers, neither one has ever come close to winning the Million Dollar. Ton de Kovel, a thin, curly-haired man in is his early fifties who is sitting at the next table, won the race in 2013, with a pigeon called Untamed Desert. He is sitting alone and is glad to tell me the story, which begins with his mother, who passed away the same year he won. The previous year, she bought two chairs from Eijerkamp, a famous retailer of modern furniture. When I look puzzled, Ton explains that the Eijerkamp family are famous fanciers. “When you buy furniture there, you have the right to get pigeons for free,” he says.

When he went to get the pigeons, however, Henk Jurriens, the trainer, told him that they weren’t ready yet, but he could send Ton’s pair to the Million Dollar Race in South Africa. Ton agreed. On the morning of February 2, 2013, he went to the gym and noted that one of his pigeons was still in the final race, which by his reckoning gave him 1 in 2,750 odds of winning. Later that day, he checked his computer and found that his pigeon had won. He screamed—and then immediately assumed that his computer had been hacked. The next day, the news of his pigeon’s victory was broadcast on national radio, at which point he realized that his luck was real and that he was now $124,300 richer.  

“I never thought that I could win,” Ton explained. “My father was a fancier, not me.” His father, who died in 2011, kept a loft for 50 years, beginning in the Second World War. “He was a real pigeon fancier,” he remembers fondly. “He was talking to the pigeons, and they were fond of him.  They came to him. When he was away, they missed him. They loved him.” He himself never cared much for the pigeons, he adds. Now they are all he has left.


The Million Dollar pigeons will always believe that the loft in Johannesburg are their home, which is a big reason why they will never race again. Instead they will mate, which after racing is the second-favorite subject of pigeon fanciers, who become legends by locating and maintaining a bloodline that produces winners. One result of the importance of breeding to fanciers is that much writing about pigeons reads like a strange cross between writing about bridge and the writings of the Aryan enthusiasts who gained such wide popularity in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s. As Dr. W.E. Barker, one of the great postwar British authorities on pigeons, wrote in his classic Pigeon Racing, “Luck and chance have no part in the scheme of the creation. There is no law in nature more certain than the law of Heredity.”

The practice of line breeding—meaning the pairing of half-brothers with half-sisters, grandfathers with granddaughters, mothers and sons, and other combinations that would discomfit the authors of the Bible and legislators nearly everywhere on earth—is understood to be not just normal but necessary for sculpting a genotype that will spit out future champions, generation after generation. When the bloodline starts to resemble the later generations of the Habsburgs, breeders seek to revive it through cross-breeding before returning to the DNA of the original pair.

The morning after the banquet is the auction, where I can hold the winning pigeons in my hands, in case I want to buy them. The Kuwaiti pigeon, who came in second, is clearly the most impressive of the pair who waited on the roof for 14 minutes yesterday. His body is slung forward, like an Olympic sprinter. “He’s in very good condition. The feathers are like silk,” Paul Smith shows me. I take the bird in my hand. The feathers do feel like silk. “There’s a gap here in the feathers,” Paul points out. “People would frown on that.”

Sanjay 1, exhausted by his once-in-a-lifetime journey, sells for $6,000. “If we could export these pigeons, they would sell for $30,000,” Paul explained. “But nobody wants to take that big of a chance.” A moment later, someone whispers in his ear and he winces, then he explains, “I’m told my pigeon just arrived now.” Frank McLaughlin buys a pigeon named Black Champ for a friend. “Well done on that pigeon,” the auctioneer says. Al-Juwaisri 1, the 13th-place pigeon, who has a particularly good bloodline, and top results in the preliminary races, goes for $13,000—twice the price paid for the first-place bird, who had the day of his life yesterday.

In the back, I find the great pigeon breeder Jan Hooymans, a tall, gentle Dutchman, who is talking to an Australian man named Ben Williams, who has bought two of his birds. “You hear that a lot of good pigeons have very soft feathers and are built very well, and that’s an important thing,” he instructs. “For example, if you make a selection for the Olympic games, in the marathon, a skinny guy may win. And if you have a 100-meter sprinter, you need strong, bulky legs. So first you think, what distance does the bird need to fly?” After that, he continues, the key is selection and breeding, with the goal of always returning back to the bloodline of the stock pair. “Selection, selection, selection,” he insists. “Fly a lot, breed a lot.”

When he is done, he hands over a business card with a pair of pigeons on the front. “That’s the stock pair,” he explains to me. “All the children from that pair, almost all, 90 percent, have good racing results, some better than others. And also good breeding results. It’s phenomenal. I have had pigeons all my life, and I have never had such a pair.”

A top-shelf fancier is lucky to find a truly great pair once in his lifetime, so every detail of how the pairing was made is worth remembering, on the off chance that lightning strikes twice. “I had a good cock, a son of the Blacksen,” he remembers. “That’s my Young Blacksen. And all the hens I put him on produced good or very good birds. So I said, This is my chance. I have to look for a very special hen. I went to Gerard Koopman”—perhaps the greatest fancier in Europe—“and I bought at auction the daughter of Kleine Dirk,” a famous champion racer who was also inbred, “named Amore Re. And I put them together, and the youngsters were wonderful. There was James Bond. I think he bred eight or nine top-ten birds. Harry flew three times in the national—he came in first, first, and third of 30,000 pigeons over 500 to 600 kilometers. His sister won first in the national and went directly to the stock loft.

“And now I’m looking again for such a pair,” he continues. “But it’s tough. When I was a child, I was always going to auctions, looking at the winning birds, how they are, how they must be. But I can’t look into a pigeon. I had luck.”

Pigeon racing is no way to make money, he explains. He supports his pigeon-racing habit with the money he makes from running his family’s mushroom-compost factory. What drives him is his dream. “My dream is to make world-famous pigeons,” he explains. “And I remember the mistakes I make. I make hundreds of mistakes. And I don’t forget those mistakes. And then you learn.”   

Pigeons will always fly home, no matter how far away you take them, because that is how pigeons are bred and trained. Whether people are made the same way is an open question. However, one answer I did receive on the night of the banquet has stuck with me. It came in the form of a story from Alfred Piaget, the 85-year-old pigeon fancier, who told me a coda to the story about the Cattrysse brothers loft and the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people of Moere, who ensured that the famous birds of their village survived to breed more champions after the war.

Years ago, Alfred told me, he made a personal pilgrimage to Moere, where he met the daughter of one of the Cattrysse brothers. She had been a little girl when the Nazis occupied her village. She told him that 26 or 27 years later, when she was then a young mother, she heard a knock at the door to her home. She opened the door to find an old man standing there. He was clearly not from the village, but she felt that she had seen him before. As he stood in front of her, she recognized the young officer who had been stationed in her house and had allowed her family’s pigeons to live if other birds would die in their place. He felt that he needed to apologize for what he had done during the war, he said. He wanted to come home.

Welcome to Dog World!

My job was to make tourists believe they were seeing the “real” Alaska. Then things got real.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 49


Blair Braverman’s work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Orion, High Country News, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere. Her first book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins. She trains and races sled dogs in northern Wisconsin.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Christopher Swetala
Images: Blair Braverman, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography
Video: Ken Carlisle, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography

Published in June 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Dog World was perched atop a glacier near the edge of an icefield the size of Rhode Island. The only reasonable way to get there was by helicopter, and eight times a day they came in, five birds, loaded with cruise-ship tourists who’d spent $500 to go “flightseeing” over the icefield and then set down on the glacier for a dogsled ride—a taste of Real Alaska.

At first, from the helicopter, the only thing they’d see was the sweeping ice, smooth and white, punched through with mountaintops. If they had never been there before, the sight was near religious, something to bring them to tears. The pilots were instructed to play Enya on repeat, piped directly into their passengers’ headphones—music the tour company believed was a properly swooning soundtrack for the otherworldly vista below.

We lived there from May to September—I and nine other musher guides, a few staff, and 200 huskies—in a cluster of canvas tents and plastic igloos. Our job was to provide a luxury experience: all the thrills of a glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t that our efforts were secret; they were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so that tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked up fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents in an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative: If my dogs’ eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize reflected light. “Those dogs must be related,” the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes, and because it was easier than explaining, I let them believe it.

Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed, the clearer this became. Yet somehow we all got used to it. We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of an avalanche on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. As the surface snow melted, the foundation under our camp sank steadily away, and we’d wake to find our tents, which were on skis, perched atop pedestals of hardened snow. On rainy weeks, we gave up the dream of staying dry. At night, when I undressed, my waterlogged, sunburned skin fell off in white strips, which I’d toss to the nearest dogs, who sniffed them and turned away. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep my shredded skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists. When it was foggy we probed for crevasses, working a tight grid through camp, pushing aluminum poles into the snow until our palms blistered and our muscles burned. I never saw a big crevasse, but sometimes turquoise cracks split the snow. They were usually small, just a few inches across, and when I crouched close and peered into them they seemed to extend down forever.

The camp was a closed system: If we ate cherries for lunch, we’d be picking the pits out of the outhouse pump two days later (and getting a lecture from our manager about not swallowing pits in the first place). All human and dog waste had to be packed into barrels and flown to Juneau in a sling that dangled beneath the helicopters. On a bad day, we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day, Summer Camp on the Moon.

But if the camp was a closed system, then the tourists, with their camcorders and designer sunglasses, existed outside of it. Our job was not to give them a peek in but to build the walls of their fantasy so solidly that they could not see anything else—to reassure them that even though they were on a glacier, nothing was dangerous, all was good, and everything was under control.

Our days started at 6 a.m. sharp and lasted until early evening. Most of my time was spent guiding the tourists. Each of the eight daily tours consisted of an orientation, a lap around a two-mile trail, and a chance to pet the dogs. My groups were often surprised that their guide was a young woman, and when I first arrived on the glacier I had taken pride in disarming them with my enthusiasm and knowledge. I praised their adventurousness, offered expertly timed confessions (“I was terrified on my first helicopter ride, too!”), took photos with their cameras and let their kids stand in front of me on the sled runners, pretending to drive. At first the performance was exciting, a chance to play the role of my bravest, brightest self. But with time my end of the conversation solidified into a script, one I could deploy with pristine enthusiasm. I hardly noticed what I was saying.

The tourists were always curious about glacier life, and I did my best to give them what they wanted. I told them about the hummingbirds that stopped by on their way to the moss-covered mountains, but I didn’t tell them about the time a lightning storm closed in on us and I thought for sure we’d all get electrocuted. I told them how strange it was to live in a world almost totally drained of color, but not about the elaborate plans another guide and I had come up with to escape the glacier on foot if we ever needed to. I told them the food was great and the mushers and dogs were like family and I had the best job in the world. Then I’d go back to my tent and cry.

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During my last summer on the glacier, I shared a tent with a girl named Rebekah, who became one of my closest friends. I was 20 years old, a Californian who had fallen in love with dogsledding at a folk school in arctic Norway. Rebekah was a homeschooled 18-year-old from Indiana who had never been away from her family for more than a week and who lived her life, in her words, guided by Jesus Christ and His teachings. She had cherubic curls and a constant sheen of sweat on her pink face; because she was an assistant, not a musher, she always seemed to be running from one chore to the next, fetching this harness or that shovel for whoever called out to her first.

There were a few male mushers at the camp whose teasing had an edge. One evening, Rebekah removed her boots and socks in the community tent to find that her feet had swollen like bread dough and had the pale cast of something left underwater. “That’s trench foot,” said a musher named Chad, who was new to the glacier. (Some names have been changed in this story.) “I saw it all the time in Nam. You’ll have to amputate.”

“If you amputate, you’ll go to hell,” said Dan. He was in his mid-twenties, handsome and popular.

“Shut up, Chad,” another musher said. “You never been to Nam. You’d’ve shit yourself like a baby.” 

None of them were looking at me, so I didn’t say anything. 

That night, Rebekah and I stayed awake longer than usual in our tent. Often we sat in silence, reading young-adult books about the end of the world and trading pieces of trail mix, but that night we talked.  “I just want to go home,” Rebekah said. “Don’t you want to go home?”

She was planning a short trip to see her family, a break to steel herself for the last month of summer.

I nodded but I didn’t answer. I wanted the best for Rebekah, but when she talked about leaving my throat went tight. I was scared that she wouldn’t want to come back. I didn’t know how I could stay on the ice without her.

It hadn’t always been that way. The previous summer I’d loved the job: working with the dogs, adjusting to the spectacular landscape—not to mention getting paid more than I’d ever made before. There were more women around then, three or four female mushers at a time, veterans of major dogsled races who could handle an ice auger like an embroidery needle. I copied the way they talked and dressed, buying my clothes off the men’s rack at the Salvation Army, joking with the pilots, and lifting water buckets between tours so that I’d be strong enough not to wobble when someone tossed me a 50-pound sack of dog food. The other women seemed to belong on the glacier in a way that I—who was torn between a desire for adventure and a deep-seated aversion to physical risk—never would. But they welcomed me. And for a while, as my skin darkened and my arms hardened and I learned not to flinch at the roar and wind of the helicopters, I began to feel more like them, like the tough girl I had always wanted to be. 

But the real difference between those summers for me was that during the first one Dan and I were a couple. Everyone was nice to me when I dated Dan, including, at first, Dan himself. He took me hiking, showed me around Juneau, and wrote sweet notes that he folded up in dog booties and tossed to me across the kennel.

“You’re good on a snow machine,” he told me one night. Then, when I blushed: “What I mean to say is, I think you’re pretty.” 

I lost my virginity to him in a cheap tent in a campground on one of our days off. By the next day, our relationship had changed. Sex seemed to make Dan a different person, focused and cold, insistent even when my body was sore. “You’re not supposed to like it yet,” he told me repeatedly over the next weeks—practice would make perfect. That sounded wrong to me, but I couldn’t argue from experience. I cobbled together boundaries where I could. 

One line was agreed upon: Dan and I would never hook up on the glacier. For one thing, we were disgusting, covered in grease and sweat and a days-old film of dog poop. And sleeping in each other’s tents would risk both our jobs; the company was strict about single-gender living spaces. But more important, there was no privacy on the glacier; nothing you did in your tent belonged just to you. Every thump, every murmur, traveled clearly across the ice from one tent to another. I wanted the other guides to see me as a musher, not a girl. The last thing I needed was for them to hear that.

A few weeks after our first time together, though, Dan slipped into my tent while I was alone, promising that he just wanted to hold me. Before long he was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Tensing his arm when I tried to push his hand away. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: He had come here for this. I told him I didn’t want to, and he told me yes, I did, he could tell. When I clenched my knees together he shoved them apart. “Shh,” he whispered as I squirmed, no place to pull away between his body and the tent wall. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”

“Everyone” meant the men on the other side of the canvas. They couldn’t know. I couldn’t face them if they knew. I closed my eyes and let my body go slack. 

When it was over, Dan got up quickly and slipped out through the tent flap. He walked out backward, so that his floating head was the last thing I saw. “Now we can say we’ve had sex on a glacier,” his head said. “Admit it, that’s pretty cool.” 

I grabbed a baby wipe from the box on the floor and rolled over to face the wall.

I wished by then that we had never gotten together, but I didn’t want to confront him and shatter the careful social balance of the camp. The only thing harder than dating Dan on the glacier would be breaking up with him on the glacier. And so for the rest of the summer, I played girlfriend the same way I played dogsled guide, learning the motions week by week, not stopping to think about what it all meant.

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I started college that fall. Dan gave me a framed photo of the two of us, one I couldn’t remember having been taken. He told me I was only going to school to please my parents. What I should do, he said, was follow my heart and come north to live with him. We could drive dogs year-round. I pretended to think about it. I put the photo facedown in my desk drawer and covered it with papers. 

That winter I broke up with Dan again and again, but each time he wrote to me the next day as if nothing had happened, until finally I gave up trying to object. Our correspondence lagged. He was far away, and I distracted myself with things that were closer, adopting a vegan diet, working out for hours every day until I no longer recognized the body Dan had fucked.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go back to Alaska. It never occurred to me that I might not want to. Of course I’d go back to the ice. I didn’t know how else I’d get to be with the dogs, doing what I loved. And for a while on the glacier, I had felt tough. What would it mean about me if I turned back now? 

When I landed in Juneau, expecting to be picked up by one of the company’s support staff, Dan stood by the baggage claim. He greeted me with a hug, said he’d taken the day off to meet me. Of course he had. We were going to have a great summer, he said, without a hint of acknowledgment of our months-long breakup. His certainty made me question my own. Had I misunderstood the whole thing? 

Over the next day, as we waited in town to fly up to the glacier, I told Dan I wouldn’t sleep with him. I told him I didn’t like it when he touched me. I told him I didn’t want to be a couple. But the more I objected, the more he tried to convince me otherwise. “Just give me a reason,” he kept saying.

Later, when he slipped his arm around me in the women’s apartment, I found the only words that had an effect: “I’m not attracted to you.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Dan said, crossing the room in three steps, smacking the doorframe on his way out. And like that, the matter was settled.

Dan had already arranged for side-by-side kennels and shared days off, which meant that we spent a lot of time over the next weeks, when we weren’t ten feet apart among our rows of dogs, pressed together in a helicopter flying to and from the glacier. We handled this at first by ignoring each other completely. But soon he began upping the ante, talking loudly to other guides about how I was doing my job wrong, how I was unfit to give tours, how the dogs would never listen to my high, girlish voice. I’d enter the kitchen tent to find him questioning the veterinary care I gave my yearlings or scoffing at something he’d overheard me say to a tourist. Once, as he escorted a couple to my sled, I heard him say, “She’s good at acting like she knows what she’s doing. It’s too bad you didn’t get an experienced musher.” But usually when I was within earshot he’d fall quiet. 

I’d seen guides laugh along as Dan mocked the more vulnerable among us. He had been particularly amused by a heavyset couple who had needed snowshoes to get around and ended up quitting early in the season. After they left, he made fun of another new guide, the only black musher, for wanting to be a doctor. Dan teased him even more when he was seen exiting an outhouse with his laptop. Weeks later, that guide was fired.

When Dan aimed his scorn at me and the others followed, I was dismayed but not entirely surprised. What bothered me more was when they harassed Rebekah. Hard-working, cheerful Rebekah, who Chad tried to get to deworm the dogs by inserting the pills rectally. Rebekah, who’d fallen for the idea of Alaska, the idea of dogsledding, and back in Indiana had saved up money from making change in a McDonald’s drive-thru to buy herself a malamute and a husky, which she trained to pull her on Rollerblades. Her dream had been to mush dogs. And by the time she planned to see her family, she’d been on the glacier for two months, more than half the summer, without once getting to drive a dogsled. She kept setting aside time, getting her work out of the way—and somehow, just as she was about to go out on the trail, someone would yell that they needed her to scoop poop or fetch some booties, and the trip would be delayed once again. 

But now Rebekah was about to leave, and she couldn’t see her family without having driven a sled. So I begged an hour off and we hit the trail with enough time for a quick ride before her departure. We had just taken off when five helicopters rounded a distant mountain single-file and then roared into camp, coming down fast on the ice, hot rotors thumping. Moments later, nearly 30 stunned and immaculate cruise-ship tourists stood around the American flag at the edge of the dog yard. 

It was not a scheduled landing. I knew it, and everyone back at camp knew it, but we also knew better than to acknowledge to the tourists that anything was unusual. 

So the other mushers didn’t even glance at each other as they corralled the tourists together with big smiles and shouts of “Welcome to Dog World!” Rebekah and I, partway down the trail, stopped our dogs and watched from a distance. The tourists seemed happy—we could hear the buzz of their excitement—and the guides ran around harnessing dogs and hooking them to their sleds as quickly as they could. The pilots huddled together behind the helicopters. 

It turned out that a sudden storm, a wall of cloud between Juneau and the glacier, had blocked their usual flight path and forced them to forgo the flightseeing tour and make an early landing. Now, from the glacier, the weather looked overcast but by no means terrible; visibility was better than it often was. The pilots decided to continue on schedule. They lifted off in a line, heading back to Juneau. In an hour, they would return to pick up the tourists and drop off the next group. The mushers took off with their tours, and Rebekah and I continued along the trail.

For a while, at least, the ride was lovely—maybe the best I’d had all summer. It wasn’t raining, Rebekah was laughing, and the tourists’ voices sounded from the other trails, where other people were responsible for them. But within 15 minutes another rumbling echoed over the glacier, and a tiny figure in an orange vest zoomed toward the dogsled trails on a snowmobile. This was Malcolm, our manager. We’d been warned about orange vests: They were used to signal urgency. 

Malcolm waved to the tourists as he passed them—“Stunning, isn’t it?”—and then came to a stop next to Rebekah and me. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “The pilots can’t get back.” His voice was higher than I’d ever heard it. “Nobody’s hurt, but the tourists are trapped here now. They’re trapped here.” 

Rebekah was jumping a little on the sled brake. “What should we do?” she said. 

He told us to let the staff know what was going on without alarming the tourists. “Just tell them they’ll be here longer than expected—maybe an extra hour or two until the weather clears. And girls? Try to make it sound like a good thing.”

Rebekah drove fast around the trail, and we were waiting in the kennel by the time the other teams returned. We split up to spread the word: “Great news! You get a longer tour than usual!” While the tourists cheered and rushed to pet the dogs, I sidled up to each musher and whispered an update in his ear. Chad snorted—“Nice one, Blair”—but Henry, an older guide whom I considered a friend, nodded and squeezed my arm before straightening up and returning to his group. I had been hoping that Rebekah would reach Dan before I did, but by the time I’d worked my way over to his kennel she was still several teams away, giggling sharply and gesticulating to a man in a cowboy hat.

When Dan saw me coming, he led his tourists away from me, toward the lead dogs, who had flopped down in the snow. “This here is Mo,” Dan said. “He’s awesome.” (I noticed he was following instructions: Mo was short for Money, but Malcolm had directed him never to use the dog’s full name, since tourists might interpret it as angling for tips.) When I reached the group, I put on my biggest tour-guide smile and gave them the news.

“Wow!” said Dan. “Why don’t you all pet Mo for a minute?” He walked a few feet off, head down, and I followed. “What’s going on, Blair?”  

I told him the birds couldn’t get back. This was the closest that Dan and I had come to being alone together in two months, and I couldn’t help noticing how familiar he was.

“OK,” he said. He crossed his arms. 

“Just keep them happy for as long as possible,” I said. “I’ll let you know when there’s more information.” 

For just an instant, Dan looked up, and our eyes met. We both took a step back. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said. “And next time, send Rebekah. At least she knows not to interrupt me when I’m with tourists.” By the time I gathered a response, he had walked away. 

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Back at camp, Malcolm and Nell, our cook, were standing around the satellite phone. They had called the cruise ship to say that the passengers would be late; the captain had agreed to wait three hours, but no longer. Nell was heating a massive pot on the propane stove, preparing cocoa. The goal was to keep things fun for as long as possible. Let the tourists hang out in the kennel, then bring them in for hot drinks. They were making plans for snowmobile rides and a snowman contest. As long as the backup helicopters arrived within an hour or so, there was no reason for the tourists to worry.

But after a half-hour in the kennel, when the weather had not just failed to clear but gotten worse, we brought the tourists into the community tent and fed them cookies. Malcolm broke the news: They were stranded. The helicopters couldn’t make it in. “No,” a man said, “that can’t be. My ship is leaving.” This met with nods of agreement. Then the tourists got angry—at the guides for misleading them, at the pilots for misjudging the weather, at the ship for not waiting. Didn’t we understand that this was a serious inconvenience? A woman had left her infant child with a babysitter. A couple was worried about standing up a dinner date. A few people raised concerns about medication they’d left behind, but their voices were lost in the general despair. 

By that second summer, it seemed to me that the tourists’ unhappiness was a bomb that could detonate at any time, and my job was to keep it from doing so. I had, at that point, spent almost six months giving eight rides a day, eight hour-long rides during which I acted delighted by all things dog and glacier, fascinated by every detail that my passengers cared to tell me about their cruise—a whale that very morning!—and their trip so far, and their relatives stuck at home, and their new Welsh corgi. It all felt so fake. I was still somehow a great guide, as measured by the generous tips and teary hugs I received, and the grateful letters that arrived occasionally, wadded in a pilot’s pocket. But the truth was, the more the tourists loved me, the more I resented them. I blamed them for not seeing through me; their admiration felt like a constant reminder that I didn’t deserve it anymore. By the end of each day, my cheeks sore from smiling, it felt like all I could do was stand in the snow, watching the patterns of light on the mountains, ducking my head at another sexual remark of the kind that, without Dan on my side, I was no longer spared. “Another one, Blair,” a pilot would call, letter in hand. “What are you doing, giving blow jobs?”

Ten thousand tourists passed through the camp each summer, and I had never seen any of them get stuck like this before. But it didn’t really surprise me, either; nothing about the glacier surprised me anymore. I had learned, over months of avalanches and lakes, trench foot and neoprene, to adjust to its changes without question. I stood back and watched the tourists from a distance. They were mostly middle-aged couples dressed in striped raincoats of the type I imagined were sold on cruise ships. A little girl held hands with her mother. Another woman walked in tense circles, pointing her useless cell phone at the sky. For a moment, as I watched the tourists jostle in line for the sat phone, blatant in their desperation to leave, I envied them. And then the moment was gone. The tourists became tasks again, not people—each one simply another item on my to-do list. 

Framing a backcountry emergency as an extended luxury tour is no enviable task, but Malcolm did his best. “We have a cook,” he announced, his voice confident. “We have plenty of food and water.” He laid out his plan for making their unexpected stay as enjoyable as possible, offering them as many dogsled rides as they liked. 

The tourists looked grim, but Malcolm gave them a pleasant nod and then stepped outside, gesturing for the staff to follow. “I don’t care what you need to do,” he whispered once we’d gathered around him. “Just keep them happy. Do whatever it takes. Act like this is the best thing that ever happened to you. And for God’s sake, don’t do anything that could get us sued.” 

The afternoon passed in a haze of card games, the tourists checking their cell phones in vain, the weather reports over the sat phone steadily bleak. At some point, it became clear that they would be staying for dinner. 

Nell, who ran a tight kitchen, must not have been pleased. But she knew how to keep her cool—she had been on the glacier longer than most of us. Nell could work magic with a propane stove, making lasagna, fry bread, biscuits and gravy. In the same way that the guides monitored the dogs’ weight and food intake, Nell scrutinized ours; since I had lost weight over the winter, she had taken to pouring oil over my food. The second a staff member sneezed, she was ready with a mug of hot chocolate and orange Tang, a mixture she swore by for the vitamin C. 

The tourists ate Nell’s dinner—meat loaf, real mashed potatoes, chocolate cake—around picnic tables in the community tent. The staff squatted behind the storage tent, eating sandwiches. We would be ceding our tents and cots to the tourists—we had extra sleeping bags for emergencies—and after dinner Malcolm went tent by tent to make sure the quarters were ready. He’d decided we should call the tourists “guests,” as if they had been invited over for a dinner party and just happened to be spending the night. “Put all your stuff in trash bags,” he said, “and pile it outside. We want to make sure the guests are comfortable.” 

When he reached our tent, Malcolm made Rebekah and me take down the perfume ad we had tacked to the support beams. “We can’t have the guests sleeping under a naked picture of Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said. But when Rebekah reached to take down a photo of a baby at a day care center where she worked back in Indiana, Malcolm stopped her. “Put that somewhere prominent,” he said. “It makes us seem human.”

Rebekah surveyed the empty tent. “Where are we going to sleep?” 

“I really don’t care,” Malcolm said. 

Back in the community tent, the tourists were gathered around the three tables, playing Go Fish and Parcheesi. A few guides hung around outside, sitting on a pair of snowmobiles, not saying much. Every 20 minutes or so, one would take a long breath, stretch a smile across his face, and pass through the tent flap. “Parcheesi! I love Parcheesi! Who’s up next?” Whoever had been relieved would step out of the tent, visibly deflate in the sudden chill air, and collapse onto the empty snowmobile seat. In this way, the tourists were infused with a constant rotation of freshly conjured enthusiasm.

When it was Rebekah’s turn, she stepped off the snowmobile and headed toward the tent. 

“Rebekah,” Chad called after her. 

“What?” 

“Just remember: Jesus hates you.”

After my Parcheesi shift, I didn’t feel like waiting with the other guides, so I began pacing the camp. I wandered over to the kitchen, but I could hear Nell talking to herself, so I walked over to the storage tent, figuring that if anyone confronted me I could say I was looking for something. When I stepped in, I found Chad and Henry sitting close together. They had been whispering but stopped abruptly.

I asked if we had duct tape. Chad looked at me blankly. 

“To fasten a bandage,” I said. 

“Maybe we could use her,” said Henry. “I could use an assistant.” 

“What’s your medical training?” said Chad.

I’d needed first-aid certification to qualify for the job, but when I applied I was living in Norway, far from any official courses. Our limited training at the folk school consisted of a few encounters with classmates who hid in the woods, covered in reindeer blood, moaning over various feigned injuries that we were encouraged to remedy with birch branches and torn strips of T-shirt. Afterward, I made my own certificate. 

“Some medical training,” I said. 

“Good.” Henry lowered his voice. “There’s a woman here, she’s got this blood-pressure thing and her meds are back in Juneau. I’ve been talking to the hospital. They say that if she’s stuck here through tomorrow, we’re going to have to let blood.” 

“Let blood?” I said.

Chad told me they’d find me when they needed help. “The guests can’t know about this, all right?” 

“All right,” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice calm.

“All right,” said Henry.

They were waiting for me to leave. 

“All right,” I said again. Then I stepped out of the tent and zipped it shut and looked out at the white sea of that endless fucking glacier. 

I thought about going to the kennel next, but I knew the dogs would get noisy and people would notice and I’d need a reason for being there, so I decided instead to figure out sleeping arrangements. There wasn’t much to figure out. The men had claimed the community tent, the storage tent had no floor space, and Nell would have the kitchen, which left the vet tent for Rebekah and me. That was OK. It was far away, at least. I slung our trash bags over my shoulders and staggered through the snow, dumping them just outside the entrance. Then I untied the bags and began rummaging inside. I had my head so deep in one that I didn’t notice when Dan came up behind me. 

He was holding back a dog with each hand, clutching their collars as they stood, panting, on their hind legs. I unzipped the flap and threw my blanket onto the floor. “No room for dogs,” I said. “We’re sleeping here. There’s nowhere else.” 

Dan pushed past me into the tent. When I followed him in, I saw that he had kicked aside my blanket and was making room for the dogs. 

“Why are you doing that?” I said. “We need to sleep here.” 

“The dogs are sick,” he said. 

“The dogs are fine.” 

He didn’t answer. 

“Dan,” I said, “why are you doing that?” 

It struck me that I’d never been afraid of him, not even when he had pressed himself onto me, when he’d hushed my objections. I’d been resigned, unhappy, but never afraid—at least not like I was in a storm or a helicopter. And I wasn’t afraid now, either. Unhappy, yes. Resigned. And here was Dan. It all felt familiar.

“Dan,” I said again, more softly. “Why are you doing that?” 

“Don’t sleep here,” he said. “Sleep with me. We’ll find a place.” 

“I can’t.”

“We could fix all this right now,” he said.

I thought about it. What would be harder, what would be easier.

“I miss you,” he said. He was crying, and the sight of that shocked me more than anything else that happened that day. “You’re different now,” he said. “I miss who you were. You were a better person before. Don’t you remember how happy we were? We could have that back. It’s up to you.”

It was up to me—if only I would sleep with him. The unspoken standing offer, now made clear. 

I’m ashamed now to admit how seriously I considered it: the proposition that things could change, that the animosity, at least, could be over. I tried to remember the feeling of Dan’s mouth on my ear, the heat of his skin against me. Whether those feelings were more or less horrible than the silence, the muttered comments and strained relationships with coworkers, my constant prickling awareness of his whereabouts. It was hard to say. 

“I told Rebekah I’d stay with her tonight,” I said. “Besides, there’s nowhere else to sleep.” 

“We could tell Nell we need the kitchen,” Dan said, and I was caught off-guard by the absurdity of it, the image of Nell wielding ladles to defend her territory, and for a second everything dissolved and we were two people laughing. 

“Fine,” Dan said. “But it’s not going to get better. When you want it to, come find me.”

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We assured the tourists that the helicopters planned to come first thing in the morning, because what else could we do? We had to get to bed somehow. Rebekah and I hooked Dan’s dogs to a cable staked outside the vet tent. We spread our blankets in the small rectangle of floor between plastic chests and stacked dog crates, boxes of Neosporin and Cipro and tea tree oil. There was a folding table with mascara, zinc cream, rolls of stiff new booties. A propane heater hissed in one corner, and the rafters were draped in dark insulating blankets. Within a few minutes of lying down, curled beside each other, the tent had warmed enough to release the strong smell of piss and menthol. It burned the inside of my nose.

I had always liked nights on the glacier, the thin buffer of time between leaving the kennel and falling asleep. Most evenings I’d spend an hour or so grooming trails on a snowmobile, gunning the engine repeatedly to keep the metal grader from catching in the snow. It was an optional job, cold and loud at a time of day when most of the others were settling in after dinner, but I volunteered whenever I could. I’d realized early on that driving the trails was the only time I could be alone. I loved it when a fog came in, when I couldn’t hear voices or dogs and couldn’t see anything but white opening up in front of me, white closing in behind. When I finished the rounds I’d pull up to an empty camp, a silent ghost town with just the faint glow of flashlights showing through tent walls. Rebekah was usually asleep by then, and I’d peel off my clothes carefully, draping the rain shells and long underwear over the half-dozen lines strung from the central rafter. I hung my boots up last, upside down, catching the toes in loops of string so that moisture drained overnight. Then I’d tiptoe through fast-spreading puddles and fall onto my cot, zip my sleeping bag, and exhale. 

Now, in the vet tent, Rebekah was not asleep. I could hear her turning, could make out the tiniest of whimpers. It was black in the tent, the snow’s glow blocked by the insulating blankets—the first real darkness I’d seen in weeks, and even that was unsettling. I whispered, “How are you doing?” 

“My flight,” she said. 

I’d forgotten. “Your parents will understand.” 

She sighed. That wasn’t the point.

“I’m sorry the guys are so mean to you,” I said. It was the first time I’d acknowledged it aloud. “I wish they weren’t.” 

“What do you mean?” Rebekah said.

“You know. Trench foot, Jesus. Everything.” 

“They’re just being guys,” she said. “That’s how they do things.” 

“But it shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have to go home because of them.” 

“I’m going home because I miss my family,” she said. 

Not to escape, like I wanted to.

“They’re meaner to you than they are to me,” Rebekah said. “I mean, if I can say this—Dan is the worst.” She told me how she’d met him at the beginning of the summer, before I’d arrived there, and how he’d said “all sorts of things” about me. “I was pretty nervous to share a tent with you, actually, after what I heard. Then I met you and within five minutes I was like, What was he talking about? ’Cause you were so nice.” 

“No,” I said, trying to make sense of it. According to Dan, we hadn’t broken up yet. I had the odd, sudden sense that Rebekah was embarrassed for me. 

I thought: We were never happy. Neither of us. Of course. 

It took me a long time to fall asleep. I wondered how many of the tourists were also awake, twisting in their borrowed sleeping bags and blinking their eyes against the constant, unfamiliar glow of the icefield. Where was the little girl, and the woman whose blood we might have to let? At the thought of her, my stomach turned. What would we use—a knife?

The tourists were probably uncomfortable, I thought. They were probably scared. They’d wake to realize that they were still here, still trapped—that none of it had been a dream. 

Rebekah and I woke early to the sound of voices. She went straight to the community tent, but I was relieved when Malcolm directed me toward the kennel instead. I spent the morning moving team by team, working to get all the dogs fed. I wasn’t used to caring for the other guides’ dogs, and when one of them nipped my arm, I felt like throwing down the food in frustration. But reaching my own team felt like coming home. I took my time with each dog, rubbing ointment between their toes, kissing the dips between their eyes. Even though it was overcast, I spread sunscreen on the females’ bellies and over the males’ balls, extra protection from the UV rays that reflect off the ice. I took pride in brushing them sleek and stretching their muscles with my thumbs. 

Every so often, heart pounding, I’d peek into the storage tent to get medical updates. There was no news on the woman with too much blood—I figured she must’ve been stable enough to stay with the group, even if her condition was serious. It would be years before I learned that she may never have existed, that the whole bloodletting thing was probably a lie made up to provoke me. 

But if the bloodletting was a lie, other dangers were real. One man was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and if he were stuck on the ice for just one more day, he might slip into a coma. I heard whispered news that a mountain-rescue team was mobilizing back in Juneau, ready to cross the frozen wilderness with ropes and ice picks, carrying insulin in their packs. 

For close to two hours I stayed with the diabetic man, who I guessed was in his mid-fifties. He sat on a cot, breathing slowly, radiating a calm that I envied. I tried to tell him the stories I’d perfected over months of tours—tall tales about dogsledding adventures, arctic weather, cute puppies. He was a patient listener, but the stories felt empty to me. Halfway through a secondhand story about a polar bear encounter, which was one of my standbys, I found myself wishing that I’d never started telling it at all. So instead I took a piece of paper and drew a picture of the man, taking my time. I tried to capture the angles of his broad face, his soft skin. When I finished, he admired the sketch at length, then tucked it into his breast pocket. He took my hand and told me how honored he was to be spending time with such a lovely young woman. I squeezed his hand and felt like a liar. 

When the man fell asleep, I left his tent and went outside. Some of the guides were sitting on the snowmobiles, looking out over the icefield. It took me a moment to realize what they were watching. There was a figure in the distance, heading away from us. “He won’t get far,” someone said. “He’ll either get spooked and come back, or he’ll fall into a crevasse.”

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Chad,” the guides said in unison. One of them added, “Either he’s going for help or he just lost it.”

“Lost it?” someone else said. “What’s to lose?” They all laughed.

Chad waved. I knew he was just goofing off and would come back soon, but he looked so small out there that the idea of watching him horrified me. I thought about going back inside the community tent, but Dan was probably there, so instead I went to the guest outhouse and locked the door. It smelled nice in there, like biodegradable cleanser. I stood with my eyes closed, leaning against the wall, grateful to be alone. But at some point I noticed myself, a sad, foul-smelling girl, hiding in an outhouse, and once I’d noticed that, I couldn’t un-notice it. I squirted sanitizer on my hands and trudged back out into the snow. 

Late in the afternoon we gathered the tourists in the community tent, planning to break the news about a possible second night. They had been remarkably positive all day, playing along with our smiles, bravely agreeing to an umpteenth round of cards. Some of the younger ones had even helped to feed the dogs, hauling buckets of soupy kibble from plastic igloo to plastic igloo. They were trying as hard as we were, but their faces in the tent were solemn. 

That was when we heard the thin rumble, so quiet that at first I thought it was in my head. Everyone froze, listening, and then began to cheer. The tourists rushed out into the snow, clutching their jackets as the birds landed. I stepped back and watched from the kennel, sitting on a doghouse as some guides ushered the diabetic man into the nearest helicopter. Rebekah and the other tourists climbed into the other four.

I don’t remember whether any of the tourists hesitated and looked back. It’s true that earlier a few had made remarks about wanting to stay. “I can’t believe you get paid for this,” they’d said, fantasizing about how, if they could take the summer off, they’d love to come work here. Malcolm took this as a sign of success. But in the moment, midrescue, the dogs were in a frenzy, yelping and leaping on their chains, and the pilots were shouting, and the noise of the rotors drowned everything else. 

I remember this, though: When the helicopters first came into view, all of the guests, as if by instinct, raised their arms, reaching. And without realizing it, I did, too. 

52 Blue

52 Blue

A meditation on what it means to be alone and how we seek meaning from the natural world

By Leslie Jamison

The Atavist Magazine, No. 40


Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams and the novel The Gin Closet. She is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review and her work has also appeared in Harper’sOxford AmericanA Public SpaceVirginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer. She lives in Brooklyn.

Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research and Calligraphy: Natalie Rahhal
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrations: Tim Jeffs
Cover Illustration: Richard Lewis/Getty
Other images: Courtesy of Leonora and Zee
Music: From “Migratory Patterns,” by Lowercase Noises

Published in August 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

December 7, 1992: Whidbey Island, Puget Sound. The World Wars were over. The other wars were over: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf. The Cold War was finally over, too. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station remained. So did the Pacific, its waters vast and fathomless beyond an airfield named for an airman whose body was never found: William Ault, who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This is how it goes: The ocean swallows human bodies whole and makes them immortal. William Ault became a runway that sends other men into the sky.

But at that Naval Air Station, on that day in December, the infinite Pacific appeared as something finite: audio data gathered by a network of hydrophones spread along the ocean floor. These hydrophones had turned the formless it of the ocean and its noises into something measurable: pages of printed graphs rolling out of a spectrograph machine. These hydrophones had been used to monitor Soviet subs until the Cold War ended; after their declassification, the Navy started listening for other noises—other kinds of it—instead.

On December 7, the it was a strange sound. The acoustic technicians thought they knew what it was, but then they realized they didn’t. Petty officer second class Velma Ronquille stretched it out on a different spectrogram so she could see it better. She couldn’t quite believe it. It was coming in at 52 hertz.

She beckoned one of the technicians. He needed to come back, she said. He needed to take another look.

The technician came back. He took another look. His name was Joe George.

Second Petty Officer Ronquille told him, “I think this is a whale.”

Joe thought, Holy cow. It hardly seemed possible. For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 hertz was basically off the charts. Blue whales usually came in somewhere between 15 and 20—on the periphery of what the human ear can hear, an almost imperceptible rumble. But here it was, right in front of them, the audio signature of a creature moving through Pacific waters with a singularly high-pitched song.

A recording of 52 Blue, sped up for audibility.

Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.

The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.

So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue. A scientific report, published 12 years later, would describe his case like this:

No other calls with similar characteristics have been identified in the acoustic data from any hydrophone system in the North Pacific basin. Only one series of these 52-Hz calls has been recorded at a time, with no call overlap, suggesting that a single whale produced the calls. … These tracks consistently appeared to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species (blue, fin and humpback) monitored year-round with the same hydrophones.

Much remained unknown, the report confessed, and difficult to explain:

We do not know the species of this whale, whether it was a hybrid or an anomalous whale that we have been tracking. It is perhaps difficult to accept that … there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse.

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Two

The drive from Seattle to Whidbey Island, a little less than two hours north, took me through the plainspoken pageantry of Washington State industry: massive piles of raw logs and cut lumber, rivers clogged with tree trunks like fish trapped in pens. I passed stacks of candy-colored shipping containers near Skagit Port and a collection of dirty white silos near Deception Pass Bridge, its steel span looming majestically over Puget Sound—hard-sparkling water glinting with shards of sunlight nearly 200 feet below. Craggy cliffs rose on either side over the water, studded with crooked straggler pines clinging to the steep rock. In front of me on the two-lane highway, a biker wore a jacket full of skulls.

On the far side of the bridge, the island felt pastoral and otherworldly, almost defensive. “LITTER AND IT WILL HURT,” one sign read. Another said: “Space Heaters Need SPACE.” The lawns were full of goats and rabbit hutches.

Whidbey Island often calls itself the longest island in America, but this isn’t strictly true. “Whidbey is long,” the Seattle Times observed in 2000, “but let’s not stretch it.” It’s long enough to hold a kite festival, a mussel festival, an annual bike race (the Tour de Whidbey), four inland lakes, and an annual murder-mystery game that turns the entire town of Langley, population 1,035, into a crime scene. In 1984, the island was a refuge for a white supremacist named Robert Jay Mathews—leader of a militant group called the Order—whose home burned down around him when a pile of his own ammo caught fire during a shoot-out with the FBI. His body was found next to the charred remains of a bathtub. Every year, it’s rumored, his followers gather on the day he was killed, at the site where his home once stood, to commemorate his death.

The Naval Air Station, on the northern end of the island, specializes in electronic attack, which means manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum: sending out radio and radar frequencies to locate and neutralize enemy operations, or using these same techniques to defend against similar tactics. The station also monitors the intricate array of hydrophones known as the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), part of an undersea surveillance network that ranges across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, from Nova Scotia to Hawaii, seafloor-mounted hydrophones connected by underwater cables to facilities that process the audio data onshore. SOSUS was initially built for one reason: to track Soviet subs. Its earliest hydrophone arrays were installed on the seafloor between Greenland, Iceland, and Britain—a naval-warfare choke point known as the GIUK Gap, the waters that Soviet subs would have to cross if they were heading west.

SOSUS tracked its first diesel sub in 1962, its first Victor- and Charlie-class subs six years later. The system was expanded through the 1960s and helped locate the only two U.S. nuclear submarines ever lost at sea.

But once the Cold War ended, operations were downsized, and much of the equipment was declassified. The hydrophone arrays still did military duty, but the Navy started looking for other uses for them, too.

Joe George, the technician who first identified 52 Blue in 1992, still lives in a modest hillside home perched on the northern end of Whidbey, about six miles from the Naval Air Station. When I visited, he answered the door smiling—a burly man with silver hair, no-nonsense but friendly.

He’d offered to show me around the naval base. Though he hadn’t worked there for 20 years, he was still able to get us past security with his Navy ID. He told me he uses it whenever he comes back to the base to drop off his recycling: the profits go toward a Morale, Welfare and Recreation Fund that pays for bleachers and baseball diamonds for the base. We passed by the looming hangars where the planes are kept, “prowlers” and “growlers,” all designed for electronic warfare.

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Whidbey Island is currently home to 17 active-duty electronic attack squadrons, including the VAQ-133 Wizards (radio call sign: Magic); the VAQ-142 Gray Wolves (formerly the Grim Watchdogs, radio call sign: Timber); and the oldest electronic-warfare squadron in the Navy, the VAQ-130 Zappers (mascot: Robbie the Dragon, who is pictured with lightning bolts coming out of his angry lizard eyes). The VP-40 Fighting Marlins also sport a fierce insignia: a marlin spearing a submarine alongside a squid that bleeds fat red drops.

We passed smaller simulator buildings, where some guys step into a cockpit for the first time and other guys do their best to mess up the ride. Just beyond these dreary beige boxes, the coastline was ragged and beautiful—waves crashing onto dark sand, salt wind moving through the evergreens. Joe told me that a lot of people like getting stationed here: The work isn’t bad, and the island itself is pretty stunning. Outside the officers’ club, men in flight suits were drinking cocktails on a wooden deck.

Joe explained that his team—the team responsible for processing audio data from the hydrophones—was fairly disconnected from the rest of the base. It was a question of security, he said, and when we reached his old building I saw what he meant: It was surrounded by two fences topped with razor wire. Some of the other servicemen on base, Joe explained, used to think his building was some kind of prison. They never knew quite what it was for; its machinations were mysterious. The only contact Joe’s division had with the rest of the base was passing along whatever information they’d gathered about subs.

Joe stressed the intensity and secrecy of his old work, everything that happened past the razor wire. I asked him what he thought the strange sounds were, before he realized they were whale calls—back in 1992, with Second Petty Officer Ronquille. “I can’t tell you that,” he told me. “It’s classified.”

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Three

July 2007: Harlem, New York. Leonora knew she was going to die. Not just someday, but soon. She’d been suffering from fibroids and bleeding for years, sometimes so heavily that she was afraid to leave her apartment, heavily enough that she grew obsessed with blood: thinking about blood, dreaming about blood, writing poems about blood. She’d grown increasingly reclusive. She’d stopped working as a case supervisor for the city, a job she’d held for more than a decade.

Leonora was 48 years old. She had always been a self-sufficient person; she’d been working since she was 14. She’d never been married, though she’d had offers. She liked to know that she could support herself, but this was a new level of isolation. She’d grown obsessively focused on a self-directed exploration of embryonic stem-cell research and increasingly distant from everyone in her life. One family member had told her, “You are in a very dark place,” and said she no longer wanted to see her.

By summer things had gotten worse. Leonora felt truly ill: relentless nausea, severe constipation, aches across her whole body. Her wrists were swollen, her stomach bloated, her vision blurred with jagged spirals of color. She could hardly breathe when she was lying down, so she barely slept. When she did sleep, her dreams were strange. One night she dreamed about a horse-drawn hearse moving across the cobblestone streets of another century’s Harlem. She picked up the horse’s reins, looked it straight in the eye, and knew it had come for her.

She unlocked her apartment door so that her neighbors wouldn’t have trouble removing her body before it “stank up the place.” She called her doctor to tell her as much—I’m pretty sure I’m going to die—and her doctor got pissed, said she needed to call the paramedics, said she was going to live. So Leonora called the paramedics. When they were wheeling her off on a gurney, she asked them to turn around and take her back so she could lock the door again. This was how she knew she’d regained faith in her own life: If she wasn’t going to die, she didn’t want to leave her door unlocked.

That request, asking the paramedics to turn around, is the last thing Leonora can remember before two months of darkness. That night in July was the beginning of a medical odyssey—five days of surgery, seven weeks in a coma, six months in the hospital—that would eventually deliver her, in her own time and her own way, to the story of 52 Blue.

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Four

Back at his house, Joe showed me how he’d been spending his time since retiring from the Navy. In addition to a job restoring salmon habitats—putting in the right plants and taking out the wrong ones—he was regularly participating in 18th-century fur-trapper-rendezvous reenactments. He kept an impressive collection of carnivorous plants and raised bees to feed them. He showed me the cobra lilies, his favorites, and explained how their translucent hoods coaxed trapped flies to exhaust themselves by flying for the light.

Certain patterns emerged across Joe’s various vocations: evident care and conscientiousness, a desire to be accurate and meticulous. He fixed a frost cloth over his cobra lilies right after he showed me their elegant green-veined hoods, and it was with conspicuous pride that he showed me the 18th-century musket he’d built from a kit. I saw the same sense of pleasure at precision when he explained the sheaf of papers he’d pulled out from his old days tracking 52 Blue. They were computer maps documenting nearly a decade of migratory patterns, 52 Blue’s journey each season marked by a different color—yellow, orange, purple—in the crude lines of mid-nineties computer graphics. He showed me charts of 52’s song and explained the lines and metrics so I could compare its signature to more typical whale noise: the lower frequencies of regular blues, the much higher frequencies of humpbacks.

Blue whale songs hold various kinds of sounds—long purrs and moans, constant or modulated—and 52 Blue’s vocalizations showed these same distinctive patterns, only on a wildly different frequency, one just above the lowest note on a tuba. The brief recorded clip of 52 I listened to, sped up for human hearing, sounded ghostly—a reedy, pulsing, searching sound, the aural equivalent of a beam of light murkily visible through thick fog on a moonlit night.

Joe clearly enjoyed explaining his charts and maps. They took him back to the days when the story of 52 was still unfolding, still a mystery—this inexplicable whale and his singular sound. At the time, Joe had recently arrived at Whidbey after several years of what was technically classified as “arduous duty” on a base in Iceland, though he explained that those years weren’t particularly arduous at all; his kids built snowmen by the Blue Lagoon. Joe was a good candidate for Whidbey. He was already trained as an acoustic technician, already prepared for the work that happened in his squat little bunker behind the razor-wire fence.

SOSUS, Joe told me, was a “bastard child”: It had bounced from one Navy division to another over the years, and was treated differently depending on where it was housed at any given time. It got a lot of funding when it was in the submarine division, headed by an admiral. But after it was moved to surface fleets, which had less pull, there was less money to go around. And then the Cold War ended.

Without Soviet submarines to listen to, the Navy started thinking about how else the expensive hydrophone array might earn its keep. That’s when they decided to offer it to science, so they could listen to everything else. Dennis Conlon—a civilian Navy scientist with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command—invited an acoustics expert from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts named Bill Watkins out to Whidbey. Watkins, who’d worked with the Navy in the past, realized he could use the equipment to track blues, fins, and humpbacks—their migration patterns and areas of seasonal density.

Now Navy guys who’d spent years tracking subs were suddenly tracking songs. They were accountable for making sense of something other than threats. The sounds they gathered were processed and examined by Watkins’s team back at Woods Hole.

Joe spoke of Watkins—who died of cancer in 2004—with evident respect. This was a pattern in the various accounts of Watkins I heard, this reverence: He was honest and passionate and kind. He could talk to anyone. He spoke a bunch of languages, the precise number changing each time I heard it: Twelve. Six. Thirteen. Nancy DiMarzio, one of his former research assistants, claimed it was twenty. She also said he once fled an African country in the middle of a war. Darel Martin, another naval acoustic technician who worked with Joe at Whidbey, told me the story of Watkins’ Ph.D: how he learned enough Japanese to defend a doctoral dissertation at the University of Tokyo.

Watkins was born in 1926 to Christian missionaries stationed in French Guinea. According to Darel, he hunted elephants with his father when he was a kid. He could hear the elephants from farther off than anyone else: “He found out that he could actually hear 20 hertz, which is extremely low for any human,” Darel told me. “You and I can’t hear that—20’s pretty low—but he could actually hear the elephants in the distance. And he would tell his dad which way to go.”

Watkins studied broadcast technology at a Christian college in the United States and then returned to Africa to work in radio. He spent most of the 1950s operating a station in Monrovia, Liberia. When he first started working at Woods Hole, in 1958, he was hired not as a biologist but as an electronics assistant—it was the recording he excelled at. He didn’t know much about whales then, and he wouldn’t earn his Ph.D in biology until he was in his fifties. By the time he did, however, he had already made profound contributions to the field, developing much of the technology and methodology that made it possible to record and analyze whale songs: whale tags, underwater playback experiments, location methods. He developed the first tape recorder capable of recording whale vocalizations, which opened up new frontiers of fieldwork.

During the years the Whidbey Island team tracked 52 Blue, Watkins came out to the base every few months during migration season, and Joe and Darel would show him the vocalizations they’d picked up. The three men enjoyed working together. While some of the other Navy guys didn’t like going from tracking subs to tracking creatures—the stakes of intelligence work felt more palpable—Joe and Darel loved eavesdropping on marine life. “It’s just endless what you can hear out of the ocean,” Darel told me. “We went from being experts on sharks of steel to tracking living, breathing animals.”

For Joe and Darel, 52 Blue’s unusual frequency was interesting for largely practical reasons: His singularity made him easy to track. Because you could always distinguish his call from others, you always knew where he was traveling. Other whales were harder to tell apart, their patterns of motion harder to discern. The possibility of particularity—this whale, among all whales—was unusual: It allowed for an abiding relationship to 52 as an individual creature, while other whales blurred into a more anonymous collective body.

Joe George on tracking 52 Blue.

52’s particularity, as well as his apparent isolation, lent him—they figured it was a him, as only males sang during mating season—a certain kind of personality. “We always laughed when we were tracking him,” Darel told me. “‘Maybe heading to Baja for the lady blues.’” His jokes echoed the way frat brothers might talk about the runt of a pledge class, the one who never had much luck with chicks: 52 was ugly, 52 struck out, looked again, tried again. 52 never let up with that song. It was something more than a job. Darel bought his wife a whale necklace during the years he spent tracking 52; she still wears it whenever they go to Hawaii.

Joe had his own fixations. “One time he disappeared for over a month,” he told me, his inflection registering the mystery; it clearly still engaged him. At the end of the month they finally picked him up—farther out in the Pacific than he’d ever been. “Why was there that gap?” Joe wondered. “What happened during that time? You just wonder about stuff like that. What happens in that month. You always kinda wonder.”

Watkins was the driving force behind the whale tracking, and he fought hard to maintain the funding, but he couldn’t keep it running forever. The Twin Towers happened and everything changed. Just as the end of the Cold War had signaled the beginning of a new era, so did the onset of another war signal the beginning of the end. “When 9/11 came around, it was a couple weeks after that, Bill told me all the funding was gone,” Joe explained. “Everything.”

The whale-tracking team hunted around for other jobs on the base or within the Navy. Joe tried the marine-acoustics field but didn’t have much luck. So he went back for an associate’s degree in environmental sciences, which paved the way for his current job restoring salmon habitats.

Now the records of 52 are just reams and reams of data taking up space in filing cabinets at Woods Hole. The mystery survives in splinters: just a man sitting at his kitchen table, pulling out old folders to point out the ordinary-looking graph lines of an extraordinary song.

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Five

Leonora grew up in Harlem near Bradhurst Avenue. She was raised mostly by her grandmother, who was four foot eleven and blind from diabetes, a determined and resourceful woman who’d come to the United States from Chennai by way of Trinidad. She always said people back home in India thought America was full of golden sidewalks. It was the flecks of silica in the pavement, she said, their sparkle. Word had spread.

Leonora’s grandmother was a woman who felt blessed by an extraordinary second sight—she got a strong sense about people, could feel the energy coming off them. If she didn’t want to get to know you, she’d tell you. If she did want to get to know you, she’d run her hands over your face and body to get a better sense of the spirit inside. She could describe your clothing without seeing you. She could sense the energy of different colors: the calm of blue, the heated intensity of red.

During the mid-seventies, when Leonora was in high school, Bradhurst was something of an urban war zone, with its own police task force and sky-high murder rates. One summer when Leonora got interested in photography, taking pictures of friends and folks in the neighborhood, people started calling her Death Photographer because so many of her subjects ended up becoming victims of violence.

Leonora worked hard to find a way out, started City College and made good money bartending at the Red Rooster and Broadway International. One day she was walking along the Hudson and had a vision: It started looking like another river entirely. This was how she realized she needed to get to Paris. She needed to get even farther away from home.

She kept bartending until she had enough money saved, then got herself across the Atlantic as an exchange student. She found a place on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and spent the next year in a happy blur: walked around with a corkscrew in her hand, took a trip to Capri, where she and her friend met a pair of amorous lifeguards, broke into an abandoned villa and ate bread and jam off the dusty kitchen table.

It was tough coming back to New York. Her friends resented the fact that she’d been somewhere—done something—that they hadn’t. She lived in New Jersey for six months, which she hated, then returned to the city to be with a man she almost married. They went to the courthouse and she got such terrible cramps that she had to go to the bathroom. She realized it was her body telling her: Don’t do this. She listened. She stayed in the bathroom until the offices closed; a police officer had to tell her to come out.

She eventually started working for the city as a case manager for clients on food stamps or welfare. It was emotionally draining work: dealing with families in states of desperate need, hungry kids, a mother who’d scored a little money in the lottery but still dressed her kids in rags and wanted her own mom’s share of food stamps. For a while in the nineties, Leonora worked for a city program helping Russian immigrants. They got off the plane at La Guardia with visas and apartment leases and not much else; she helped them figure it out from there.

She was dedicated to her clients, respected their courage and determination, but by the mid-aughts her health was in decline. She was holed up in her apartment and bleeding all the time. Home was a refuge but also a container for her increasing isolation. By the time she was hospitalized, in July 2007, she’d retreated from the world so much that her time in the hospital felt less like an absolute rupture and more like the continuation of a descent that was already well under way.

Six

In 2004, three years after the funding dried up, the Woods Hole researchers published a paper about 52 Blue in a journal called Deep Sea Research. The paper explained how the audio data had been recorded—gathered by more than ten arrays of hydrophones and analyzed by acoustic technicians familiar with whale calls—but gave few details about the process, for security reasons: “These Navy facilities, hydrophone arrays, their characteristics, and associated data processing techniques have remained classified.” The paper described the units of noise recorded from the whale (“calls,” “groups,” “series,” and “bouts”) as well as patterns in his motion: “The tracks for the 52-Hz whale indicated relatively slow, continuous movement” across “the deep waters of the central and eastern portion of the North Pacific basin,” where he “roamed widely” and “spent relatively little time in any particular area,” and—of course—never seemed to cross paths with any other whales.

The article was accepted in August 2004. Bill Watkins died in September. Though he was listed as the lead author on the article, another member of the team—Mary Ann Daher, his former research assistant—was listed as its corresponding author. Soon, Daher started getting notes about the whale. They weren’t just typical pieces of professional correspondence. They came, as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin wrote at the time, “from whale lovers lamenting the notion of a lonely heart of the cetacean world”; others were “from deaf people speculating that the whale might share their disability.”

After Revkin’s story ran that December, headlined “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered,” more letters flooded Woods Hole. (One marine-mammal researcher quoted in the story, Kate Stafford, may have inadvertently fanned the flames: “He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,’” she told Revkin. “Well, nobody is phoning home.”) These letters came from the heartbroken and the deaf, from the lovelorn and the single; the once bitten, twice shy and the twice bitten, forever shy—people who identified with the whale or hurt for him, hurt for whatever set of feelings they’d projected onto him.

A legend was born: the loneliest whale in the world.

In the years since, 52 Blue—or 52 Hertz, as he is known to many of his devotees—has inspired numerous sob-story headlines: not just “The Loneliest Whale in the World” but “The Whale Whose Unique Call Has Stopped Him Finding Love”; “A Lonely Whale’s Unrequited Love Song”; “There Is One Whale That Zero Other Whales Can Hear and It’s Very Alone. It’s the Saddest Thing Ever and Science Should Try to Talk to It.” There have been imaginative accounts of a solitary bachelor headed down to the Mexican Riviera to troll haplessly for the biggest mammal babes alive, “his musical mating calls ringing for hours through the darkness of the deepest seas, broadcasting a wide repertory of heartfelt tunes.”

A singer in New Mexico, unhappy at his day job in tech, wrote an entire album dedicated to 52; another singer in Michigan wrote a kids’ song about the whale’s plight; an artist in upstate New York made a sculpture out of old plastic bottles and called it 52 Hertz. A music producer in Los Angeles started buying cassette tapes at garage sales and recording over them with 52’s song, the song that was quickly becoming a kind of sentimental seismograph suggesting multiple storylines: alienation and determination, autonomy and longing; not only a failure to communicate but also a dogged persistence in the face of this failure.

People have set up Twitter accounts to speak for him, like @52_Hz_Whale, who gets right to the point:

Hellooooooo?! Yooohoooooo! Is anyone out there? #SadLife

I’m so lonely. :'( #lonely #ForeverAlone

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Seven

Leonora woke up in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in September 2007. What had happened in the previous two months—after the paramedics wheeled her out of her apartment—was only explained to her long after it was over, once she’d recovered enough to process it. The doctors had discovered that a severe intestinal blockage was making her ill, and she’d had major surgery over the course of five days. The surgeons removed everything the blockage had rotted; the more they looked, the more necrotic tissue and gangrene they found. They kept cutting out portions of her intestines—seven inches, nine inches, three inches—until they’d gotten it all. By the time they were finished, nearly three feet of her guts were gone. The remaining incision was huge.

Leonora was put into a seven-week coma so she could recover more efficiently, and after she awoke she remained hospitalized for several months to keep the open wound from becoming infected. She was on an IV. She hardly knew how to speak. She thought it was 1997. Her father came to visit once, and she vomited when she saw him. She could barely make herself understood, barely convey how much she wanted him to leave.

At one point, she sensed an incredible stench around her. She didn’t know where it was coming from. She said “smell,” and someone understood; eventually they realized it was her hair, which was matted with blood. She asked one of her doctors to cut it. The doctor said that wasn’t her job. Leonora said, “If you don’t do that, I will start screaming now and I will not stop.” The doctor did it. It turned out looking pretty good. Weeks later they joked that the doctor might have a second career as a hairdresser.

For Leonora, the hardest part of recovery was losing her self-sufficiency. “Feeling that I could no longer be independent,” she said, “that I could no longer take care of myself. Ever since I was 14, I’ve been doing that.” In the aftermath of her coma, Leonora couldn’t walk. She had trouble remembering words. She couldn’t count past ten. She couldn’t even quite count to ten. But she pretended. She didn’t let on. She didn’t want other people to see her struggling. The hospital offered decent physical rehab but nothing to help her re-inhabit her own mind.

Leonora was wheeled into the hospital on July 6, 2007, and wasn’t home again until 2008. She went to a rehabilitation facility in November, then had a bad fall—she still wasn’t walking well—and returned to the hospital, then to another rehab in December. During those months at various institutions she had visitors but generally she felt abandoned—like everyone in her life was fleeing her damage, pushing her away for a simple, primal reason: The healthy don’t like to be around the sick. Her illness made them uncomfortable, because it reminded them of their own mortality—or the fact of mortality itself.

When people did come to visit, she perceived a dark energy coming from them; it made her feel nauseous. When her father visited, he told her over and over that she looked like her mother—a woman he hadn’t spoken about in many years. She felt that her illness raised long-buried emotions in him, feelings of anger and loss.

During much of her recovery Leonora couldn’t even watch television. It gave her headaches. So she turned to the Internet. It was a way to find interest and beauty in the world. And it was then—alone and late at night, once again, searching for something that might offer a sense of meaning—that she came upon the story of 52 Blue.

By then the story of the whale had been floating around the Internet for several years. But it spoke to Leonora with a particular urgency. It resonated. “He was speaking a language that no one else could speak,” she told me recently. “And here I was without a language. I had no more language to describe what had happened to me. So I too… I was like him. I had nothing. No one to communicate with. No one was hearing. No one was hearing him. And I thought: I hear you. I wish you could hear me.”

She identified with his plight. She felt that her own language was adrift. She was struggling to come back to any sense of self, much less find the words for what this self was thinking or feeling. It was hard to speak, because her trachea was so scarred from all the tubes that had been thrust down it during her coma. She felt the world pulling away. When she found the whale, she found an echo of this difficulty.

She remembers thinking: I wish I could speak whale. She found a strange kind of hope, a sense of certainty that he must know he wasn’t alone. “I was like: Here he is. He’s talking. He’s saying something. He’s singing. And nobody’s really understanding, but there are people listening. I bet he knows people are listening. He must feel it.”

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Eight

When I first began looking into the story of 52 Blue, I reached out to Mary Ann Daher at Woods Hole. I was hoping she could help me understand how the story of this whale had jumped the bounds of science and become something more like a rallying cry.

Daher’s role in the story was curious: She’d become the unwitting confessor for a growing flock of devotees simply because her name was on a paper recounting work for which she’d been a research assistant years before. “I get all sorts of emails,” she’d told one reporter, “some of them very touching—genuinely; it just breaks your heart to read some of them—asking why I can’t go out there and help this animal.”

But it seemed the media attention had started to grate on her nerves. “It’s been pretty painful,” she told a reporter in 2013. “You name the country and I’ve had a phone call, wanting to get information. And I haven’t worked on this since 2006 or so. … And … oh God, [Watkins would] be dismayed, to put it mildly, to know of the attention.”

I was eager to speak with Daher; I pictured the two of us at Woods Hole, meeting by the sea, locking eyes, nursing two cups of coffee in the salt air. How did it feel to get those letters? I’d ask her. And she’d tell me about the tug on her heart each time, her inbox turned into confessional booth. Perhaps she’d recite one from memory, the one that had moved her the most: He is hope and loss at once. I’d hear some break in her voice, and I’d copy her words, and I’d copy the break—I’d make note of it: scientific neutrality showing the strain at its seams, nearly torn open by a lonely stranger’s hapless wonder.

It could have gone like that. Perhaps there is another world in which it did. This world, however, holds only her refusal to return my emails. The Woods Hole media-relations representative made it very clear: They were done. Daher was done talking about the whale; done refusing to make assumptions about the whale; done correcting other peoples’ assumptions about the whale. She’d already said everything she had to say.

The last journalist Daher agreed to talk to, as best I could tell, was a writer named Kieran Mulvaney. After I contacted him, he offered to send me the transcript of their conversation from 2013. It gives a sense of Daher’s wariness and aggravation about the phenomenon 52 had become: “We don’t know what the heck it is,” she said of the cause of 52’s odd song. “We don’t know if it’s a malformation. … Is he alone? I don’t know. People like to imagine this creature just out there swimming by his lonesome, just singing away and nobody’s listening. But I can’t say that. … Is he successful reproductively? I haven’t the vaguest idea. Nobody can answer those questions. Is he lonely? I hate to attach human emotions like that. Do whales get lonely? I don’t know. I don’t even want to touch that topic.”

Research can quickly grow tiresome to its own researchers once it’s been distorted by the funhouse mirrors of public fancy. For Mary Ann Daher, I came to realize, I represented little more than the persistence of that distortion: It’s been pretty painful. It’s been worldwide. The phenomenon itself was a reproach to Watkins’ legacy: He’d be dismayed.

I thought I understood why she was done, why she was sick of it, why she was tired. This was part of the story, too: the way a phenomenon could alienate its own midwives. But I wanted to talk to her, and I wanted those letters, the ones she’d been sent—I wanted them so badly that I started to resent her refusal. I even wrote about her in my diary:

I get angry at Mary Ann Daher because she stands between me and the piece I’m capable of writing—the ghost text, hypothetical and unrealized, that includes every angle, every perspective; the white whale of completion and wholeness—she stands between me and the editor (stand-in for the father figure/lover/mentor/teacher) who says “good job,” the paycheck, the readers who say “this story moved me.”

I tried her one last time. She didn’t have to talk to me, I told her. I just wanted the letters. Then I told her media rep. I tried to explain my aesthetic; how my piece would be different from all the others. I tried to explain: I just wanted to find all the people who’d been moved by this animal.

She never sent the letters. So I went looking for the people on my own.

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Nine

They were voices out of the digital ether, at first, emails appearing in my inbox. I found them on a Facebook page devoted to the whale. Juliana was a 19-year-old English major at the University of Toronto. For her, she explained, 52 Blue was “the epitome of every person who’s ever felt too weird to love.” He represented “the fears that all of us have about never finding love and dying alone.” Juliana was no stranger to these fears herself. The summer she discovered 52 she “wasn’t really seeing as many people as [she]’d have liked.” She felt out of sorts at college—described herself as a “lonely soul”—and believed the whale represented not just her but anyone “wandering alone,” anyone “trying to find someone who accepts us for our weaknesses and faults.”

Zbigniew—a 26-year-old photo editor at the biggest daily tabloid in Poland—decided to get the outline of 52 Blue tattooed across his back after a bad breakup, the end of a six-year relationship:

i was deeply in love. but as it came out she was treating me like a second category person in relationship…i was devastadem mainy becose i have given her everything i could, and i thought she would do the same for me. [Because] of her i lost connection with important friends. View of the wasted time made me sad….Story of 52 hz whale made me happy. For me he is symbol of being alone in a positive way…He is like a steatement, that despite being alone he lives on.

For Zee, as he calls himself, 52 came to represent the lonely days after the breakup, watching sad movies alone at home with his two cats, Puma and Fuga: “for long time i was ‘singing’ in other frequency then everybody around.” But the whale also represented resilience: “this is what my life looks like for last 2 years. im swiming slowly through my part of ocean, trying to find poeple like me, Patient, going past life being sure that im not crippled but special in positive way.”

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The tattoo was a way for Zee to honor what the whale had meant to him, and to communicate that meaning—to sing at a frequency that might be understood. It stretches across his upper back, the “only place on body huge enough to make it look awesome.” Rather than offering a visual representation of 52, the tattoo is actually an artful evocation of the fact that 52 hasn’t ever been seen, and might never be seen: behind a detailed rendering of Moby Dick—another one of Zee’s fixations—there is a second whale, , just a negative space of bare skin defined by an outline of ink.

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Ten

In 1894, a wealthy amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell built a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He spent the next 20 years looking through it and finding things no one else could see: a series of canals extending from the poles of Mars, a network of spokes radiating from a hub on Venus. He took both as signs of extraterrestrial civilization. He was mocked. He kept seeing the canals, kept seeing the spokes. He kept insisting. Years later an optometrist solved the puzzle: The settings on Lowell’s telescope—its magnification and narrow aperture—meant that it was essentially projecting the interior of his eye onto the planets he was watching. The spokes of Venus were the shadows of his blood vessels, swollen from hypertension. He wasn’t seeing other life; he was seeing the imprint of his own gaze.

The natural world has always offered itself as a screen for human projection. The Romantics called this the pathetic fallacy. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “intercourse with heaven and Earth.” We project our fears and longings onto everything we’re not—every beast, every mountain—and in this way we make them somehow kin. It’s an act of humbling and longing and claiming all at once.

“Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” Emerson wrote. “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind.”

For Emerson, these correspondences offered a kind of completion: “All the facts in natural history taken by themselves have no value but are barren, like a single sex.” Put crudely: Human projection fertilizes the egg. It not only brings meaning to the “barren” body of natural history; it also offers sustenance to man: “His intercourse with heaven and earth,” Emerson wrote, “becomes part of his daily food.”

Emerson’s celebration of this process was not without interrogations. “We are thus assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meanings,” he wrote. “But how great a language to convey such pepper-corn informations! … We are like travellers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs. … Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?”

Roasting our eggs on volcano cinders: This is like asking the splendid form of an elusive whale to embody dorm-room homesickness or post-breakup ennui. We offer animals and mountains as ritual sacrifices at the altar of metaphor. Is he lonely? I hate to attach human emotions like that. I don’t even want to touch that topic.

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Eleven

Shorna, a 22-year-old in Kent, England, told me she relates to 52 Blue because she’s always felt “on a different wave length to other people … like I don’t fit no where.” The feeling grew particularly acute after her brother was killed when she was 13: “I felt I couldn’t talk to no one. That no one understood or cared enough.”

Years later, learning about 52 gave her a way to understand the isolation of that time—a sense that her grief was nothing anyone else could understand. Her family didn’t want to talk about it; no one at school understood. Therapists were telling her what she should feel. The whale never told her what to feel; it just gave a shape to what she’d already felt: “I felt withdrawn and it made it worse along with the pain of his death.” She felt she couldn’t connect with anyone.

Sakina, a 28-year-old medical actor living in Michigan, associates 52 with a different kind of loss—a more spiritual struggle. I first saw her in a , wearing a hijab, describing how the story of 52 immediately made her think of the prophet Yunus, who was swallowed by a whale. “It makes sense that the loneliest whale feels lonely,” she says. “Because he had a prophet with him, inside of him, and now he doesn’t.”

I met Sakina in a coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor, where she told me what happened after she read about the whale online: She started crying and needed to lie down. He evoked certain lonely periods of her childhood—she grew up Muslim in New Mexico—and reminded her of the first time she’d ever learned about the prophet Yunus in religious school, when she was six: “I was frustrated with my teacher for not recognizing that, you know, she can be straight with me and just say this is an allegory.” She said: “I found it hard to believe in miracles.”

She wondered if 52 Blue came back into her life to finish the lesson that had begun when she was a child. She was being told: Take it literally. It’s more than metaphor. She didn’t imagine 52 seeking love so much as purpose, wanting a prophet to swallow or a prophecy to fulfill. She found herself wondering: “Is he aching for the divinity again?”

Twelve

There used to be a name for the kind of people who tell tall tales about animals: nature fakers. The phrase emerged from a turn-of-the-century debate between a coterie of nature writers and the naturalists who hated their sentimental tales of animal communities, a genre they dubbed “yellow journalism of the woods.”

“I know as President I ought not do this,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt, but he went on to do it anyway: offered a scathing public condemnation of these nature fakers for their syrupy accounts of the natural world—tales of wild fowl setting their own legs in mud-made casts and crows convening schoolrooms for their young.

He is not a student of nature at all who sees not keenly but falsely, who writes interestingly and untruthfully, and whose imagination is used not to interpret facts but to invent them.

Roosevelt was especially concerned about what he called “fact-blindness”: the possibility that telling fake stories about nature might blind us to the true ones. This is the danger of nature faking, making the whale lonely or prophet-hungry, asking the duck to set a mud cast for his own broken leg—the possibility that feeling too much awe about the nature we’ve invented will make us unable to see the nature in which we actually live.

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Roosevelt’s argument finds a strange modern echo in one of 52’s twitter accounts, @52Hurts, which actually imagines the whale protesting his own symbolic status: I am no symbol, no metaphor. I am not the metaphysics you feel stirring in you, no stand-in for your obsessions. I am a whale. Some of his tweets are just nonsense, as if protesting the projection of language in the first place: Ivdhggv ahijhd ajhlkjhds jhljhh ajlj dljl 52 skjhdsnlkn and then, a few hours later: Tjhgdaskj agjgd ahg jhs kjslhsljhs. These are the tweets of a whale that doesn’t know why it’s on Twitter. Something about them feels weirdly honest: gibberish that’s more interested in what isn’t legible than what we force into hollow legibility, more interested in acknowledging the gap than in voicing the projections we hurl across it.

Thirteen

I first found David, an Irish father of two, through a YouTube video he’d made of himself singing a song he’d written: I’ve followed sorrow like Whale 52 Hertz—it doesn’t have to be this way. When I reached out by email, he told me he’d written the song after losing his job at Waterford Crystal, where he’d been working for more than 20 years. But he’d identified with the whale even earlier—“another being similarly living in parallel”—even when his life appeared to have all the external trappings of belonging: marriage, family, stable job. David insisted he’d always felt alone. It was his wife who first told him about 52, invoking the whale as his echo. “That’s you, that is,” she’d said.

After the layoff, David and his wife moved to Galway, and they began forging a new life. In a letter he wrote to me last year, during his first autumn there, he described himself at the cusp of change:

“I am told by everyone that Galway will be good for me and that I need to do something ‘arty.’ I’m starting tonight with a singing group. It’s my first day at school again. And I’m 47.” He felt the whale as inspiration and assurance in this sense of beginning again: “I have taken the discovery of the Whale as a signal from the depths that I am close to discovery… All I really know is that the 52 Hertz Whale is out there singing and that makes me feel less alone.”

When I checked in with David in the spring, he said things in Galway had been a mixed bag. He’d found a job he loved—as head of IT for a farmers’ cooperative in a little village called Tubbercurry—and was enjoying the new folks he met in Galway on the weekends. There was a sense of being in a new city full of unexpected kindred spirits. But the singing group, he wrote, had been “a bust. Lots of hugs from pig-tailed 60-somethings.”

Struck by the fact that his wife had been the person to show him the story of 52 in the first place, I asked David if she’d always thought of him as an isolated person. “My wife does think I am someone who has always felt alone,” he said. And in fact, just after he’d started his new job, he told me, his wife said she couldn’t live with him anymore. “Our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is in August,” he wrote. “Communications have broken down. I am, to quote an old song, ‘seething and bewildered like a din-deafened army.’”

But the whale still held something for him, despite the fact that things in Galway hadn’t turned out as he’d planned. “I do still think that I am close to discovery,” he said. “I still don’t know what I am watching out for. When I hear ‘Whale 52 Hertz,’ I feel at peace. I know that I am still heading in generally the right direction. I often think of the whale. I know that she’s still out there. I see others searching. Maybe, I won’t be alone for much longer.”

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Fourteen

I found Leonora on the same Facebook page where I found Juliana and Zee. After I wrote to her, she responded immediately to welcome me into the “vast vibrational pool” of 52 devotees and then told me pieces of her own story over the phone. Before we met in person, she wanted to know more about what kind of story I was telling about this whale and how she might fit into it. But eventually she agreed to meet at Riverbank State Park, in upper Harlem, where she was working as a volunteer and taking art classes four days a week: beginner and intermediate at once.

We met one afternoon in early March, a day caught between winter and spring, wind still chilly off the Hudson. Leonora wore a purple wool cap, a sweater, and slacks. She moved carefully and deliberately and chose her words with the same care. Riverbank was clearly a special place for her. She said it was built on top of a sewage-treatment facility and seemed eager to tell me that—proud of how it had turned ugly necessity into possibility.

The park had also been an important part of her rehabilitation process: It was where she went once she had relearned how to walk after coming out of her coma. She called her sister on the phone after the first time she had successfully crossed “the big street,” which is what she called Broadway then—her language was still fumbling at that point, grasping at whatever it could hold. She felt embarrassed at the thought of having her home-care aide see her practicing how to walk, watching her stumble at every step. So she went to the park instead. The park never judged. It just let her practice.

Now that it was almost spring, Leonora told me she was proud of herself for not getting a cold all winter. She knew it was because of her vitamins—she’d been taking a “barrage” of them ever since she died. That’s how she described her illness and coma: a process of dying and coming back to life.

“My ticket back came with conditions,” she said. She had to learn to take care of herself—hence the vitamins, the art classes, and the desire to start growing her own vegetables this spring. She was hoping to get one of the small gardens that the park association was going to auction off before summer. The plots were down by the running track, full of the residue of winter: shriveled stalks, leaves withered to a crisp, bent lattices that had once held tomatoes and would hold them again. Leonora said she wanted to plant peppers and parsley, a small crop perched above a sewage plant—a way of saying, We do what we can with what we have. She’d come back from her coma in pieces. She was still putting these pieces back together into a life.

A red-bellied robin hopped across one of the garden plots—just across the fence from us—and Leonora couldn’t believe we were seeing it when it was still so cold. She told me we needed to wish on it. She told me about her three-day rule. When she asks the universe a question, she always gets an answer in three days—in a dream or a visitation: maybe an animal or something as simple as the smell of lavender. She is open to messages from everything, all the time, in languages that aren’t even recognizable as languages at all.

We walked inside and settled at the snack bar—the last place in New York, Leonora assured me, where you could get coffee for a dollar. We sat by the ice rink, where some of the younger hockey players—the Squirts—were practicing. It was Leonora’s home turf. The guys behind the counter knew her order before she ordered it. The guy riding by in a motorized wheelchair said hello. The guy lurking by the register wanted her to sign a petition for a candidate for parks superintendent.

At our table, Leonora pulled out a large notebook to show me some of her pen and pencil sketches of 52 Blue. She’d also painted him in acrylic on a scrap of canvas. These were the materials she was using in her current art class, but she’d been drawing him for years already. “He obsesses me,” she explained. “I was trying to get a sense of what he looks like.”

Her early drawings were “muddled,” she told me. So she started looking at photographs of other whales to get a better sense of him. “But I still wasn’t finding him. He’s so elusive.” She kept sketching him anyway. I saw his colored-pencil body curving under lists of relevant websites she’d gathered. She told me she was working on a painting of 52 for her class’s final exhibition, to be displayed in one of the recreation-center hallways.

As we spoke, it became increasingly clear that Leonora’s sense of connection to 52—from that first online encounter onward—had always been twofold. It was about communication, and it was about autonomy. He represented the struggle to be heard and also the ability to live alone. He represented her difficulties in recovery—the failed attempts to speak—but also the independence that these difficulties had taken away. Others saw the whale as heartbroken, because he couldn’t find a companion; she saw him as a creature that didn’t need one. She cherished the capacity to live alone, and this capacity was precisely what her illness had imperiled.

Apropos of very little, she told me suddenly: “I haven’t been in a relationship since the last century. I haven’t been on a date.” She said it bothered other people in her life. “I’ve had cousins, people, family members, friends, try to hook me up with somebody. It’s like a woman is not a whole person until she has a man.” But it didn’t bother her. “I’ve never felt lonely. There is not this lonely factor. I am alone. But I am not lonely, OK? I go over to a friend’s, I buy cases of wine, I have people over, I cook. I’m a very good cook.” It bothered her that people conflated 52’s aloneness with loneliness. It bothered her that people conflated her aloneness with loneliness.

It was hard not to feel a hint of doth protest too much in her distinction, but it also felt like a sincere call for a certain kind of legitimate humility: Don’t assume. Don’t assume the contours of another person’s heart. Don’t assume its desires. Don’t assume that being alone means being lonely. The scientists would say of 52, of course: Don’t assume the whale is either one.

Leonora on solitude and self-worth. 

The first time Leonora ever listened to 52’s song, she told me, she felt skeptical of the clip available online. It was short and had been sped up for audibility. She felt sure 52 had “more to say.” But she kept listening. “I think I played it back at least 50 times, just trying to get a sense of it.” And the listening did something: “As I listened to it over and over, it helped me meditate into him. That was a key.”

She told me she believes we could locate 52 this way. “If you want to really find him,” she said, “all you need is five people, ten people, to concentrate hard enough, and to send that request out.”

She once traveled with 52 in a dream. He was in a pod of whales, no longer alone, and she was swimming with them, maybe carried in their wake—moving just as quickly, her head huge, her body sleek and hairless. Her coma recovery was full of dreams about water. She’d felt a particular connection to water ever since falling over the side of a waterfall at the edge of 17—when a voice inside her told her to hold her breath, assured her that she wouldn’t die. In her recovery dreams she swam everywhere: “In the ocean, in the river. I didn’t do any lakes or ponds—no stagnant, no still.” She was always in motion, but sometimes restrained: “It was always me struggling against all obstacles to get to water. Even when I was in there, sometimes it was crowded with people. People were stopping me from getting to the water.”

The dream with 52 was different. She could feel the different layers of water—different temperatures, different pressure levels:

We were traveling at speeds that were, I don’t know, maybe 100 miles per hour? You don’t even see anything when you’re traveling that fast. What you see—it’s not that you see it, you just feel it there. I don’t know—you just throw something out, and then something comes back, so you know there’s something there. You could feel it all over your body. When I woke up, I was moved by it, all I could do was just lay there and think: What was that? What was that?

She couldn’t make sense of it. She kept drawing him anyway. She kept drawing him because. Never reaching water kept the journeys alive. Not seeing the whale kept him infinite. His elusive form echoed her insistence on motion: no stagnant, no still. She told me that she hopes that they never find him—whoever they might be. “I hope they don’t,” she said. “I pray they don’t. I like to believe that I’ll see him in my dreams.”

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Fifteen

Hast thou seen the white whale? The hunt for an elusive whale is—of course—the most famous narrative in the history of American literature. The whiteness of Moby Dick is “a dumb blankness, full of meaning,” full of many meanings: divinity or its absence, primal power or its refusal, the possibility of revenge or the possibility of annihilation. “Of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol,” Ishmael explains. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

No one has ever conducted a physical search for 52 Blue. An entrepreneur named Dietmar Petutschnig is currently prowling the South Pacific in a small sailboat, but his hunt for the whale seems more metaphorical, a kind of personal branding. Dietmar calls himself skipper and whalefinder and is joined by a co-captain and a chef, along with a little spaniel named Vienna Linz who is billed as security, angler, and crew morale officer. When I spoke to him on the phone while his boat was docked in Vanuatu, Dietmar was reluctant to do an interview but wanted to offer me a job working for him as a freelance editor. “We are still in the middle of our discovery,” he’d written earlier. “We do hope the whale will go out of fashion.”

If anyone actually finds 52, it will probably be Josh Zeman, a filmmaker currently working on a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World. Zeman had been hoping to conduct his actual search this fall, planning to take a research vessel into the Pacific for 50 days, but his funding fell through two weeks after it was announced by his producer, actor Adrian Grenier, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Zeman first heard the story of 52 at an artist’s colony in the summer of 2012, and it struck him immediately. He was in the aftermath of a breakup. He’s been working on the project ever since; he described his relationship to the movie as “Ahabian.” But figuring out how to make the trip work “is fucking complicated,” he told me. The plan was to have a research vessel staffed with five scientists and three crew, using sonar and old migration routes to locate 52. Joe George told Zeman his search was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Daher used the same phrase. The search would “take a lot of coordination,” she told him. The data was more than a decade old. But she encouraged him all the same.

I asked Zeman what he made of folks who didn’t want the whale found at all—who preferred it mysterious, elusive, unknown. He said he felt like this resistance to finding 52 was actually a way of speaking for him—obstructing the possibility of interspecies communication, making him more precious. Zeman doesn’t want to follow the whale, he explained, or find him a mate. He just wants to make contact: “Do we want to help him? No. Do we want to say hi? Sure.”

One of the themes of Zeman’s film is modern loneliness, that people are particularly responsive to the story of 52 in the digital era—when the Internet promises connectivity but can actually deliver us even deeper into isolation. Ironically enough, the film’s Facebook page has become an effective epicenter for the 52 Hertz community: It’s where people post their responses to the story of the whale, register their sympathy, report their desires. “This story touched me so deeply,” wrote a woman named Pamela. “I wish we could all help and play whale songs for him.” She wanted to know why “we can build laptops and smart phones but we cannot figure out a way to get this whale some companionship?”

Some posts struck a different chord. Catherine was actually a little sick of all the “mawkish sadness” at this “anthropomorphized meme,” and wasn’t afraid to say so, though another user responded immediately to her post. “52 Hertz isn’t a myth or a meme,” she shot back. “He’s real, and I think we’re all damn curious about him.”

Most of the posts converge on two themes: helping 52 and feeling bad for 52. A woman named Denise posted one message—“find 52 hertz”—over and over and over again one morning: at 8:09, 8:11, 8:14, 8:14 (a second time), and 8:16. A woman named Jen wrote, only once: “Just want to give it a hug.”

Sixteen

It was late spring the second time I visited Leonora up at Riverbank Park. The air was full of promise and possibility, balmy without making you feel trapped under the armpit of an entire city. Leonora told me she didn’t get a garden plot after all. Her allergies had gotten so bad she didn’t even bother entering the lottery; she wouldn’t have been able to use the plot anyway. She told me she thinks about me whenever she sees a robin. I told her that two weeks after we saw that robin I’d met the man I wanted to spend my life with. It wasn’t three days, but still. It was something. We headed straight to the community snack bar, got our dollar coffees, and sat in the corner, in the shadow of a wall of lockers.

During our conversation that day, I started to understand better that Leonora’s connection to 52 wasn’t just a product of recovering from a particular medical trauma, struggling for language or self-sufficiency, but an accumulation of feelings from decades earlier—her youth, her childhood. Even when we weren’t talking about the whale, we were talking about the whale. It was under everything. Her whole life suggested what he might mean to her.

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She thought of her medical crisis in similar terms: as an accumulation, the intestinal blockage as an accretion of traumas from all across her life, experiences she endured but never let herself cry or talk about. They cluttered her insides and finally made her ill.

The whale offered another kind of gathering: a vessel in which a lifetime’s worth of longings might reside. Even while I struggled to make sense of Leonora’s fixation on signs and voices, her desire to find the patterns woven through her life felt deeply intuitive—the search for a logic that might structure everything.

At the snack bar, she shared a new angle of resonance with 52: the possibility of extinction. The whale might be the last of his kind, she told me—that was part of how she understood him—and in a way, she will be the last of hers: She doesn’t have any kids. She said she hated how people think of this as a kind of insufficiency—an absence. She thought of her artwork as the closest thing she had to progeny.

Leonora on extinction.

After the snack bar filled up with a flock of boys, we moved someplace quieter, a long hallway with cinderblock walls where the art would be displayed for her class’s final exhibition. In the quiet of that hallway, she told me about the darker years that followed her coma recovery. She was questioning her own purpose: What did her life mean? She wasn’t working. She started living on disability and workman’s comp.

I was aware that any cynic could have a field day with her brand of New Age mysticism, but the more I heard about her life, everything that led up to her encounter with the story of 52 Blue, the more I started to respect the incredible gravity of what she’d built him up to be—and what she’d rebuilt herself to be, under the sign of his story. He had become the mascot and fuel of her own reinvention.

I remembered all the ways she had described her coma and its aftermath—“resurrection,” “rebirth,” “second birth”—and couldn’t help thinking it was no accident that she used these words, that we kept coming back to the subject of babies, having them or not having them, that “birth” was such a big part of how she thought about all this. I bled for years. And at the end of all that blood, when she came back from death, she gave birth to herself.

Seventeen

“I just don’t know what it is, the fascination with this whale,” Joe George told me, sitting at his dining room table. “To me it’s just science.”

Which made it even more charming, the tray of that sat between us—all shaped like whales, with frosted tails, various pastel shades of green and pink and periwinkle, and “52” written in matching shades of icing. Joe’s daughter had made them for us. He was pleased to offer them but also seemed a bit sheepish; they were complicit in the whimsy of a phenomenon he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around.

It felt odd, he told me, to have funding for the whale tracking cut so suddenly and unequivocally—to feel like no one cared about what they were doing—and then to see his whale resurface so many years later in such a strange, refracted form. Suddenly everyone cared, but for reasons that didn’t really make sense to Joe—a man more worried about doing a job right than mining it for metaphor. To me it’s just science. And it wasn’t just science—it was great science. The singular signal made the whale a godsend.

Joe told me that at a certain point, the whale called 52 Hertz stopped coming in at 52 hertz. The last time they tracked him, his call was more like 49.6 hertz. It could have been age—a kind of delayed puberty—or else a function of size, his growing form pulling his vocalizations down into lower frequencies.

There’s something nice in the idea that an elusive animal might stop flashing its old calling card—that the physical creature wouldn’t even match the statistics of its own mythology. We have tuned our hearts to a signal that no longer exists. Which means there is no way to find what we’ve been looking for, only—perhaps—to find what that thing has become.

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Eighteen

I went back to Riverbank for the art show. It was early summer, a day of celebration: art hanging on the cinderblock walls, dance and music classes performing in the gym. Leonora was taking photos, wearing lavender pants and a pink scrunchie, rolling around the shopping cart in which she’d carried all her paintings. The beginning keyboard class played “When the Saints Go Marching In” under giant beige industrial fans.

Leonora took me to the hallway, where at last I got to see her vision of 52: a whale painted in flat acrylics, flying over a rainbow, over an ocean. The decoupaged figure of a woman was riding him—or flying with him—and Leonora said it was a photograph of herself, taken years ago, though she obscured the face so it wouldn’t just be her. The woman’s head was ducked low in the , down to the whale, as if she were listening to something he was saying. “Someone asked me, ‘Is the whale kissing you?’” Leonora told me. “And I said, ‘Maybe he is.’”

A park employee walked by—a young Latina woman wearing the green shirt of park staff—and Leonora explained to her, without apology or introduction: “This is 52 Hertz. Just how I imagined him.” As if everyone would know the whale, or should—as if the project of imagining his distant body should be familiar to us all.

Leonora didn’t seem perturbed by how much the whale meant—all those vectors, some of them contradictory. “He’s everything and anything,” she told me. “Anything you want him to be. He’s the dream you could never attain. He’s the million-dollar lottery. He’s Shangri-la. He’s all these things that you aspire to. He’s God, even. How do you know that he wasn’t sent here to heal us, and his song is a healing song?”

Sometimes we need to be heard so badly we hear ourselves in every song the world sings, every single noise it makes: I will start screaming now and I will not stop. Maybe desire and demand are just the same song played at different frequencies. Maybe every song is a healing song if we hear it in the right mood—on the heels of the right seven weeks, or the worst ones, the ones lost to us forever.

On our way out, Leonora carefully wrapped the whale in paper and packed him into her shopping cart. When we parted ways at the park bus stop, she handed me a FedEx envelope, cut and folded and taped to make a small flat package. Just a little something, she said. I pulled out a small painting of a robin—red breast, tiny claws, a single beady eye. It was the robin we’d seen together, the one she’d taken as an omen and came to believe was my totem. She said the red on his breast meant: activation.

I thought: This return ticket came with conditions. I thought of the man I’d met after I saw that robin, the man I knew I wanted to marry. I felt the contagion of magical thinking: Life becomes a series of omens. I wanted them to imply the presence of some organizing spirit, or at least compose a story.

“Vaya con Dios,” Leonora told me. “You should have a baby someday.”

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Nineteen

“The material is degraded before the spiritual,” Emerson wrote. He thought we’d “transferred nature into the mind, and left matter like an outcast corpse.” He’s everything and anything. Anything you want him to be.

The actual body of 52 Blue has become the outcast corpse, the matter left over once our machinations are done. There is some violence in this alchemy, and also some beauty. Emerson understood both sides of that dilemma:

“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see.”

52 Blue suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but metaphor itself as salve for loneliness. Metaphor always connects two disparate points; it suggests that no pathos exists in isolation, no plight exists apart from the plights of others. Many fans of 52 were lonely even before their lives gave this loneliness a reason: David was lonely in his stable marriage; Zee was lonely before his breakup and after it. Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison. Now there’s an entire coterie gathered around this kinship—people trained to the same pulse of a minivan-sized heart.

You might say it’s a community formed around an empty center. When we pour our sympathy onto 52 Blue, we aren’t feeling for a whale; we’re only feeling for what we’ve built in his likeness. But that feeling still exists. It still matters. It mattered enough to help a woman come back from seven weeks at the edge of death.

At one point during our conversation on Whidbey Island, I mentioned Leonora to Joe George. At first I wasn’t even sure he’d heard me, but near the end of our visit, he turned to me and said. “That woman you mentioned, the one who was in the coma.” He paused. I nodded. “That’s really something,” he said.

Joe was right when he said that the whale is just a whale. And so was Leonora when she said the whale is everything. Happiness is a kind of truth. Feeling is a kind of fact. What if we grant the whale his whale-ness, grant him furlough from our metaphoric employ, but still grant the contours of his second self—the one we’ve made—and admit what he’s done for us? That’s really something. If we let the whale cleave in two—into his actual form and the apparition of what we needed him to become—then we let these twins swim apart. We free each figure from the other’s shadow. We watch them cut two paths across the sea.

The Dead Zoo Gang

On the trail of international rhino horn thieves.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 35


Charles Homans is the digital deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine. He has also written for The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications.


Editor: Evan Ratliff and Max Linsky
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Researcher: Laura Smith
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Danijel Zezelj

Published in March 2014. Design updated in 2021.

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One

Late on the morning of April 5, 2011, three men walked into the science building on the campus of the University of Coimbra in central Portugal. When a young biologist who worked in the building arrived, around 10:30, she found the men waiting outside a locked door on the second floor, sitting on a pair of couches next to a stuffed ostrich. The oldest of the three looked to be in his mid-forties and was overweight, with red hair and ruddy cheeks. For a half-hour or so, he had been asking anyone who walked past about seeing the small natural-history collection behind the door. He had an Irish accent, and there was something strange about his persistence. “He kept talking about ‘trophies,’” Pedro Casaleiro, the museum’s deputy director, told me. “He said they wanted to see ‘the trophies.’”

The University of Coimbra, which was established in Lisbon in 1290 and moved to its current location in the 16th century, is Portugal’s oldest university, and one of the oldest in the world. Its science department, housed in a stately neoclassical on a hilltop with a commanding view of Coimbra’s terra-cotta-tiled skyline, is of comparatively recent vintage, dating to 1772, when the university hired an Italian scholar named Domenico Vandelli to begin building Coimbra’s science faculty.

Vandelli was a celebrated naturalist, a contemporary and regular correspondent of Carl Linnaeus, who named a genus of plants after him. He was also an ambitious collector, and over his career he built an impressive personal museum in Padua, the kind of wunderkammer that was popular among aristocrats and intellectuals of the era. There were stones from Roman ruins, coins from distant countries, and a 17th-century German automaton, a wind-up centaur fashioned out of silver that hurled arrows. There were also dozens of pieces of taxidermy from the far corners of the world. After Vandelli settled in Coimbra, the university persuaded him to bring his museum along, too. The taxidermy collection—augmented in the next century with specimens brought back from Portugal’s colonies—now occupies an L-shaped wing of the second floor of the science building, at the top of a large limestone staircase.

The natural-history collection was open to the public by appointment only, and the three visitors didn’t have one; they had already been turned away by the receptionist at the university’s main science museum across the street. But the biologist was feeling charitable, and she offered to show them around anyway. She unlocked the door and led them from one darkened room to the next, running ahead to find the light switches. The older man stayed close by her, following her into the darkness in a way that unnerved her. The other two lagged behind, taking pictures with their mobile phones.

After several minutes, they reached the room that contained the bulk of Vandelli’s collection. With its tiled floor, heavy red curtains, and exacting woodwork, the space exuded the slightly stuffy warmth of an earlier century. Its only nods to the present were some subtle light fixtures and, tucked unobtrusively in a corner against the high ceiling, a security camera. Against one wall stood a human skeleton and a peacock in full plumage. Next to them was a lion stuffed by a taxidermist with an uncertain grasp of anatomy, the beast’s face curiously broad and flat, with a hint of a smile, like a person wearing a lion mask. Along the opposite wall, a bank of wood-and-glass cabinets contained an array of tropical birds, small primates, and jungle-dwelling rodents. Standing guard at either door were a pair of stuffed manatees whose oiled hides had aged into something resembling obsidian.

As the tour concluded, the ruddy-faced man—the only one of the visitors who ever spoke—asked the biologist an odd question: Did the university ever loan out pieces of its taxidermy collection for the weekend? She demurred, but he seemed appreciative anyway; he told her they’d enjoyed themselves and would bring their families for a visit later that month.

Sixteen days later, another university employee was walking through the room that housed Vandelli’s collection when she felt that something was not quite right. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that one of the cabinet doors was slightly ajar. Inside, everything appeared to be in its proper place, with one exception: A pair of rhinoceros horns was missing.


“They didn’t damage anything,” Casaleiro told me, pointing to the where the horns had been. “They didn’t even break the glass.” It was a Tuesday afternoon in November 2013, and Casaleiro—a trim man in his forties, with dark brown hair graying at the temples and the bearing of an earnest graduate student—had agreed to show me the scene of the theft. After the horns were reported missing, he told me, the first thing he did was check the security video. “We had cameras in every room,” he said. Reviewing the footage from around 5 p.m. the previous Tuesday, he saw them: two figures entering through the western end of the wing.

They moved quickly toward the room that held most of Vandelli’s collection, walked to the cabinet containing the two rhino horns, and carefully pried the door open. One of the men removed the horns and began zipping them up inside a backpack. When the backpack proved too small, they took off their jackets and rolled the horns up inside them, then tucked the bundles under their arms and left, strolling out of the building into the late-afternoon sunlight.

Beyond that, the video revealed little. The images were curdled and blotty, captured in black and white through infrared cameras in dark rooms. “The thieves wore caps like this,” Casaleiro said, miming pulling a brim down low over his eyes, “so we couldn’t see their faces.” But when the Judicial Police—the law-enforcement authority that investigates serious crimes in Portugal—reviewed the footage, they discovered that the thieves, while careful in concealing their faces, had made a mistake. During the break-in, one of them had pulled out a mobile phone.

Combing through the traffic from that afternoon relayed by nearby cellular towers, the investigators were able to pinpoint a single call made from inside the museum. The receiving number’s country code was 353, and its area code was 086—an Irish mobile phone. Its owner was a resident of a small town called Rathkeale.

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The River Deel flows through Rathkeale, Ireland. (Photo: Charles Homans)

Two

Rathkeale is 19 miles southwest of Limerick, the largest city in Ireland’s Mid-West Region, located amid a patchwork of pastureland divided up by flat-topped hedgerows and ivy-covered wooden fences. Once a lively market town, Rathkeale now has about 1,500 permanent residents. It’s pleasant enough, but like agricultural towns in the emptied-out corners of Middle America, it gives the impression of having been frozen in time partway through the last century. There’s a Main Street with a few pubs, a bookmaking parlor, and a closed-down movie theater with a modish concrete-finned facade. A hand-painted sign advertises the local boxing club. A women’s clothing boutique has a life-size ceramic Marilyn Monroe out front. Most of the people are older; most of the storefronts are vacant.

It’s tempting to say that this was an unexpected place to find the principal suspects in a crime wave that, by late 2013, had caused nearly 100 rhino horns to disappear from museums, auction houses, and private collections in 16 countries across Europe. But then it’s hard to say where you would have expected to find them. The thefts, in the world of natural-history museums, were all but unprecedented. That investigators believed them to be the work of several dozen criminals based out of a sleepy village in Ireland was perhaps less surprising than the fact that they had happened at all.

The crimes had begun several years earlier with a few head-scratching incidents: reports of taxidermists and antiques dealers who had received phone calls from men with Irish accents, asking if they had any rhinoceros horns to sell and evincing no particular concern that transporting or reselling the horns was against the law. Then the thefts began. They were happening once a month at first, but at their peak, not long after the Coimbra museum break-in, they were up to two a day.

Sometimes, as in Coimbra, the thieves were relatively artful, leaving behind no damage save for a few splinters around the edges of a display cabinet. In other cases they had been thuggish, like the men who tear-gassed the staff at a museum in Paris before escaping with a white rhino horn at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Even when perpetrators were caught, the horns were almost never recovered, which surprised no one; they were, everyone assumed, quickly cut into pieces and whisked off to China, where rhino horn is believed to have medicinal properties and is worth something on the order of $65,000 a kilogram. (Cocaine, in the United States, has a wholesale street value of around $25,000 a kilo.) A reasonable estimate would put the missing horns’ collective street value somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars.

Some criminal epidemics thrive on the oxygen of their own strangeness, heists of headline-worthy curiosity begetting copycat heists. At least some of the rhino-horn thefts were probably the work of such imitators, like the thief in Colchester, England, who somehow managed to steal the head off a recently deceased rhino from a local zoo; an antiques dealer was later caught trying to board a plane with its horns concealed inside a fake Viennese bronze sculpture of a bird. The copycat theory would’ve explained one of the most striking aspects of the rhino-horn thefts, which was the ubiquity and apparent omniscience of the perpetrators. They had stolen the horns from well-known museum exhibits, but also from out-of-the-way manor houses in several countries—estates where few people save the owners would’ve even known there was a rhino horn on the premises.

But the relative uniformity of the thieves’ tactics, along with the trails of mobile-phone calls and text messages they occasionally left behind, had led many law-enforcement officials to conclude that most of the thefts were the work of a single network—one that was informal and barely organized, consisting of half a dozen families who operated more or less autonomously but all had roots in the same community. The Irish media and police called them the Rathkeale Rovers.

“My suspicion is the vast majority had the Rathkeale Rovers behind them,” John Reid, a senior analyst for the international police agency Europol who spent years studying the group, told me. “But it’s not something I can prove.” In 2013 alone, Irish investigators tracked the Rathkeale Rovers as far east as Russia and as far west as the Dominican Republic, as far north as Canada and as far south as Argentina, and as far from everything else as Australia and New Zealand. “They’re on every continent except for Antarctica, as far as I know,” Andy Cortez, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has investigated the Rovers’ American activities, told me.

The thefts caused a panic among natural-history museums, which were caught by surprise by what appeared to be a coordinated assault on what heretofore had been, crimewise, the least eventful corner of the museum world. “I don’t think there’s been anything similar—not in such a coordinated way,” Paolo Viscardi, a natural-history curator at London’s Horniman Museum, told me. As a pattern to the crimes emerged, museums began taking their rhino specimens off display, or replacing their horns with plastic or fiberglass replicas. At first this seemed to work; by mid-2012, the thefts had mostly abated.

Then, at 10:40 p.m. on April 17, 2013, three masked men forced their way into a large storage facility in Swords, a northern suburb of Dublin. The was a former Motorola factory the size of two football fields, located in a sprawl of office parks and modest subdivisions not far from the Dublin airport. It belonged to Ireland’s National Museum, which housed the bulk of its off-display collection there. Among the artifacts in storage were four rhino heads, which had been removed from the natural-history building for safekeeping as the thefts reached a fever pitch.

The burglars tied up the lone security guard and began rummaging through the collection. (“If you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Nigel Monaghan, the museum’s natural-history curator, told me, “finding the Ark of the Covenant takes a while.”) After an hour of searching, they found the rhino heads stashed beneath a tarp. By the time the guard untied himself, they had muscled the trophies onto a trolley, loaded them into a van, and escaped into the night.

To Dubliners, the museum’s natural-history building is affectionately known as the Dead Zoo, and the nickname had inspired reporters for the city’s Sunday World tabloid, which had lavished more ink on the Rathkeale Rovers than any other paper, to bestow a second moniker upon the alleged thieves. They called them the Dead Zoo Gang.

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Three

“The rhino’s greatest misfortune,” the ecologist Lee M. Talbot observed in 1959, “is that he carries a fortune on his nose.” This has been true for thousands of years, throughout Asia and Europe alike. Greeks and Romans in the early common era believed that the horn of the Indian rhinoceros was an antidote to poison. European apothecaries sold rhino horn well through the Middle Ages; it was considered a passable pharmacological substitute for the horn of the magical unicorn, and was somewhat easier to come by.

But the appetite appears to have emerged first, and persisted longest, in China. Rhino horn’s medicinal use in China and neighboring countries dates at least as far back as the Bronze Age. One fourth-century Chinese materia medica lists the horn as a cure for everything from snakebites to carbuncles to demonic possession. (Contrary to popular belief elsewhere, there is nothing in the Chinese historical record testifying to its use as an aphrodisiac; that myth appears to have originated with ill-informed Westerners.) Ornately carved goblets made from rhino horn, known as libation cups, were believed to impart life-giving properties to the liquid poured into them.

Until the 17th century, China had its own indigenous rhinoceroses. Today, the vast majority of them are found in Africa, with a few smaller surviving populations scattered across South and Southeast Asia. Most Asian rhino species grow a single horn. The African white and black rhino and the Sumatran rhino have a pair of them: a nub-like posterior horn that usually takes the shape of a dulled shark’s tooth, and a larger anterior horn that, in the African species, can grow to several feet.

The rhino’s horn is not, properly speaking, a horn at all—not like the true horns of buffalo or antelope, which grow directly from the skull and are, at their core, composed of living bone. The rhino’s horn is made of keratin, the same fibrous protein that forms hair and fingernails, compacted into a material with the approximate density and texture of mahogany. Cut it off and it grows back, eventually, following a logarithmic spiral: the pattern of beguiling mathematical elegance that recurs throughout nature in the nautilus shell, the falcon’s gyre, the pinwheeling rain bands of a hurricane. A modern physician would interject here that keratin has no documented medicinal properties—and that, in any case, there is no fundamental chemical difference between ingesting $65,000-a-kilo powdered rhino horn and eating your own toenail clippings. Conservationists have loudly advertised these facts for years, to little consequence.

The rhino’s second-greatest misfortune is that, for all its imposing airs, it is not a particularly difficult animal to kill. Lumbering, nearsighted, and fatally curious, it has been an easy mark for hunters ever since they acquired weapons equal to its thick hide. “I do not see how the rhinoceros can be permanently preserved,” Theodore Roosevelt observed after shooting 13 of them, “save in very out-of-the-way places or in regular game reserves.” Gilded Age naturalists and hunters viewed the animal as an exotic anachronism, a fugitive from prehistory living on borrowed time in a world to which it was ill suited. A black rhino that Roosevelt met on a game trail in the Belgian Congo in 1909, he later wrote, seemed like “a monster surviving over from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them.”

By the 1970s, the global math for the rhinoceros was not auspicious. East Asia was rapidly modernizing, while many of the sub-Saharan African countries where rhinos lived were exiting their postcolonial honeymoons and descending into misrule, poverty, and civil war. Militarized poachers were laying waste to populations that had barely recovered from the great white hunters of yore. Auction houses reported moving as much as 3,400 kilograms of rhino horn—representing some 1,180 rhinos—every year, bound for China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and especially Hong Kong.

Hong Kong finally cracked down on horn imports in 1979, and most other importing countries eventually followed suit. Some traditional Chinese medicine authorities helped, too, promoting the use of water buffalo horn in lieu of rhino. Although East Asia’s appetite for the horn never fully abated, by the turn of the 21st century rhino populations had recovered enough from their 1970s and ’80s nadir that the animal could be considered at least a tentative conservation success story. A December 2007 survey of 13 African countries found that in all but two cases with adequate data, populations of both black and white rhinos were stable or improving. Documented poaching incidents in the South African national park system—home to most of the world’s remaining rhinos—numbered at most a couple dozen animals a year.

The sequence of events by which the rhino’s fortunes turned sour again is not entirely clear, but it is generally understood to have started in Vietnam sometime in the early 2000s. The most often repeated story is that at some point in the recent past, a Vietnamese government official stricken with cancer stirred some powdered rhino horn into his drink and later professed himself to be wholly cured, transforming rhino horn into a nationwide phenomenon. The official has never been identified, which speaks to the likelihood that the story is not just scientifically far-fetched but also apocryphal, or at least wildly distorted through circulation. Some conservationists believe it was concocted by enterprising poachers looking to drum up demand for their product.

The less tidy but more plausible story is that about ten years ago, Vietnam’s economic growth began to accelerate, creating both a new moneyed elite and an expeditionary entrepreneurial class, some of which settled in Africa. The confluence of these two trends revived the demand for rhino horn while creating new vectors of supply. Soon rhino horn was being credited with relieving practically any ailment, including ones for which it had never been traditionally used. Some physicians in Vietnam even prescribed it to their patients in pill form.

As rhino horn became more expensive, its very expensiveness became a selling point to Vietnam’s newly flush upper classes; websites touted horn-infused wine as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires,” an iconic form of conspicuous consumption. At the same time, demand for rhino horn began to creep upward in China, too, where conservationists believe that dealers are once again carving it into libation cups and jewelry.

It’s legal to hunt rhinos for sport in South Africa, but the expense and relative unpopularity of big-game hunting has traditionally restricted the practice to a small number of Americans and Europeans. In 2004, however, private-game-preserve operators started noticing a curious upswing in rhino hunters from Vietnam—a country with no tradition of sport hunting, where civilians weren’t even allowed to own rifles. By 2009, there were three times as many Vietnamese hunters in South Africa as there were hunters from every other country combined. Reports abounded of Vietnamese tourists who were willing to pay wildly above-average prices but needed to be shown how to fire a gun; after a successful hunt, they would ask for help removing the animal’s horns but express no interest in what happened to the rest of the body. The practice came to be known as pseudohunting; soon visitors from China, Thailand, and Cambodia were doing it, too.

The South African government started limiting the exports of rhino trophies, but that just pushed the problem elsewhere. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South African national parks. In 2008, it was 83. The next year it was 122, then 333, then 448. The poaching was occurring at a level of technical proficiency park rangers had never seen before; locals with Kalashnikovs had given way to professionals with unmarked helicopters, high-powered sniper rifles, and even the occasional crossbow. Some of them used darts loaded with immobilizing drugs available only to veterinary professionals.

Elsewhere, the few surviving rhinos were faring even worse. More than four times as many rhinos were reported poached in Zimbabwe in 2008 as were the year before. The West African subspecies of black rhino, which once ranged from Cameroon to Sudan, was confirmed extinct three years later. In April 2010, wildlife NGO workers surveying Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park came upon the carcass of the last known Vietnamese Javan rhinoceros—the last wild rhino in Vietnam. The animal had a bullet hole in its leg, and its horn had been sawed off.

Hunting a species that is careening toward extinction is not a business with a long horizon. So it was probably inevitable that someone, somewhere, would ask the question: What if it were possible to get ahold of rhino horn without having to hunt the animal at all?

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Rhinoceroses shot by Theodore Roosevelt in Africa on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, 1959. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Four

In 2010, a British police detective named Nevin Hunter was working in the western port of Bristol, detailed to the government agency charged with enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The 1973 agreement was intended to limit cross-border trade in endangered-wildlife products and required each of the signatory countries to monitor their own imports and exports for contraband. That summer, an analyst alerted Hunter to a curious trend. Early that year, the office had started receiving an unusual volume of applications for permission to export antique rhinoceros horns. It wasn’t a huge number, maybe 20 in all by later that year, but it was up from the norm of two or three. In nearly every case, the export destination was China or Hong Kong.

The horns themselves had come mostly from provincial auction houses around England—a good place, maybe even the best place, to find cheap African taxidermy. During Britain’s imperial age, adventurers, professional hunters, and repatriating colonists had filled their houses back home with all manner of heads and horns and pelts, plenty of which later fell into the hands of heirs who considered them eyesores. They had floated around the local antiques circuits ever since, as novelties more than anything else. And unlike trophies from rhinos and elephants killed in the less distant past, they were in some cases legal to buy and sell.

It was strange that someone was suddenly taking an interest in these relics; it was stranger that the rise in interest paralleled, almost exactly, the exponential rise in rhino poaching elsewhere in the world. Detective Hunter dispatched investigators to the auction houses to see what was going on. The most striking data point they found came from an August 2010 sale at an auction house in Yorkshire, where three horns of near identical origin—they were all from black rhinos shot in the 1880s—sold for wildly varying prices: £30,000, £57,000, and £61,000, respectively. The only way the horns significantly differed was in size. “The rhino horns were being sold not based on their history or provenance—they were being valued based on their weight,” Hunter, now the head of Britain’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, told me. The implication was clear enough: “People were not buying them as antiques.”

An English auction-house executive told me he had noticed the same thing, beginning around 2009. “There was no doubt,” he said, that the horns “were being smuggled into China—either through Hong Kong, which has pretty lax border controls, or they were being ground up and stowed in people’s luggage. The prices were extraordinary, and they were increasing all the time. I asked one or two [buyers] what they would do with them; they said they carved them. It was a slightly nefarious market.”

As they attended auctions, Hunter and his investigators were surprised to discover that the Chinese customers weren’t the only foreigners present. Standing alongside them, and often chatting with them, were Irish buyers. Hunter began combing the records for names. The same buyers, he realized, were turning up at sales across the country. I asked Hunter recently if any of the suspects who had later come under investigation for the rhino-horn thefts in Europe were on the list of buyers he’d compiled in 2010. “It’d be stupid to say they weren’t,” he replied. “Let’s put it that way.”

Demand for the horns was growing, however, and prices were climbing accordingly. “The Irish were definitely interested in trying to buy them and were always asking after them,” the auction-house executive told me. “But whenever it came to a public auction, they were always outbid.” But there were rhino horns elsewhere that the Chinese buyers hadn’t yet discovered.

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Five

On July 26, 2010, a wildlife sculptor and taxidermist named James Marsico picked up the phone at his home in Cody, Wyoming. The caller introduced himself as an Irishman living in Brazil and told Marsico he was in the market for African trophies—especially a rhinoceros. “I have lots of money,” he told Marsico, “and can pay cash.”

Marsico hung up. That afternoon, he went on Taxidermy.net, an online forum he frequented, and wrote up a post describing the call. “Buyer out there to beware of,” the subject line read.

At first the post elicited snickers. “C’mon Jimmy,” one member wrote back. “The guy just isn’t a hunter.” But others found Marsico’s account unsettlingly familiar:

Lots of funny business going on with this. … They talk with you find out what you have, maybe set up an appointment for one of their Partners come see what you got… next thing you get robbed middle of the night.

My wife got the call yesterday. She thought it was me playing a prank on her.

Then a taxidermist from Florida chimed in: “I got this email today, I guess it’s the same guy!” The email had come from someone named John Sullivan, whose spelling and punctuation were highly irregular. Sullivan wrote that he was attempting to arrange an African-themed opening for his hotel in County Kerry, Ireland. “The thing is,” he wrote, “I’m having grate trouble in locating a real rhino head or horn in Ireland.” It had to be a real horn, he emphasized—“not a fiberglass reproduction.”

Sullivan had sent similar emails to many Taxidermy.net members, though most had ignored or deleted them. But one man, an occasional big-game hunter in Colorado, wrote back. He told Sullivan that he could get him imitation horns—good enough to pass as the genuine article.

Sullivan was unimpressed. “It’s the real thing I’m after,” he wrote back; “if anything comes to mind keep me posted.” Then the hunter told Sullivan he had a friend by the name of Curtis Phillips who had something Sullivan might be interested in.


On the afternoon of November 13, 2010, a Jeep pulled up in front of a small yellow-brick house in Commerce City, Colorado, a down-at-the-heels suburb of truck stops and motels northeast of Denver. Two young men got out and rang the doorbell, then barged into the living room without waiting for an answer. Two older men were waiting for them.

“So,” Curtis Phillips said. “You guys have been traveling?”

“Ah, traveling,” one of the visitors, who called himself Mike, said.

“Are you doing any good?”

“Small bits.”

The house belonged to the big-game hunter, though both house and man had seen better days. The hunter, sitting on a swivel chair by a computer desk, was in obviously failing health, coughing incessantly. The living room looked like it hadn’t seen the business end of a vacuum cleaner in years. A pair of mule deer heads and a small menagerie of African wildlife peered glassily down from the walls.

The visitors settled in on the couch. They were brothers-in-law from Ireland, Mike and the other one, who called himself Richard. Mike was tall and probably in his late thirties; Richard was in his twenties, shorter and a bit doughy. When the four men had met for the first time, in September, Richard had introduced himself as John Sullivan’s cousin. He and Mike had come to talk with Phillips about several rhino horns that one of Phillips’s relatives was trying to get rid of.

“Have you done this before, and got them out of the U.S. without—without getting caught?” Phillips had asked. “So that I can be assured?” The international trade of rhino trophies, after all, was strictly forbidden under U.S. law, except with special permits that Phillips didn’t have.

“If you get it,” Mike said, “we’ll sort out something.”

Richard explained that he and Mike were antiques dealers; it wouldn’t be difficult to stash the horns in a chest of drawers or something like that. “We’ve got furniture going back to England every couple of weeks,” he said, “you know what I mean?”

“I mean, it’s none of our business,” Phillips said. “It’s not my business. That’s your business. I just don’t want it to come back on my cousin and me.”

“It will not be coming back on top of you,” Mike said. “Trust me.”

Now, two months later, they were meeting up for the handoff, but Phillips was still nervous. “I promise you there’ll be no problems, Curt,” Richard told him. “Take my word on it—there’ll be no problems.”

“I don’t even know you, Richard,” Phillips said.

“I understand, I understand, I understand,” Richard said.

“I mean, you don’t know me, either.”

“I can promise you that one—there’ll be no problems,” Richard said. “Can I get a look at ’em?”

“Yes, but I—I still am nervous.”

“Don’t worry, Curt,” Richard said.

“I can be nervous with you,” Mike offered. “Find a bottle of whiskey and we’ll have a drink.”

Finally, Phillips pulled out a plastic bag and a FedEx box he had stashed out of view. “Well, here she is,” he said, unveiling a mounted pair of rhino horns and two spare horns. He was true to his word; they were fine specimens, the largest measuring a good 12 inches. Mike looked to Phillips as if he were trying to hide his excitement.

Mike peeled off bills from a wad of euros—“It’s the only world currency, you know,” Richard said—and laid them on the coffee table. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Alright?”

“I’m very nervous,” Phillips said one last time, as Richard and Mike were leaving.

“Understand me—don’t worry,” Richard said.

“I—I don’t know that this’ll be something that I do ever again,” Phillips said. “Because I’m—I have this nightmare that tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up in handcuffs because you guys got caught.”

“No, no,” Mike said. “Geez.”

“Drive safely, guys,” Phillips said, closing the door behind them.

The Irishmen had just climbed into the Jeep when two trucks appeared, pulling behind and in front of them. Four men jumped out and surrounded the vehicle, guns drawn—uniformed officers who knew Curtis Phillips as one Curtis Graves, an undercover agent with the special-operations division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They ordered Richard and Mike to step out of the Jeep. 

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A black rhinoceros horn seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents in New York in February 2012. (Photo: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York)

Six

Michael Hegarty and Richard O’Brien presented a puzzle to Graves. Their passports were stamped with visas for China, South Africa, and Canada, and as he was setting up the sting operation, Graves had found them to be obviously intelligent and calculating in their work—Hegarty had even shorted him €150 in the wad of bills he’d handed him minutes before his arrest. “They knew what they were doing,” Graves told me.

But the next time Graves saw Hegarty and O’Brien, at a federal courthouse in Denver, their demeanor had changed entirely. “They were acting like they were four-year-olds—literally like children,” he said. “They were so scared.” On the way from the county jail to the courthouse, another agent told him, “they were complaining about some shaved-head guys with tattoos they were scared of—they thought they were going to be killed. They were crying, asking, ‘Why are we here?’”

After the big-game hunter—an informant Fish and Wildlife had picked up on an earlier investigation—brokered the first meeting with them in September, Graves had run Hegarty’s and O’Brien’s names through the agency’s database and come up with nothing. When agents in the head office in Arlington, Virginia, made inquiries abroad, however, it emerged that Interpol and Europol, the international police-intelligence agencies, were familiar with them. Officials at both organizations told the American investigators that the men had connections to a loose network of families out of Ireland called the Rathkeale Rovers.

Graves had never heard of the Rovers, but during his undercover negotiations with John Sullivan—a man whom Graves had come to suspect was simply a pseudonymous Richard O’Brien—he had glimpsed what seemed to him to be a sophisticated operation. When they spoke on the phone after the first meeting, Sullivan had assured Graves that he would get a generous finder’s fee—“It pays to be a good middleman,” he said—and confidently allayed his concerns about getting caught. “Believe me,” Sullivan wrote in one email, “WE NEVER LOSES A HORN TO CUSTOMS, we have so many contacts and people paid off now we can bring anything we want out of nearly any country in Europe.”

Initially, Graves had wanted to run the case out, let O’Brien and Hegarty go with the horns in hopes that they would reveal the rest of the network. But the police back in County Limerick quickly disabused him of the notion. “There’s no way,” one of the officers told him. “We can’t even get in there.” The Rathkeale Rovers, the Limerick police explained, were members of an insular culture that had lived on the margins of Irish society for centuries. They were often called Irish gypsies, though they had no relation to the Roma people. In fact, they weren’t genetically or religiously different from mainstream Irish people at all, nor were they classified as a cultural minority there. Their only clearly definable difference was one of lifestyle. They were nomads who spent most of the year on the road, and this fact had given them the one name that truly described them and the one that had stuck. They were called Travellers.

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Children play in Cherry Orchard, a Traveller camp outside Dublin, 1965. (Photo: Alen MacWeeney)

Seven

Nobody can say, with even the remotest approximation of certainty, where the Irish Travellers came from. Prior to the 19th century, their history is a capacious vacuum into which anthropologists and historians have pitched various theories, none of which quite fill it. It has been proposed that the Travellers’ ancestors were itinerant tradesmen who roamed Ireland in the Middle Ages, or possibly landless peasants who were forced onto the road by the economic and social dislocations that wracked Ireland over the centuries—people who, after being rejected by the settled world, rejected it right back. An inverse theory suggests that the Travellers are remnants of a nomadic Irish culture that preceded the arrival of the Vikings and the Normans—that it was Ireland that turned its back on the Travellers’ way of life, not vice versa. It’s possible they came from more than one place. A 1952 survey asking a broad cross section of the Irish public who the Travellers were revealed that nobody, really, had the faintest clue. Responses ranged from “the descendents of [Irish] princes and kings” to “the lost children of Israel.”

All that is really beyond dispute is that, by some point in the early 1800s, there they were: families camped along the roadside on the outskirts of town, living out of tents of canvas and hooped willow branches. They spoke their own language, called cant or gammon, a rapid-fire patois of Gaelic and Irish English. They moved regularly, though not necessarily widely, circuiting through a county or two. By the early 20th century, many of them were living out of the barrel-top wagons that remain their iconic representation in the Irish popular imagination, cylindrical carriages stretched with green canvas and drawn by piebald horses, like pioneers in search of no particular frontier.

Many of them were tinsmiths—the origin of the term tinker, by which Travellers were known for many years, though it’s now considered a slur—or else peddlers, horse and donkey traders, or itinerant farmworkers. They were what anthropologists called an atomistic society, organized around close-knit family units that were guarded in their dealings with other Traveller clans and settled Irish. Necessity had made them gifted entrepreneurs, and they had a reputation for being shrewd readers of people, uncanny in their alertness to the threats and opportunities posed by the communities through which they passed.

Agrarians have always looked askance at nomads, and the settled Irish were no exception. They considered the Traveller to be an outcast or, at best, a kind of trickster figure. Many Travellers, perhaps in reaction to this, considered it a point of pride to pull one over on settled people, whether through clever dealing—passing off an old nag as a valuable piece of horseflesh, for instance—or full-blown scams. Still, the two cultures were ultimately symbiotic. Travellers repaired farming tools, sold goods that were otherwise hard to come by far from town, and provided seasonal farm labor. Settled Irish paid the Travellers for these things and tolerated small transgressions like garden poaching, trespassing, and grifting.

It was modernity that undid the relationship. Forces as disparate as urban migration, farm industrialization, and the widespread replacement of metal with plastic unraveled the Travellers’ livelihoods with astonishing speed. A subsistence economy that was barely changed from its traditional form as late as the end of World War II was, within 15 years, essentially gone. Travellers moved en masse to the outskirts of cities in Ireland and England, drawn by welfare stipends and the heaps of scrap metal produced by urban-renewal projects, the dealing of which became their central source of income. Proximity worsened relations with the settled Irish and English. “The tinker is a throwback to the past and has no place in the life of a modern city, where people come to live in a settled, orderly, and mutually helpful society,” a councilor in Birmingham told The Guardian in 1963. “We intend to make conditions so intolerable, so uncomfortable, and so unprofitable for these human scrap vultures that they won’t stop here.”

The Irish government saw the Travellers as a disadvantaged minority best served by full integration into mainstream Irish society, and beginning in the 1960s an array of housing, education, and employment programs were established with the aim of enfolding the Travellers in the country’s welfare state. Many Travellers at the time were genuinely destitute; “There were lots of legitimate issues that would make settled people feel like, ‘Well, if we’re a modern, developed society, it’s unconscionable to have this in our midst,’” Sharon Gmelch, an American anthropologist who conducted the first extensive academic research on the Travellers, in the early 1970s, told me. Still, she said, “Very few people thought of nomadism as a choice.”

The settlement effort succeeded in one sense: By the turn of this century, more than two-thirds of Ireland’s Travellers had come off the road and adopted a sedentary lifestyle, according to the 2002 census. But the same census suggested the more profound ways in which the project had failed. Twenty-two percent of the work-age Traveller population—and nearly 70 percent of the self-identified Traveller workforce—were unemployed. A majority of Travellers over age 15 had stopped their education in primary school. When Gmelch returned to Ireland recently to visit the Travellers she had lived with 40 years earlier, she was stunned to learn that nearly all of them had at least one relative who had committed suicide; the rates within the community, according to the National Traveller Suicide Awareness Project, are now six times the national average.

The clearest evidence that the Travellers had perhaps not wanted to come off the road in the first place was the fact that many of the most successful among them hadn’t come off the road at all. They belonged to an emerging class of Traveller traders who had reapplied their entrepreneurial skills to antiques dealing, import-export businesses, or building contracting. They had swapped their horses and wagons for RV trailers and transit vans and moved between roadside encampments and trailer parks in Ireland and England, and occasionally continental Europe and the United States. In many ways, they remained fiercely traditional; they often married as teenagers, were deeply conservative about premarital sex and gender roles, and still organized their society by family units. But some Traveller communities—among which there is enormous cultural variance—had also developed a taste for the most jewel-encrusted forms of acquisitiveness: bechromed luxury cars, blowout wedding ceremonies and First Communion celebrations, chunky Rolexes for the boys and spray tans and sequined halter tops for the girls.

This aspect of modern Traveller life particularly fascinated the Irish and English. In 2010, when Britain’s Channel 4 began airing Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—a reality TV series about Traveller and Roma weddings that later jumped to the TLC network in the United States—it was the highest-rated unscripted program in the network’s history. Even beyond the title, the show was controversial, often gleefully so; when it arrived in the U.S., The New Republic called it “voyeuristic, stereotypical, judgmental, and shallow,” which was not that far off from TLC’s own tagline (“outrageous and unbelievable”). But the ratings also reflected the genuinely captivating dissonance of the show’s subjects. Settled Irish, trying to explain Travellers to a visiting American, will often reach for the Amish as a point of comparison, which is not terribly accurate, but still: Imagine a strap-bearded Amish youth pulling into Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Bentley Continental and that gets you part of the way there.

Not all these Travellers were as wealthy as they made themselves appear, of course—but at least one group of them was. They were known among other Traveller clans, in a manner that conveyed both disparagement and envy, as the Gucci Travellers, and they hailed from the town of Rathkeale.

Eight

The first Rathkeale Travellers to edge into prosperity seem to have been horse dealers; others sold carpets in England. By the 1970s, even Travellers on the other side of the country—accustomed to looking down on the Travellers from Ireland’s threadbare west, whom they called “roughs”—had heard about the Rathkealers’ houses. At first the properties were mostly confined to a single street, called Roche’s Road, which ran uphill away from Main Street along the eastern boundary of the town center. By the 1990s, Travellers had bought up several whole neighborhoods, which were immediately identifiable to anyone passing through the village.

There were remodeled terraced houses and new American-style McMansions, built in the mock-colonial and hacienda styles, a few of them palatial by the standards of small-town Ireland. They were meticulously well kept, most of them, with fresh paint and design flourishes that called to mind a kind of suburban fortification: granite surrounds on the windows and stone cladding where a yard might otherwise have been, all of it enclosed by brick walls and wrought-iron gates. The owners of these properties did not really occupy them—most of the year there were metal shutters pulled down over the windows. For the 5,000 or so Travellers who identified as being from the Rathkeale clans, the town was a spiritual home. They spent all but a couple of months a year elsewhere and returned to bury their dead, marry, christen their children, and celebrate major holidays.

When American investigators first started trying to make sense of the Rathkeale Travellers they had arrested in Colorado, the most comprehensive portrait available of the group they had to go on was in a book called The Outsiders, published by a true-crime imprint in Dublin several years earlier. The author was an investigative reporter named Eamon Dillon.

I met Dillon recently at a pub in Dublin near the offices of the Sunday World newspaper, where he has worked as a reporter and editor for 13 years. Dillon is 46 years old, with a salt-and-pepper goatee; when I met him he was dressed in a pinstripe suit and carried himself with the slight world-weariness of a veteran crime reporter. Dillon had come to the Rathkeale Traveller beat by happenstance shortly after joining the World, when his editor had dispatched him to write a feature on the ten wealthiest Travellers in Ireland. Dillon had gone to Rathkeale the previous spring to cover a rare murder in the town—a young Traveller named Paddy “Crank” Sheridan had stabbed his brother-in-law, David “Tunny” Sheridan, in the heart with a screwdriver after a drunken argument. Reporting on the incident, Dillon had made some contacts in Rathkeale, and he called one of them to ask whether anyone he knew there might qualify as one of Ireland’s richest Travellers. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got some guys here,’” Dillon told me. “And he started telling me stories.”

None of the prominent Rathkeale Travellers would speak to Dillon; they had almost never spoken to any reporter. But as Dillon assembled a picture of the community, he came to believe that there were perhaps 20 Rathkeale Travellers who constituted a kind of elite—family patriarchs, often, or their sons—who were collectively worth somewhere between $275 million and $690 million. The ease with which they operated in dozens of countries, and their relentless work ethic, fascinated Dillon. “These guys could be sitting in a bar, having a conversation like this,” he told me, “when a guy walks in and says, ‘There’s something going on in Munich. We’ve got to go now.’ Or it could be Prague or Krakow. And if your ten-year-old son is with you, he comes, too.”

The exemplar of the Rathkeale Traveller community’s business acumen, Dillon argued in The Outsiders, was a man named Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, then in his late forties, “probably the ultimate Traveller entrepreneur.” In Rathkeale, Dillon had heard O’Brien called the King of the Travellers—an honorific sometimes given to the most influential member of a Traveller community (though the title is often suspected of being a fiction concocted by Travellers for the benefit of settled people to enhance their mystique). Once a successful antiques dealer, O’Brien had diversified in the 1990s into aluminum manufacturing, buying a gutter factory in County Cork. As the Irish housing boom took off, O’Brien sold the factory and began importing home furnishings from Asia. He would later claim to be the largest importer of cast-iron fireplaces in Ireland.

The Irish police believed that other segments of the Rathkeale Travellers’ income were less legitimate. A sizable share of it—reported by Dillon to be as much as $140 million a year—was thought to come from an improbable-sounding scam known as tarmacking, which some Travellers have practiced in various permutations for several decades. Practitioners roam Europe and occasionally elsewhere in small work crews, usually a couple of Traveller supervisors and a team of low-paid non-Traveller workers. In a typical job, a well-dressed young man will knock on a homeowner’s door and introduce himself as a member of a road crew hired to resurface a stretch of nearby highway. The crew, he says, has some asphalt left over from the work that’s going to be thrown away; would the homeowner like to have their driveway resurfaced for a few thousand euros?

If the homeowner agrees, the crew will quickly do the job, collect the money, and leave. The scam is only revealed the next time it rains, when what appeared to be asphalt shows itself to in fact be a mixture of used engine oil and gravel, which breaks apart and runs off in a greasy slick when exposed to water. By that time the crew is miles away, in the next county, or country.

The effectiveness of the tarmac ruse lies in its relative modesty. Tarmackers do occasionally get caught. (In the summer of 2009, a crew from Rathkeale was apprehended in Italy after attempting to con the nuns of the Immaculate Missionary Sisters convent near Milan; the nuns smelled a rat and notified the local police, who dispatched an officer disguised as a priest to catch the crew in the act.) But it’s the kind of small-bore scam that most cops would rather not have to investigate, especially when even proving that it was a scam at all is tricky. “Throw in the odd genuine job,” an agent from Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), the country’s investigative law-enforcement agency, told me, “and then all of a sudden all there is is bad workmanship. It’s not a crime; it’s a civil action.”

Other Rathkeale Travellers were suspected of dealing in counterfeit merchandise imported from China. “They’re sourcing container loads of fake iPhones and iPads, cheap Chinese leather suites of furniture that don’t conform to EU safety standards,” said the CAB agent—one of two I met in Dublin who had spent years monitoring the Rathkeale Travellers’ criminal dealings, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. Most infamous were the off-brand diesel generators, which quickly broke down or otherwise malfunctioned, sometimes dangerously. In June 2009, a handful of Travellers from Rathkeale materialized in Australia and sold over $400,000 worth of them before they were arrested in Sydney and the remainder of their stock seized. The salesmen themselves made it back to Ireland without consequence.

When the authorities did attempt to catch the Rathkealers, even the ordinarily simple matter of identifying them proved enormously difficult. Like other Travellers, the Rathkeale clans share a handful of surnames and first names. Investigators would report having questioned a Danny O’Brien from Rathkeale, only to discover that there were a dozen Danny O’Briens there, all with birthdays within a year or two of each other. Distinguishing one from another required knowing the nicknames attached to each family—being able to tell a “Bishop” O’Brien, for instance, from a “Turkey” O’Brien. The Rathkealers routinely skipped town before court appearances, even for minor infractions.

On only one occasion had any of them been convicted of a serious crime. In May 2004, four Rathkeale Travellers, all young men, were caught operating a tobacco-smuggling operation out of a roadside travel plaza in West Flanders, Belgium, near the French border. Thanks to wildly varying tax regimes, tobacco products in Belgium cost as little as one-fifth what they do in Britain; the Rathkealers, according to the Belgian Federal Police, had bribed truck drivers to help them move $2.8 million worth of rolling tobacco through France and across the English Channel. Significantly, the Belgians tried and convicted the men on organized-crime grounds. “To get the convictions,” Dillon, who covered the trial in Bruges, told me, “they had to show that they were a hierarchy, that they were working in a joint enterprise and had been doing it for more than a year. And the Belgian authorities were able to prove all this.”

One of the members of the group was a 19-year-old named Richard O’Brien—the same Richard O’Brien whom would arrest six years later in Commerce City. As he would in Colorado, O’Brien presented himself to the court in Belgium as a naïf who had blundered into a criminal world that baffled and frightened him. He claimed he knew nothing about the smuggling, swearing he had simply been vacationing in Belgium and crossed paths with the other Rathkeale Travellers at a hotel, and he begged to be allowed to return to Ireland to finish his schooling. The judge was unmoved and gave each of the defendants nine months in prison. Before the end of the trial, O’Brien told his lawyer, “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this.”

Nine

The more he learned about the Rathkeale Rovers, the more was sure the horn-hunting expedition he had infiltrated marked the leading edge of an illicit empire, and he badly wanted to prove it. But as far as evidence of an organized operation went, he told me, “We had nothing but news articles.” Hegarty and O’Brien ultimately pleaded guilty to narrower smuggling charges and were sentenced to six months in prison and six months of house arrest. At a hearing shortly after their arrest, Linda McMahan, the assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case, tried to convince the judge to take into account the organized nature of the smuggling operation. “One of them has a prior conviction similar to the conviction in this case: conspiracy to smuggle,” she told the judge. “They are part of an itinerant group out of—”

“Stop,” the judge said, cutting her off. “They aren’t.” At the end of the day, all the prosecutors had were two men buying some rhino horns. “The Rathkeale Rovers,” he said, turning over the odd name. “Sounds like a musical group playing at the pub.”

By the time the case was settled, Fish and Wildlife agents had discovered a third Rathkeale Rover hunting rhino horns on American soil. In September, Michael Slattery, Richard O’Brien’s 24-year-old cousin, had flown to Houston, Texas, rented an SUV, and driven to Austin, where he and two partners tried to buy a black rhino head from a taxidermy auction house. The dealer turned down Slattery’s offer; by law, the trophy could only be sold to an in-state resident. The next day, Slattery picked up a homeless man with a Texas driver’s license, drove him to the auction house, and sent him inside with $18,000 in $100 bills to buy it for him.

Two months later, Slattery walked into the Rose House, an English-style tearoom at a shopping center in Flushing, Queens, to meet a Chinese buyer. By now, Slattery was selling not only the horns he’d stripped off the head from Texas, but also another pair he’d acquired. The buyer handed him three cashier’s checks totaling $50,000. By the time Fish and Wildlife agents got wind of what had happened, just before Christmas, Slattery was already back in Ireland.


Four days after Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty were arrested in Colorado, twenty-odd police officials from across Europe filed into a meeting room at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague. The meeting had been called by John Reid, an Irish detective who was then serving as the Europol liaison for the Garda Síochána, or Gardaí, Ireland’s national police force. It was Reid’s job to field queries from other countries’ law-enforcement agencies about Irish nationals’ activities abroad. By the end of the summer of 2010, it was probably easier to list the Western European countries whose police hadn’t asked Reid to explain the mercurial Irishmen they’d come across peddling worthless knockoff generators and driveways that washed away when it rained, whose passports often turned up addresses in a small town in County Limerick.

The requests were so similar, Reid told me, that by September, “I decided the best thing to do was inform these other agencies that we were actually dealing with the same people.” At The Hague, the investigators unburdened themselves one by one. “The question,” Reid said, “was, what was this thing? Was it going to get worse?”

It was. The first reports of the Rathkealers’ dabbling in rhino-horn smuggling had surfaced the previous January, when two Rathkeale Travellers named Jeremiah and Michael O’Brien—twentysomething brothers from the “Bishop” O’Brien family—were stopped by customs officials at Ireland’s Shannon Airport on their way back from Portugal with eight rhino horns in their luggage. had been notified, but nobody there knew what to make of the incident at the time. “At first,” one CAB agent told me, “we were going, ‘What’s it got to do with us? What in the name of God are Travellers doing with rhino horns?’”

But as the intelligence began to trickle in—about the solicitations that big-game hunters and taxidermists had receivied, about the Rathkeale Rovers’ appearances at auction houses in England—Reid started to notice a pattern. Before taking the job in The Hague, he had spent 20 years as a police detective in Ireland, and he was familiar with the Rathkeale Rovers. “They were sort of—I won’t say famous,” he told me. “But they were well known as a particular group of Travellers who were—business orientated, shall we say?”

The arrest of O’Brien and Hegarty in Colorado had caught his attention immediately, for he recognized the young men’s names: They were the son and son-in-law, respectively, of Richard “Kerry” O’Brien—the man he knew as the King of the Rathkeale Travellers. Although the elder O’Brien had never been convicted of a crime—nor, to the knowledge of any Irish investigator I spoke to, charged with one—Reid knew that he had extensive business dealings in China. 

Reid was still trying to make sense of it all a month and a half later, when zookeepers at the in Münster, Germany, making their morning rounds on New Year’s Day, discovered a broken window in a small building on the grounds. Inside, the glass door had been unscrewed from a display case housing an educational exhibit of illegal wildlife products. Missing were a monkey skin, a leopard pelt, half a dozen pieces of elephant ivory, and three pieces of rhinoceros horn.

Ten

At 8:15 p.m. on February 21, 2011, less than two months after the All Weather Zoo break-in, a car crashed through the reinforced-glass doors of an auction-house half a mile outside the village of Stansted Mountfitchet, north of London. When the police arrived ten minutes later, the vehicle was gone. So was the moth-eaten head of a black rhino that had been mounted on the wall.

The All Weather Zoo theft might have been a random incident, but Guy Schooling, the managing director of Sworders Auctioneers, knew the smash-and-grab at his showroom was not. Like others in the antiques business, he had kept a close eye on the price of rhino horns. “I made quite a lot of money selling those horns,” he told me. “I didn’t enjoy it, but we were satisfying a demand in China”—and better to sell the remains of animals that expired a century ago, he figured, than worsen the poaching epidemic. The European Community had recently restricted the export of antique horns, and Sworders was planning on auctioning off eight of them, as well as the mounted head, at its showroom on February 22, in one final sale before the new regulations went into effect.

After an attempted break-in two weeks before the scheduled sale, the auction house had moved the horns into a strong room for safekeeping but left the head where it was. “It was bolted to the wall; we thought it was safe,” Schooling told me. But the thieves, after ramming open the front door, levered the trophy loose from its mount, then ran with it out the back door across an open field. The head, stripped of its horns, was found a few days later in a roadside ditch 30 miles away. Police reviewed the security-camera footage, but the thieves had worn caps with the brims pulled down low, obscuring their faces.

On March 5, a horn was reported stolen from the in Rouen, France. A month later, the burglars struck the University of Coimbra; the Irish mobile-phone number the Portuguese police pulled from the cell-tower traffic belonged to the wife of a prominent Rover. Around 2 a.m. on the morning of May 27, thieves broke into the Haslemere Educational Museum in southeast England and made off with the head of a rhino shot in East Africa in the early 1900s by a British army lieutenant. Museum staff were paying attention now, aware that their collections were being pillaged systematically. “It was clearly criminals,” Paolo Viscardi, the Horniman Museum curator, told me, “who wouldn’t necessarily know what they were looking for if they hadn’t been told.” Curators began trading stories of advance teams casing their institutions: “Literally people calling and asking, ‘Do you have rhino horns?’” Viscardi said. “Or hanging around outside, looking shifty, asking people questions.”

The thefts were also growing more brazen. On the morning of June 11, two Rathkeale Travellers—Michael Kealy and Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, who had been imprisoned with in Belgium for tobacco smuggling—jumped an antiques dealer in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Nottinghamshire, England, and stole a rhino horn the man had brought to sell them. As they started the car, the dealer managed to climb halfway into an open window. Kealy and O’Brien drove off, running a string of red lights with the man’s legs still sticking out of the vehicle, eventually shaking him loose and badly injuring him in the fall. Kealy was arrested a week later, attempting to board a ferry to France. O’Brien was caught in Cambridgeshire the following December but jumped bail several months later and fled the country.

Five days after the Nottinghamshire incident, staff at an in the Belgian city of Liège were making their rounds of the building’s top-floor zoology wing at closing time when they came upon a man wrestling a mounted rhino head off the wall. The thief attacked them with pepper spray and fled the building with the trophy, wrenching loose the horns and hurling the rest of the head into an artificial pond before getting into a car with Dutch license plates that was waiting outside. When the thief—a 34-year-old Polish national residing in the Netherlands—was caught at a police roadblock, he told investigators he had been instructed to leave the horn at the foot of a statue in the Dutch city of Helmond, where he would be paid €3,000.

The London-based Natural Sciences Collections Association was now advising its members that rhino horns “should be taken off display and put in a secure location.” In Italy, three horns had been stolen from the Hall of Skeletons at the at the University of Florence, the oldest public museum in Europe. In Germany, thieves lifted a horn from the , sawed another off a trophy mount at a hunting museum in Gifhorn, and absconded with the entire upper jaw of a rhino from the Hamburg Zoological Museum.

In early July, horn thieves hit the in Brussels, down the street from the European Parliament. Next was Blois, France, where thieves dragged a 200-pound rhino mount out of a natural-history museum and escaped in a van. Two and a half weeks later, in the early hours of a Thursday morning in late July, police in England’s Suffolk County were notified that someone tripped the alarm on the back door of the —the home of a locally beloved stuffed Indian rhino named Rosie. When they arrived five minutes later, the museum was deserted, and all that remained on Rosie’s snout was a bare patch of plaster and burlap.

Eleven

Europol decided that it was time to go public with what it knew. On July 7, 2011, the agency issued a bulletin identifying the likely culprits in the rhino-horn thefts as “a mobile Organised Crime Group involving persons of Irish and ethnically Irish origin.” In fact, thought he knew more than that.

Since the previous November, Reid and other countries’ police liaisons in The Hague had continued meeting periodically and sharing whatever bits of information about the Rathkeale Rovers passed across their respective desks—an arrangement they had dubbed Operation Oakleaf. Even Reid, who thought he knew the Rathkeale network as well as anyone, was surprised by how far they’d roamed in pursuit of rhino horns, tarmacking work, and off-brand merchandise. “We realized they’d been to South America, South Africa, China, probably Russia,” he told me. “The whole breadth of Europe—Cypress even. These were things I certainly wasn’t aware of, and I don’t think too many Gardaí were, either.”

To Reid, who has a master’s degree in international business studies, the Rathkeale Rovers were a remarkable case study in entrepreneurship, legal or otherwise—and he thought he was finally beginning to understand them. “At one point in time,” he told me, “it seemed to us like every traveling Rathkeale Rover was looking for a rhino horn.” As the intelligence piled up, however, he had begun drawing a smaller circle. The thefts, he believed, were the work of perhaps half a dozen Rathkeale Traveller families.

The Rathkeale clans, like other traditional Traveller groups, were thought to be patriarchal hierarchies, but only in the loosest sense. The head of each was generally a man in middle age who had attained the position by virtue of his business prowess. Beneath these figures, authority diffused rapidly through a welter of sons and sons-in-law and nephews. The individuals Reid considered worth pursuing—the ones “that were highly active, that you’d be most interested in”—numbered perhaps 30 in all. But by Reid’s estimation, at any given time the family organizations could encompass ten, maybe even twenty times that many people who were available to play a role, even a tiny one, in the operation. “It became a really live network,” he told me. “At any point in time, anyone in that chain could be doing something, whether it was casing a place to see if there was a rhino horn there or shipping money for them.”

Early in Operation Oakleaf, Reid had been puzzled by the rhino-horn thieves’ eerie omniscience. They weren’t just targeting well-known museums and auction houses, but also estates in secluded corners of France, Belgium, and Germany. “These thefts in these small towns in the middle of France—how did they know there was a rhino horn there?” he said. It was only after consulting with a French police investigator who’d spent months tracking the Rathkeale tarmacking crews that he understood. Years of chatting up the owners of large estates across the continent had left the Rathkeale Rovers with a detailed knowledge of the topography of European wealth—which châteaus had hunting rooms, which castles had been passed down through families with colonial adventurers in their past.

The tarmacking experience explained another aspect of the rhino-horn thefts. Museum staff often reported visitors with Irish accents making inquiries about rhino horns weeks before the thefts occurred. But aside from Michael Kealy and , the few thieves who had been caught were never Rathkeale Travellers; they were usually immigrants from Eastern Europe, Travellers from poorer clans, or unfortunates from the margins of society, homeless or ex-convicts with few work prospects. In this regard, they almost exactly matched the profiles that the French investigator had assembled of the work crews the Rathkealers hired for the tarmacking business. “We knew [the Rathkeale Rovers] are involved in this rhino-horn theft, but how are all these foreign nationals involved in it?” Reid told me. “It was because of the tarmacking.”

The perpetrators who had been caught were usually scrupulous in not divulging the names of their employers—but not always. On August 26, 2011, an Austrian aristocrat reported that two rhino horns had been stolen from his family’s castle in the Danube Valley wine country. The local police caught the thieves in January; the three men were, as in past incidents, Polish nationals. But this time at least one of them—a 30-year-old named Damian Lekki—was willing to reveal whom he worked for. His break-ins, he later told prosecutors in the regional court, had been ordered by an Irishman who called himself John Ross.

According to documents later filed by the Austrian prosecutors, Lekki “was able to identify him unambiguously [in] a photo.” The man he picked out was a Rathkeale Traveller named John “Ross” Quilligan. Austria issued a European arrest warrant calling for Quilligan’s extradition from Ireland. “John Quilligan,” according to the warrant, “is strongly suspected of being a member of an Irish criminal group specialized in theft of rhinoceros horns.”

Quilligan fought the extradition for months, all the way to the Irish High Court, which ruled definitively against him in August 2013. But I could find no mention of the case since then in the Austrian or Irish press, and the local prosecutors in Austria refused to comment on it. When I mentioned the case to one of the agents I interviewed, however, he laughed darkly. By the time Quilligan had been delivered to Austria, he explained, the thieves had withdrawn their statements. “He was sent to Austria on a Monday,” the agent said. “And he was back in Rathkeale on Thursday.”

But investigators were catching more promising breaks elsewhere. In Portugal, the Judicial Police had been scouring local antiques dealerships looking for the Coimbra burglars. Although the thieves themselves remained elusive, the search had turned up another person of interest: an antiques dealer—an Australian national living in China—who was suspected of serving as a go-between for some of the Rovers and buyers in China. The police finally caught up with him at the Lisbon airport in September 2011, boarding a flight to Paris with his son; in his luggage were six rhino horns. According to the Portuguese attorney general’s office, the case remains under investigation.

The Rovers themselves, however, mostly remained frustratingly out of reach. Retracing footsteps in the United States, Fish and Wildlife investigators had begun to grasp the sophistication of the people they were dealing with. “They generally travel with the clothes on their backs and little in their suitcases,” Andy Cortez, the special agent detailed to the investigation, told me. “They travel with very little money—the money’s wired when they arrive. They change cars, switch out rental cars. We’ve seen them use counter-surveillance-type tactics: pulling over, making U-turns, trying to see if anyone’s following them.”

When they were entering the country, the Rathkeale Rovers would book a flight, then arrive at the airport the day before and pay in cash for a ticket on an earlier one. They worked exhausting hours, “from dawn until maybe ten o’clock at night—constantly moving, constantly on the phone,” Cortez said. Looking through the travel records for one Rover who had recently left the United States, Cortez saw that the man had hopscotched across seven countries in 13 days before landing back in Ireland. They used multiple identities, passports, email addresses, and mobile phones. Although police had been furiously compiling family trees and dossiers on prominent Rovers, sorting out one Danny O’Brien from another remained a vexing business. “A lot of times,” Cortez said, “the only way you could verify who they were was by a photograph.”

There was one respect, however, in which the Rovers’ activities were predictable. Every year, in early December, they returned to the town they called their spiritual home.

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St. Mary’s Church in Rathkeale. (Photo: Charles Homans)

Twelve

Everyone I spoke to about the Rathkeale Rovers told me that if I wanted to understand the group, I had to visit Rathkeale in December. Some local Travellers returned to town for Easter and St. Patrick’s Day, but that was nothing compared with the Christmas season, when nearly all of them did, filling every vacant lot with trailers and clogging the narrow streets with luxury cars. It was the only time of year when many local Traveller families crossed paths, and the atmosphere was accordingly charged. Teenage boys litigated family feuds with fists and blunt instruments in the middle of Main Street while girls, caked in makeup and clad in day-glo miniskirts, paraded in groups up and down Roche’s Road trying to attract suitors. St. Mary’s—the severe stone church on the hill overlooking town—hosted back-to-back weddings, and Mann’s Hotel, the reception hall on Main Street, was booked solid with engagement parties, what the Travellers called “pop the questions.” Big Fat Gypsy Weddings had dedicated an entire Christmas special to the spectacle.

December is not the time of year that a sane person visits western Ireland. The sun rises in the late morning and stays aloft only until midafternoon, as if it doesn’t really see the point. The sky is more or less permanently the shade of oatmeal. When I drove into Rathkeale from Limerick City last December, a week before Christmas, it was raining. It was raining every day after that, too. The landscape—in the summer the near bioluminescent green that foreigners think of when they think of Ireland—looks desaturated, as if the colors have been stored away until the weather improves.

Just before dusk on my first afternoon in Rathkeale, I was walking up Main Street, admiring the blackened ruin of a 13th-century Augustinian abbey, when I heard the thrum of a performance engine. A silver Mercedes E350 shot up a side street past the abbey, rounding the corner onto Main in a virtuosic, tire-smoking drift. As the car flew past, I caught the sound of teenage-male whooping. Up the street were a group of girls who looked maybe 11 years old, decked out in fake-fur-trimmed coats, bleached and distressed skinny jeans, and hairspray-devouring updos. They were tottering down the sidewalk on glittery platform wedges, toward a row of well-kept terraced houses festooned with Christmas lights, with trailers and high-end SUVs out front.

The Travellers had begun to arrive a week or so before I did. Most of the men, I learned, would be coming later that week, after their wives and children. This explained why, as the sun went down, Rathkeale’s diminutive downtown took on a Neverland quality, the sidewalks filling with Traveller children embarking on a night on the town. Everyone was fanatically well groomed and seemed older than they surely were; even the little boys carried themselves with the confident swagger of grown men.

“They’ve gone from horse and trap to Porsche—Beyoncé stuff,” Seamus Hogan said. It was later that night, just before midnight, and Hogan, a boyish-looking 44-year-old DJ at the local radio station, was slumped in a high-backed leather armchair in front of the fireplace in the lobby of my hotel. There was a Christmas party going on in the adjoining bar, and guests, most of them in late middle age, drifted in and out of a banquet room down the hall, where a live band was belting out Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers covers. “I remember,” Hogan said, “when they had sweet feck-all.”

Hogan had lived in Rathkeale all his life; I’d called him on the recommendation of a couple of Irish reporters, who relied on him for his encyclopedic knowledge of local affairs. “Roche’s Road,” he went on, “is where Rathkeale came from. By maybe thirty-odd years ago, one house was sold to a Traveller. Then”—here he turned portentous—“it was a domino effect.” He ticked off the other neighborhoods on his fingers: “Next was Ballywilliam. After that was Abbeylands, then Boherboui, then St. Mary’s Terrace, then Abbey Court. They now own 95 percent of the homes in all of these estates.”

At that moment, a man in his sixties dressed in a windbreaker, bald with piercing blue eyes and bearing a passing resemblance to Anthony Hopkins, walked out of the hotel bar with a pint of Carlsberg. “Paddy!” Hogan called out. “What was the first house the Travellers bought on Roche’s Road?”

“It was Mrs. Lee’s home,” the man said, without hesitation. “Number 1 on Roche’s Road. Nobody could afford it—but the Travellers could.” Joining us by the fire, the man introduced himself as Paddy Collins. “They talk about Rathkeale as the spiritual home of the Travellers,” he said. “That’s bullshit. There were originally just six Traveller families. A lot of the people moving into Rathkeale now are just criminals—they hide behind the Traveller identity.”

Collins was a musician who played Irish folk music at the pubs in Adare, a town just up the road that was popular with foreign tourists. In Rathkeale, too, he said, “we try to make it nice for people to come visit. And then we have this,” he spat, gesturing sweepingly out toward Main Street.

“But it’s too far along now,” Hogan said ruefully.

“’Tis,” Collins said.

I kept trying to prod the conversation back toward the powerful Rathkeale Rovers I had come to town to better understand, the men who were thought to be behind the rhino-horn thefts. But Hogan and Collins seemed less interested in them than in the scene unfolding up Main Street: the traffic jams of Porsche Cayennes and Audi A8s, the spray-tanned midriffs, the street brawls. “Wednesday night, that was the last straw,” Hogan said. “They erected a pop-the-question marquee in the middle of the street, with a bunch of cones around it! And the Gardaí, what do they do? They do nothing!”

These were the kind of nuisance complaints that hovered around the edges of something much larger and more unspeakable: the overturning of a longstanding social order and the recalibration of the balance of power between two cultures that had lived uneasily alongside each other for centuries. It didn’t take much walking around Rathkeale to understand that the town had seen better days. The local meatpacking and dairy industries were mostly gone now, casualties of economic realignments and industry consolidations. Of late the biggest employer in town was a factory that made costume jewelry. Its owner announced plans to shut it down in September.

The Rathkeale Travellers’ economic ascent had coincided almost exactly with their settled neighbors’ decline—and the fact that Travellers were, to many Irish, synonymous with poverty made the reversal all the more dizzying. By some estimates, Travellers now own 80 percent of the property in Rathkeale. “They pretty much dominate the place,” Niall Collins, County Limerick’s representative in the lower house of the Irish Parliament, told me. “I suppose the local community are being—I don’t want to use any inflammatory language, but they’re kind of being squeezed out.” It was hard to tell whether the settled locals in Rathkeale were more perturbed by the idea that the Traveller elites might have gotten wealthy off the spoils of international crime, or simply by the fact that they had gotten wealthy at all. The rolling bacchanal out in the street was the sound of the Travellers finding a footing in the world, while everyone else in Rathkeale felt theirs slipping away.

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The Rathkeale Boxing Club on Main Street. (Photo: Charles Homans)

Thirteen

Hogan and Collins weren’t wrong about the crime, though. In 2012, there were more than three times as many criminal incidents reported in Rathkeale as there were in neighboring Adare, which has 1,000 more residents. I asked the local police sergeant, Niall Flood, what percentage of the local crime was committed by Travellers. “At Christmas?” he said. “Ninety-five percent of it.” The Gardaí had adopted a special patrolling plan for December. Rathkeale was hardly a police state—there were only eight officers in town—but the Gardaí vans rolling slowly past crowds of young Travellers on Roche’s Road did suggest an odd sort of occupation; there were even checkpoints on the outskirts of town. “I won’t use the words ‘zero tolerance,’ but it’s as close to that as you’ll get,” David Sheahan, the police superintendent at the Gardaí’s county headquarters in Limerick City, told me. “They have to know that things are the way they are.”

Flood agreed to let me ride along on an evening patrol later that week, and on Friday night I met up with Patrick O’Rourke, one of the younger officers on the force. As O’Rourke steered his van down Main Street, I asked him about an ongoing feud between two Traveller families I’d heard about. “Oh yeah,” he said—that one had been going on for years. “The youngsters are fighting about something that started before they were born. Sometimes they’ll go at it with slash hooks and baseball bats.”

Still, most of the crimes in town were, in truth, pretty unspectacular. In the 12 years since Paddy Sheridan stabbed David Sheridan, there hadn’t been a single murder in Rathkeale. A few years back, in the midst of a feud, someone threw a pipe bomb through a window, but no one was injured.

None of the police I met in Rathkeale were from the area, and all of them spoke of the local situation with a sort of anthropological detachment. Rathkeale was, for them, a desirable post as far as rural Ireland was concerned; it was certainly an interesting one. Since the Rathkeale Rovers had come under international scrutiny, agents and investigators from other countries had often relied on the local beat cops for intelligence on figures of interest and help comprehending the family networks and the histories of the Rathkealers they were tracking abroad.

Rolling up Main Street, O’Rourke detailed the genealogical landscape we were driving through. “These here are the Sheridans,” he said, pointing at the terraced houses along the street in the neighborhood of Boherboui. “And the Kealys, up here,” he said as we pulled up Roche’s Road, past a large brick house with stone lions guarding the front door. He looped back up Main Street and into the Abbeylands estate, where the “Bishop” O’Briens lived. Several expensive-looking cars were parked at the end of the street; as he turned the van around, O’Rourke looked at them a bit longingly. “BMW X6—nice machine.”

The streets seemed uncharacteristically empty that night, and as we drove through Ballywilliam, I remarked that for all the stories I’d heard, things seemed pretty quiet. “The thing with this place,” O’Rourke said, “is it’s a powder keg, like. And if it goes off, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. By the time the reserves come in from Limerick City, everything would’ve happened already.”


The longer I spent in Rathkeale, the more I wanted to know how things looked from the other side of the vast cultural crevasse that ran through the middle of town. But while the Travellers I met there were all unfailingly cordial and polite, the moment I identified myself as a reporter their friendliness stiffened, almost imperceptibly, into a mask. I didn’t particularly blame them. As the tales of rhino-horn thefts, counterfeit generators, and tarmacking scams had multiplied, the local Traveller community had been increasingly besieged by camera crews. The previous summer, Ireland’s Channel 5 had aired a series of comically dire reports in which Paul Connolly, a crusading investigative reporter, attempted to find evidence of a criminal underworld among Rathkeale’s Travellers. The first installment opened with Connolly standing amid the ruins of the abbey on Main Street, intoning gravely about “the long, dark shadows over a town the Travellers plan to one day take over completely.”

One night I walked up to the Black Lion, one of the town’s two Traveller-owned pubs, which the elites were known to frequent, and introduced myself as a reporter to an older woman who was watching the door. She looked me over and laughed with genial incredulity, as if I had just suggested going for a quick dip in the local river. “You picked a bad time,” a man standing next to her said. “There’s a big Travellers do here tonight.” The doorway was blocked by a group of men, a few of them eyeing me warily.

The next day, at the local supermarket, I introduced myself to a man who, by his high-and-tight haircut, I guessed to be a Traveller. He grinned. “I’m from Liverpool, mate,” he said, not bothering to conceal his local accent. “Just passing through.”

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Fourteen

On the morning of February 20, 2012, a group of curators strolled through the natural-history gallery of the , in the east England county of Norfolk. A few of them worked at the museum; the rest were visiting from a similar institution in Cambridge, just down the road. As they passed the museum’s lone rhino head—housed in a large Edwardian mahogany-and-glass display case as part of an exhibit of colonial taxidermy called Out of Africa—the two groups compared notes. The Cambridge museum lately had been getting the kind of suspicious phone calls inquiring about rhino horns that typically preceded the thefts; the Norwich curators were considering fitting their rhino mount with a replica horn.

The Norwich museum had certain advantages, security-wise. It was a fortress, literally, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century while he was in the midst of subduing East Anglia, 70 feet tall with fortifications of limestone and flint. The castle withstood a revolt and a Flemish invasion before it was converted into a prison in 1220, and remained as such until the late 19th century, when the city of Norwich turned it into a museum. The museum’s natural-history wing—one of several chambers branching off of a high-ceilinged central rotunda—would have been nearly impossible to get at after hours without breaking down the heavy front door.

Still, the spate of robberies had left the museum’s curators as worried as everyone else in their profession. That December, thieves had tear-gassed employees at the , a small taxidermy gallery occupying a pair of mansions in Paris, and made off with a South African horn specimen—the 14th attempted theft in France alone since the beginning of 2011. Just two days before the Cambridge curators’ visit to Norwich, a young English couple had distracted the security guard at the town in Offenburg, Germany, while two men made their way to a second-floor gallery, where a rhino head was mounted high on the wall. One of the men pulled out a long-handled sledgehammer he’d hidden down his pant leg, climbed onto a display case and knocked down the trophy, then pounded the horns loose. The thieves hid them under their jackets and left, slipping into a Catholic Carnival celebration on the street outside.

February 20 was a Monday—a day when most English museums are closed—and only a handful of visitors milled around the Norwich museum. Passing through the natural-history wing, the curators had taken note of one group in particular: four young men dressed in dark jeans and black sweaters, wearing what looked like black beanies on their heads.

The curators had adjourned to the rotunda for tea when one of them looked up and saw them: four figures in balaclavas emerging from the natural-history gallery, heading in their direction, toward the exit. One of them was running; the other three were moving at a pace that was not quite running but as close to it as a person could manage while carrying a piece of taxidermy the approximate size and weight of a filing cabinet. One of them shouted, “Get out of the fucking way!”

“By that time,” one of the curators told me, “we knew what was happening.”

The thieves were already in the midst of a panicked plan B. After jimmying open the display case with a crowbar, they’d tried and failed to pry the horns loose from the rhino head, leaving them only two choices: leave empty-handed, or somehow make it across the rotunda and out the door with the entire trophy. At first the curators stood frozen, silently running the odds of getting tear-gassed or worse. Finally, one of the Cambridge visitors threw himself in front of the head bearers.

In the scrum that ensued, a Norwich curator tripped one of the thieves, and the trophy thudded to the floor. For a moment, criminals and curators alike stood around the head, unsure of what to do next. Then another Norwich staff member made a grab for the trophy and began dragging it to safety. The thieves sprinted for the exit, climbed into a waiting car, and fled the scene.

About 20 minutes later, the Norfolk police got a call from a man who said he’d seen something suspicious on Argyle Street, a dead-end side road less than a mile from the museum. A Renault Laguna sedan had pulled over, he said, and the driver had gotten out, removed the car’s license plates, and driven away. The witness’s description of the vehicle matched the getaway car in the museum’s CCTV footage.

Rushing to Argyle Street, officers recovered the plates and lifted a fingerprint from one of them, which they plugged into the British police’s national database. It turned up a match: a homeless 21-year-old Iraqi immigrant and small-time thief named Nihad Mahmod.

Mahmod surfaced four months later, when police in London arrested him for an unrelated crime and sent him to Norfolk for questioning. According to Andy Ninham, the Norfolk police detective who interviewed him, Mahmod admitted to driving the getaway car in the museum theft but wouldn’t give up the names of the other thieves or their employer. He did, however, describe how he had come to be involved in the failed heist. He had been panhandling in East London’s Stratford district, he said, when a man with an Irish accent approached him and asked if he wanted to make some money. When Mahmod agreed, the Irishman drove him to Norwich. It was only en route, he said, that he learned what he would be doing there.

Mahmod appeared in court two days later and pleaded guilty to his role in the robbery, for which he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. By that point, however, museums across England had another problem: Whoever was stealing the rhino horns appeared to be setting their sights higher.


At about 7:30 p.m. on the evening of April 13, 2012, a security alarm went off at the at the University of Cambridge. When campus security personnel arrived, they found that a large rectangular hole had been cut in the metal shutter covering a ground-floor window in a room housing a permanent exhibition called Arts of the Far East. The window itself was smashed, as were a pair of strengthened-glass cabinets a few feet away. The cabinets had held 18 small artworks, most of them jade carvings from Qing- and Ming-dynasty China, which the prominent Asian antiques collector Oscar Raphael had donated to the museum in the 1940s. They were collectively valued at $25 million, and all of them were missing.

The theft was a surgical strike, executed in minutes, but the thieves had been careless. Cambridgeshire police quickly recovered footage from one of the museum’s exterior CCTV cameras showing three men and a teenage boy approaching the building shortly before the theft; another camera showed them parking a white Volkswagen van on a nearby street. The BBC aired the images in early May, and within the week two of the suspects were caught in London. One of them was a 29-year-old Irish Traveller living in East London named Patrick Kiely.

Back in Norfolk, Ninham, who was still looking for three of the four Norwich Castle Museum thieves, decided to take a look at the Fitzwilliam CCTV footage. One of the four men the cameras had captured had an odd-looking profile that instantly struck him as familiar; he had seen that bulbous nose before.

Ninham went back to the footage he had pulled from the Norwich museum two months earlier. Even on the grainy video, he told me, “You could look at him and say, ‘That’s definitely the guy.’” One of the thwarted rhino-horn thieves was Patrick Kiely.

By the time Kiely appeared in a Norwich courtroom the following December, he had already been convicted and sentenced to six years for the Fitzwilliam theft; now he was looking at another 18 months for the botched rhino-horn job. The judge offered him a reduced sentence if he gave up the names of the two rhino thieves who were still at large, but Kiely refused. His lawyer told the court that Kiely had been forced to steal the horns by men who had threatened his family. When he’d failed at that, he was ordered to take part in the Fitzwilliam robbery.

The judge was unconvinced. “If you think I am going to buy that sort of twaddle, you are talking to the wrong man,” he said. But from the police investigators’ standpoint, the significant fact was not whether he had been threatened. It was that the two thefts appeared to have been ordered by the same people.

Police investigators had followed the rhino-horn thefts with interest but also a certain fatalism—knowing what they knew about where the horns were headed, nobody much expected to recover them intact. The Fitzwilliam theft, and the headlines it generated, was different. “You’re talking tens of millions of pounds’ worth of stuff,” Ninham told me—many times the value of the individual horns, and all of it potentially recoverable. “That focused attention. Then we got the break in our investigation of Kiely’s involvement, so the two things joined up.” Since the horn thefts began, police had been studying the Rathkeale Rovers. Now it was time to act on what they knew.

Fifteen

An hour before dawn on September 10, 2013, several dozen agents and local police officers quietly gathered around five houses in Rathkeale. In the English city of Wolverhampton, a tactical team armed with battering rams was preparing to scale the wrought-iron fence surrounding a tidy brick house; in Belfast, Northern Ireland, officers were making plans to raid a rug store on Castle Street. And in Cottenham, England, riot-gear-clad officers from the Cambridgeshire Constabulary filed into an encampment of trailers and transit vans, a campsite known as Smithy Fen that was regularly inhabited by Rathkeale Travellers. They were looking for the men whose houses the CAB was raiding in Rathkeale.

On the signal, the Cambridgeshire squad descended upon the camp. “Police!” a man in one of the trailers yelled.

“Get back!” a cop shouted.

“I’ve got the key! I have the key!” the man called out in vain as the police pried the door loose from its frame with an ax and tumbled inside.

According to David Old, the press officer for the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, most of the 19 people arrested in the raids “were held on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle in connection with the museum thefts.” British investigators have otherwise refused to go into any detail about the grounds on which they associated the Rathkeale Rovers with the break-ins. According to a CAB agent who was apprised of the investigation, however, the connection between the Fitzwilliam thieves and the Rovers was not a terribly difficult one to make. “They ran the phone traffic,” he told me.

The Rathkeale Rovers, another CAB agent told me, seemed genuinely shocked by the amount of weight that came down upon them. For years, he said, many of them thought that the increased attention from authorities was simply the result of the wealth on display in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. “A lot of ’em would say, ‘Those programs have brought nothing but bad luck on us,’” he said. “And we were quite happy for them to think that.” The Rovers were stunned, he said, by the effort that had been expended in tracking their movements, understanding the convoluted business relationships and family trees.

The following day, was boarding a plane at Newark International Airport in New Jersey when he was met at his gate by several agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A month later, Spanish police apprehended , who had been on the lam for 18 months, at an airport in the Mediterranean port city of Alicante, and returned him to Britain. Both men subsequently pleaded guilty—to conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking and robbery, respectively—and are now serving prison terms.

The suspects arrested in the September 10 raids in Cambridgeshire weren’t immediately charged with any crimes, and the local police didn’t release their names. But they did allow a photographer for the local newspaper, the Cambridge News, to accompany them on the raid, and later that day the News posted an edited snippet of the video footage on its website. The clip shows a heavyset, gray-haired man in his underwear, handcuffed and seated unceremoniously on a couch in the trailer—the same man who had been shouting about the keys as the police forced open the door. The man’s face is out of view, but in an earlier and more generous edit of the footage, which circulated briefly among English and Irish reporters, you could see him clearly—not for long, but long enough to identify him as Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, the man the press and police called the King of the Rathkeale Travellers.

O’Brien’s house was among the five the CAB raided in Rathkeale. At the time, his wife, Christina, daughter Kathleen, and four young grandchildren were home. In an account of the raid she later gave to the local parish priest, Kathleen said the police had arrived in full riot gear and balaclavas around 4:30 a.m., shouting at the family and ordering them around at gunpoint. The CAB agents spent the next several hours in the office O’Brien kept down the hall, a closet-sized room with a small desk and a pair of filing cabinets, overflowing with papers. By then the sun was up; photos the police later released show CAB agents in O’Brien’s driveway, loading computers and boxes of documents into the back of a police car.

By the time I visited Rathkeale, three months after the raid, the Cambridgeshire suspects had been released from custody and allowed to return to Ireland. The CAB agents, who had been keeping tabs on them, told me that O’Brien, though not the others, was back in Rathkeale, a free man for the time being. The law-enforcement officials, Rathkeale locals, and Irish reporters I talked to told me that approaching him was at best futile and at worst unadvisable. He had never said a word to a reporter, and a CAB detective told another journalist that he had been attacked by men hurling bricks when he tried to take pictures near O’Brien’s property. Still, the men who were targeted in the raids were so elusive that knocking on O’Brien’s door seemed the only chance of speaking with any of them. So on the Saturday before Christmas, my last afternoon in Ireland, I drove up the hill to the house I had been told was his.

It was one of the largest in town, a two-story red-brick colonial with white trim, surrounded by a brick-and-stone wall and a wrought-iron gate. The gate was open when I arrived, with several luxury cars and a transit van parked in the broad driveway. As I got out of the car, a woman emerged from the house. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, wearing a red pullover with her blond hair held back in a loose ponytail, and had a harried look about her. I asked if O’Brien was home.

“What do you want with him?” she said.

“I wanted to ask him about the rhino horns,” I said.

She looked at me for a moment. Two burly gray-haired men, I noticed, had emerged from around the side of the house.

“He’s gone away,” she said, and walked back inside.


A month later, the Irish government was buffeted by a scandal involving allegations of abuse of power by high-level Gardaí, and by late February, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny was forced to address the affair in a speech, calling on anyone with “any other relevant material in their possession” concerning wrongdoing by the national police force to come forward. The following week, a nondescript WordPress site appeared online. “I am ready to provide Mr Kenny with that evidence,” read a statement posted on the site. “My name is Richard Kerry O’Brien.”

The statement seemed genuine; describing the September raids in Cambridgeshire and Rathkeale, O’Brien mentioned details that had never to my knowledge been reported—I had only heard them from officers who had been on the scene. “In my opinion,” O’Brien wrote, “the systematic harassment I have experienced is because certain Gardaí resent the idea that a traveller might live in a nice house and drive a nice car. Uppity travellers, you might say.” At the end of the statement was a Gmail address. I wrote to it immediately.

O’Brien emailed me back within the hour. “It is good to see interest from the USA,” he wrote, and apologized for my being turned away at his house in December. “I am sorry if my wife was short with you,” he wrote. “That is not our way with visitors.” When I called the mobile-phone number he gave me, the man who answered—his voice was gruff but not unfriendly—told me I was the first reporter he had talked to. I asked him why. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said, and eagerly asked what I had heard about him from the police. When I asked about his son’s arrest in Colorado, it was clear I was either speaking with O’Brien or with someone who had read as many hundreds of pages of court documents as I had. I booked a flight back to Ireland that afternoon.

askcdloxhnzs-1396291852-65.jpg
Richard “Kerry” O’Brien in Rathkeale, March 2014. (Photo: Charles Homans)

Sixteen

When I stepped off the bus in Rathkeale four days later, a barrel-chested man was leaning against a silver Volkswagen Golf parked on the side of the road. His gray hair ascended from a widow’s peak into a boxy four-cornered cut, framing a broad face that seemed drawn inward to the bridge of his nose. He was dressed in a dark pin-striped suit over a spread-collared purple shirt, with a matching tie knotted in a thick double Windsor. It suddenly seemed improbable to me, as I looked him over, that Richard “Kerry” O’Brien was the figure others had made him out to be; surely the actual head of an organized-crime syndicate would know better than to show up for an interview dressed like one.

“I never had anything to do with a rhino horn,” O’Brien told me as we pulled up to his house in the Volkswagen. Rathkeale residents and police I’d met on my previous visit spoke of the house in slightly awed tones, the way someone in Westchester County might describe the Rockefeller estate. From the outside, it looked impressive if not enormous, and as O’Brien showed me inside, I realized it was smaller than most houses you’d encounter in an American exurb. It had the look of a somewhat lived-in model home—the white leather living room set in the sunroom was covered in plastic, and there were few decorations aside from a handful of family photos and Catholic figurines. Two friends of O’Brien’s, men in late middle age, were sitting at the granite kitchen table, where his wife had set out plates of cookies and soda bread. From behind a half-closed door to a den off the kitchen, I could hear the muffled sounds of grandchildren and cartoons.

“I’m not actually from this town,” O’Brien told me after we settled in around the table. In fact, he said, “I’m not really a Traveller.”

He told me he had come into the community by way of Christina, who was a Flynn, one of the earliest Rathkeale Traveller families. O’Brien himself was from Kanturk, in County Cork. “We had no money,” he said, and he left home when he was 16 to seek his fortune. He had eventually gotten into antiques dealing and had been successful at it, but he found the pace and unpredictability of the work unsatisfying. “I like to buy stuff today and sell it tomorrow and get a profit, like,” he said. “In the antique business, you buy this”—he nodded at the table—“that dealer might like it, and you go and go on and it turns out the check bounces. There’s a lot of problems.”

There were faster and larger profits to be made, he realized, from the construction boom under way in Ireland at the time. After buying and later selling his aluminum factory in County Cork, he started pursuing import opportunities from Asia. “You see that lamp?” he said, pointing out the kitchen window at a wrought-iron lamppost at the end of the driveway. “I was buying them for $270 in China,” he said, and selling them for four times that in Ireland. By the late 1990s, he was a regular at the annual trade exhibition in Guangzhou, “the biggest in the world—it’d take you nearly four days to go around it.” He’d scouted factories in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia—“I was three months in the jungle in Indonesia one time,” he said. As the market for building supplies dried up with the implosion of Ireland’s real estate market, O’Brien shifted gears again; now, he told me, he mostly imported furniture like the suite in the sunroom.

Eventually, I recited the litany of suspicions I’d heard voiced about him by various investigators. O’Brien professed total ignorance of the rhino-horn thefts and the museum break-ins that had prompted the raid. After he was brought out of the trailer in handcuffs and taken to the police station in Cambridgeshire, he explained to me, “I told them I was never in any museum in my life.” The detectives who questioned O’Brien were mostly interested in his travels to China and Vietnam, he said—what he was doing there, who he was meeting. When they gave him back his passport, he said, his Vietnamese visa had been removed without explanation. Still, O’Brien said, “they’re sort of civilized over there. They gave me coffee and tea.” He was much angrier at the armed Irish police who had raided his house in Rathkeale and, he said, held his wife and children at gunpoint. “They ran up the stairs like they were taking over a bank or something, you know what I mean?” (Representatives of the CAB and the Cambridgeshire police I spoke to later declined to comment on O’Brien’s account of the raids.)

When I asked about his son’s rhino-horn dealings in the United States, O’Brien told me he had been in the dark about them until was arrested. In any case, he said, his son’s arrest had been “a setup—it was proper entrapment. It wouldn’t happen here in Europe. He could’ve beaten that case. But, you know, in America, the court cases there are very, very expensive. He would’ve won it, but it would’ve dragged on and dragged on.” Besides, he said, “what he done—it’s not illegal to buy a rhino horn, when you have the proper paperwork.”

It was true that there were certain narrow circumstances where it was legal to buy and sell an antique horn if you had the right permits. But Richard Jr. and had been well outside of them—a fact they were clearly aware of in their dealings with . O’Brien’s son and son-in-law, I protested, were on tape speaking openly of deliberately breaking the law. “He’s describing how they’re going to move the horns back to Europe,” I said.

“They never mentioned that,” O’Brien said. I told him I’d seen it myself, in one of the government’s tape transcripts, of which I had copies. “Maybe—I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it is.” Still, he said, “I wasn’t in touch with him at all. My son was 27 years of age; I left home when I was 16. He paid the price, and that’s it.”

After we had talked for a couple of hours, O’Brien asked if I wanted to see the local cemetery. Graveyards, more than anything else, are what tether the Irish Travellers to a place. In Rathkeale, the wealthiest Traveller families had erected towering monuments of marble, granite, and gold leaf, and were known to bring the deceased to their graves in glass-walled carriages drawn by teams of black horses. We climbed into the Volkswagen, with O’Brien’s 11-year-old grandson Michael—Michael Hegarty’s son—in the backseat. O’Brien turned onto a road out of town, followed it under a highway overpass, and then pulled into a small parking lot. A storm had recently blown through and torn up a line of trees shielding the cemetery from the road; beyond the tangled roots and dirt stood a forest of white marble Marys and saints and crucifixes.

O’Brien got a call on his mobile phone, and Michael led me down the rows of headstones. Beneath the immaculately well-kept slabs of black granite lay generations of Flynns, Quilligans, O’Briens, Slatterys. Michael pointed out where David “Tunny” Sheridan was buried. “His there, he was murdered in front of his mother,” he said. “Stabbed with a screwdriver.” He showed me another large plot—“My uncle,” he said. A bronze pietà, draped with a rosary, sat at the center of a broken heart carved from dark granite, flanked by statues of Pope John Paul II and St. Anthony.           

“I’m moving after Easter,” O’Brien said when we got back in the car. Away from Ireland—to France, maybe. “I have to get out. My wife don’t want to live in our home anymore. I’m locking up and leaving my property behind me. ’Cause you cannot have any kind of conversation with your house being bugged, your cars being bugged—which I can prove. My son paid a price, but he didn’t murder anyone—he didn’t rob a bank. I cannot describe the way we’re treated here. We’re treated like Hitler treated the Jews.”

When we got back to the center of town, I thanked O’Brien and set out walking down Main Street. A few minutes later, the Volkswagen pulled up again. “Make sure you get that down,” O’Brien said. “We’re treated like Hitler treated the Jews.”


O’Brien and the other men and women who were arrested in September are due to report back to Cambridgeshire in April. But although more than six months have passed since their arrests, the authorities have not yet indicated whether any charges are forthcoming—and O’Brien was right that for the time being, at least, nobody had made clear what evidence there was that he was some kind of Rathkeale godfather. On the flight back to New York, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something almost hopeful in the machinations that had been ascribed to him—a sense that a criminal episode as unusual as the rhino-horn thefts demanded an architect of equal stature. At the pub in Dublin, I had asked Eamon Dillon what he thought explained Ireland’s fascination with the Rathkeale Rovers. “There is a love of the rogue in Ireland,” he replied. “I think it’s a universal thing—people like the idea of a good scam artist.”

The two CAB agents I met in December were convinced that they were nowhere near closing the file on the rhino-horn thieves. When I remarked that the burglaries seemed to have ended—there hadn’t been one since the Swords heist eight months earlier—one of them cut in.

“Well, no,” he said. “They’ve kind of plateaued, maybe.”

“‘Plateaued’ would be best, yeah,” said the other agent.

“They’ll probably rise again,” said the first.

Sure enough, a month and a half later, I woke up to find a link to a story from that morning’s Irish Independent in my inbox, accompanied by a one-line note from Europol’s : “You probably saw this one.”

The previous Monday evening, Michael Flatley, the Riverdance impresario, was playing video games with his wife and son at his riverside mansion in County Cork when he heard a noise coming from another wing of the building. He looked out the window to see four men in dark clothing sprint across the lawn toward the driveway, jump in a car, and speed off. They had somehow evaded the sophisticated security perimeter and opened a window in Flatley’s “safari room,” where he kept his collection of antique hunting trophies. The Lord of the Dance took off after them in a sports car.

By the time Flatley reached the edge of his property, the thieves were gone, and he returned to the house to inspect the damage. In the safari room, a rhinoceros head had been relieved of its horn. 

American Hippopotamus

American Hippopotamus

A bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos.

By Jon Mooallem

The Atavist Magazine, No. 32


Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2013. He lives in San Francisco.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Producers: Gray Beltran, Megan Detrie
Research: Kelsey Kudak
Illustrations: Mark Summers
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Soundtrack: “Across the Black Prairie” and
“Hero Theme” written and performed by Black Prairie www.blackprairie.com
Images and Film:
Image MAH11087A, Smithsonian Institution Archives
R362.D92p, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library
AF-85.4.1, Smithsonian Institution, Human Studies Film Archives

Published in December 2013. Design updated 2021.

This is a story about hippopotamuses, as advertised, but it’s also a story about two very complicated and exceptional men. These men were spies. They were also bitter enemies. Each wanted to kill the other and fully expected to feel really good about himself afterward. Eccentric circumstances—circumstances having to do with hippopotamuses—would join these men together as allies and even dear friends. But then, eventually, they’d be driven into opposition again.

Whatever strange bond these two men had, they were loyal to it. They were like repulsive magnets: Some fundamental property of each was perfectly opposed to the core of the other. And yet, somehow throughout their long lives—as several volatile phases of American history tumbled along in the background—they also had a way of continually snapping back together. One of these men was a humble patriot, known for his impeccable integrity. He tried to leave detailed, reliable accounts of what he did and thought and felt. The other, I discovered, was a megalomaniac and a pathological liar.

This is a true story, and a very serious one, even though it’s composed of many details that will seem ludicrous and impossible. Most of those details are irrefutable, though. And while I worked hard to verify the rest, doing so occasionally proved futile. I’d like to try and explain why.

These two men will seem larger than life, but they lived at a time, a hundred years ago, when, I would argue, life in America seemed larger than life—when what was unimaginable still felt feasible and ideas that looked ridiculous could still come true.

That said, this is the story of one idea that looked ridiculous and didn’t come true. The idea was ridiculous. But it was completely reasonable, too.

All I can say is, try to keep that in mind.

Part One

I

The Most Complete Human Being Who Ever Lived

Frederick Russell Burnham didn’t like public speaking, but he arrived at the Maryland Hotel, in Pasadena, California, on the night of September 19, 1910, determined to communicate a few clear and uncontroversial truths.

Burnham was 49 years old—a frontiersman and soldier of fortune who’d spent his life leaping into conflicts with American Indians and colonial wars in Africa. He looked bronzed and weather-beaten, like a living monument to those campaigns, and though small—he was only about five foot four—his presence was imposing. He was a compact strongbox of a man. One admirer would describe him as “emphatically a man’s man: able, active, alert.” The impression he gave was immediately one of “force and self-control.”      

Burnham had risen to fame as a scout—an esteemed breed of solitary wayfinder and spy with no exact analog in contemporary warfare. Scouts slinked into enemy territory to gather intelligence or cut supply lines, or roamed the no man’s land around camp to keep watch. They were disciplined, self-sufficient, preternaturally competent. Their proficiency in the wilderness seemed almost supernatural at times, and Burnham, who’d earned the nickname King of Scouts, exemplified their character and prowess.

“He has trained himself to endure the most appalling fatigues, hunger, thirst, and wounds; has subdued the brain to infinite patience, has learned to force every nerve in his body to absolute obedience, to still even the beating of his heart,” wrote the journalist Richard Harding Davis. “He reads ‘the face of Nature’ as you read your morning paper.” Another writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements.”

People who met Burnham tended to comment on the same disarming quality of his eyes. The novelist H. Rider Haggard called them “steady, grey blue eyes that have in them a far-away look such as those acquire whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains.” They were eyes that absorbed every inch of the periphery, even as they bored deep into your own—eyes, one woman noted, “of startling keenness and brilliancy, eyes that see everything without seeming to see.” She remembered sitting with friends under a great sycamore tree in California while Burnham spun tales of a certain African siege. The scout paused at one point and said casually, “We’ll kill that snake when I finish the story.” No one else had noticed the rattlesnake that had slithered in silently behind them as he spoke.

He was “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator,” one writer explained. He could go two and a half days without sleep. He could fix a pistol’s broken mainspring with a bit of buffalo bone. It was said he could smell water from afar, and very seldom drank alcohol and never smoked, for fear it would dull his senses. Commanding officers described him as half jackrabbit and half wolf, or as “a man totally without fear.” But ultimately, the most impressive thing about Burnham may have been his reticence to talk too much about his conspicuous impressiveness. (Years later he would prepare two versions of a prologue for his memoirs and label them “Boastful” and “Non-Boastful.” The “Boastful” version was hardly boastful, and the last paragraph of the “Non-Boastful” version began: “If mine seems a rather boastful recital, I shall apologize.”) One acquaintance would call him “the most complete human being who ever lived.”

Burnham had come to the hotel in Pasadena to address the Humane Association of California at its second annual convention, a banquet hall full of do-gooders, dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to animals. The Humane Association had quickly become one of California’s most powerful civic organizations, and Burnham—now part of an eccentric brain trust that was getting its own innovative animal project off the ground—knew that the philanthropists in the room might be valuable allies. He didn’t necessarily respect them, though. Privately, he mocked humane societies as small-minded and sentimental—full of romantics who’d rush to save flies from murderous spiders. It was foolish, Burnham felt, to “fritter away our money and time on silly, emotional things as proposed by so-called animal lovers” at a time when America roiled with so many substantial opportunities and terrors.

Burnham was here at the Maryland Hotel to call these animal lovers to a higher purpose, to gather them behind an idea. It was a grand and sparkling idea, an idea with momentum. The idea was already making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of a bill, introduced by one of Burnham’s partners, the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard. Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Burnham’s, had been so impressed with the idea a few years earlier that, newspapers reported, he’d pledged “his hearty approval and promise of cooperation.” Days before the speech in Pasadena, Burnham had gone to Denver to meet with the former president and secured his endorsement all over again. The New York Times called the idea “practical and timely.” Editorials around the country claimed that the idea’s time had come, or that it couldn’t come soon enough.

The idea was to import hippopotamuses from Africa, set them in the swamplands along the Gulf Coast, and raise them for food. The idea was to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.

II

The Meat Question

“I do not think this importation idea can be laughed down,” Congressman Broussard had insisted to the press. And truly, to anyone who appreciated common sense—who loved to see logic, like a bicycle chain, pushing a wheel smoothly forward—the idea was nothing short of gorgeous. Hippopotamuses, it turned out, could solve a number of problems for the country, all at once. For starters, they constituted a blubbery, elegant fix to what newspapers had taken to calling the Meat Question.

America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.

Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”

Apparently, the animals tasted pretty good, too, especially the fatty brisket part, which could be cured into a delicacy that a supportive New York Times editorial was calling, euphemistically, “lake cow bacon.” (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.) Congressman Broussard’s office was receiving laudatory letters from ordinary citizens, commending his initiative-taking and ingenuity. Several volunteered to be part of the expedition to bring the great beasts back.

In other words, in the encroaching malaise of 1910, it was easy to be gripped by the brilliance of the hippopotamus scheme, to feel hippopotamuses resonating not just as a way of sidestepping catastrophic famine, but as a symbol of American greatness being renewed. Burnham’s generation had seen the railroad get synched across the wild landscape like a bridle and the near solid swarms of buffalo and passenger pigeons get erased. America had dynamited fish out of rivers, dredged waterways, felled and burned forests, and peeled silver from the raw wreckage of what had once been mountains. The frontier was now closed. So much had been accomplished and so much taken. It was clear that a once boundless-seeming land did have boundaries, and with those limits revealed, you couldn’t help but feel like you were drifting listlessly between them. There was a sense in the country of: Now what? And, lurking beneath that: What have we done?

For Burnham, though, this moment was only a chance for the country to pause and regather itself, then start over, with more wisdom this time. “Let us not make the same mistakes again,” he would tell the Humane Association that night in Pasadena. “This nation has reached a stage in its development where we should take stock of our assets and make full use of them in an intelligent manner.” So much of the continent had been left “lonely, silent, devoid of life in any useful form,” and, Burnham believed, “the hour of time is at hand when we can make use of it. It is within our power to people it with useful and beautiful animals.”

In short, the same industriousness that had allowed America to snatch up the continent’s natural resources and snuff out its beauty could be deployed now, more pragmatically, to restock it. Yes, the hippo idea sounded crazy. But as a glowing editorial in Washington Post noted, “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar.” And if we’d learned to swallow raw oysters and suck the meat out of crabs, the paper argued, why couldn’t we also embrace “that plump and pulchritudinous beast which has a smile like an old-fashioned fireplace?” The reasons it might look impossible were fickle and foolish. Burnham understood that the most restrictive boundary America was running up against was psychological—a scarcity of courage and imagination, and not really just meat.

The introduction of hippos would signal an awakening, a kind of national maturation: proof that, as Burnham put it, “we have passed from the destructive to the constructive period of our national life.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine was even more stirred by their promise: “This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation,” it wrote. “Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami.”


The master of ceremonies at the Maryland Hotel that night was the Reverend Robert Jones Burdette, an avuncular Baptist minister known nationally for his early career as a newspaper humorist and touring performer. (Burdette, it was said, had delivered his comedic lecture “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache” more than 3,000 times.) All night he introduced speakers with poems and little jokes. But when announcing Burnham, all of Burdette’s corniness fell away. The reverend seemed suddenly stiffened, stilled—like the air before an electrical storm.

“I am going to introduce to you a man who knows the cruel edges of war,” he began. “Who has seen the keen blades sweep together as they clashed like the grim shears of Atropos, severing the throbbing threads of human life, smearing the golden sands and the emerald grasses with the darkest stains that ever discolored the pain-distorted face of God’s beautiful world. A soldier. A scout whose name has filled both hemispheres with stories of his daring and loyal service. The rider of the bad lands between the lines, who trusts his own knowledge some, providence a great deal, and the sound legs and good horse sense of his steed perhaps most of all in some blood-freezing emergencies.… I am honored, in being permitted to present, as our next speaker, the only man in America who [knows] the darkest shades of darkest Africa.… Major Frederick R. Burnham.”

The scout surveyed his audience. He readied himself to speak.

“I am by nature an optimist,” he said.

III

Guts

Frederick Russell Burnham was born in southern Minnesota in 1861. One night the following year, his parents watched from their isolated log cabin as the night sky turned red in the distance. The nearby town of New Ulm was burning. Chief Little Crow was leading the Lakota on a raid, killing hundreds of people, including children, during a conflict known as the Dakota War. Burnham’s father, Edwin, a Presbyterian minister, rushed off to the town of Mankato to gather powder and bullets to protect the family.

One evening while Edwin was away, Burnham’s mother, Rebecca, was brushing her hair in the doorway when she saw a band of Lakota slip out of the forest. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to evade them with her child in tow, she hid the boy—not yet two years old—in a heap of newly shucked corn, too green to catch fire. She told him to keep perfectly still. Then she took off, vanishing into the cottonwoods toward a neighbor’s house six miles away. At dawn she came back to find that the Indians had burned the cabin, but her son was still alive. He’d stayed motionless in the corn—stashed away, like baby Moses in his basket, as a river of violence rushed past. “I had faithfully carried out my first orders of silent obedience,” the scout later wrote.

Seven years later, Edwin was injured when a log he was carrying slipped and fell on him, puncturing a lung. The family relocated to Los Angeles, a town materializing out of the sagebrush and dust, where he could find some relief in the warmer climate. But Edwin would pass away only a few years after they arrived. Burnham’s mother took out a loan and bought two train tickets, for herself and Burnham’s young brother, to return east, where they could be with family. Fred stayed behind, deciding to strike out on his own in California. He got a job delivering telegrams as a mounted messenger for Western Union and excelled at the job, riding hard over precarious terrain day and night, switching to a second horse when he wore out the first, then a third horse, and a fourth. In no time, he’d repaid his mother’s loan, racing between Los Angeles and Anaheim, out to Santa Monica, and through the hinterlands that would become Pasadena. He was often alone for days at a time. He was 13 years old.

When he was 14, religious family members in the small town of Clinton, Iowa, concerned about his soul, summoned Burnham to live with them—to try life as a regular townie kid. But the regularness of Clinton didn’t suit him. He resented his relatives for trying to impose a prefabricated existence on him. He wanted to live in a world that unfolded, little by little, on the trail ahead of him. Playing games—ordinary kid games, with sticks and balls—seemed strange to him; he couldn’t get his head around it. “I felt an urge to do bigger things,” he said. He lasted a year. Then one night he stole a canoe, slipped off down the Mississippi, and never came back.

Burnham reached Texas, where he encountered the grizzled characters of a fading West. Many of these old frontiersmen had wound up as alone at the end of their lives as Burnham was at the outset of his, and they’d sit with him for hours, unspooling their stories. An old scout named Holmes had lost his family in the Indian Wars and, without any heirs to pass his knowledge on to, began teaching Burnham the old ways of scouting. He led Burnham through the desert for six months, forging the boy’s grit and courage into actual skills.

These adventures were exhilarating but often unpleasant. Holmes could be a curmudgeon, especially at the end of a long, hot day, and would pick apart everything Burnham did. Watching the boy sling a saddle off his horse, the old man would bark: “Oh my God, I never can teach you anything! You are a little ass. In the morning you can go back home.” But then the sun would come up and all would seem forgiven.

From Holmes and the other high priests of scouting he encountered, Burnham learned to read the air like a river and pull the scent of a campfire out of the warmer currents floating along high ridges; how to build up his internal compass and rely on it even in total darkness; how to hone a photographic memory for the tracks of individual horses; how to improvise and conceal booby traps; how to carry a gallon or two of water in a saddle blanket, then wring it out over a concave rock; how never to ride a straight line into camp, in case someone had detected you and was plotting an ambush. One of the old men would use corncobs and sand to demonstrate how forts were built, or how to decipher the movements of troops. More than anything, Burnham learned that, as he later put it, “we should be learning something always, no matter how long we live, or how long we play the game.”

Soon he began spending all his money on ammunition. He practiced trick shots, trained himself to be ambidextrous. He’d set up oilcans in the brush and fire at them from a gallop, or place a cork in a puddle and shoot underneath it to make it hop, then try to hit it again in midair—practicing, again and again, until he could nail them three times out of five. But he also learned to treat his gun as a luxury and a lifeline, not an appendage. (The old scouts had taught him that reliance on a firearm decayed a man’s courage and made him worthless in hand-to-hand combat.)

The most grueling lessons were psychological—learning to weather the loneliness, fear, and deprivation amid which those physical skills would be deployed. Scouts, after all, worked alone. “The darkness of night is his best friend,” Burnham wrote, “for it will hide his secret movements—although it is at night that physical exhaustion is most apt to breed the cowardice that comes creeping into the bones of every man at times.” One of the most pernicious forces a scout needed to suppress was hunger. It could be just as powerful a disincentive as exhaustion or fear—often more powerful. In a way, Burnham came to see the stomach, paradoxically, as the weakest and most persuasive part of a man. It messed with you mentally, tried to order you around. A scout couldn’t afford to humor his stomach; it was hard enough to make sure his horse was properly fed. And when Burnham ended his years of apprenticeship and began working out in the world—protecting mining camps from raids or guarding prospectors as they transported their gold back to town—he found that eating conventional food on these missions was often impossible. (Hunting can be a problem, for example, because cooking over a fire creates light and smoke, and butchered carcasses attract conspicuous circles of buzzards.) So he adapted. He’d hammer deer jerky into a powder, mix the powder with flour, and bake the mixture into a saddle-bag-shaped loaf. Then he’d eat off that block of deer cake for the duration of his travels, one pound per day.

This flexibility—the fierce epicurean stoicism that Burnham cultivated—would be a subtle hallmark of all of Burnham’s future adventures. In East Africa, he’d do as the local tribesmen did, eating no vegetables for months at a time, instead consuming a mixture of three parts milk and one part fresh blood, drawn from a vein in the neck of a living ox the way syrup makers tap the trunk of a maple. (After ten days, Burnham claimed, his system had adjusted.) During conflicts in Africa, he’d steal rank-smelling, partially fermented corn that had been buried in the ground by the locals and live off that for a while. During one stakeout, he subsisted wholly on a ration of uncooked corn, grinding away at the stuff until his jaw was sore and his starchy, thickened tongue made his speech unintelligible.

“The man of one diet is hopelessly handicapped,” he wrote, “for nature has made it possible for a well organized human being to wrest sustenance out of a thousand foods.… Man’s stomach, like his hand, can be trained to adapt itself to many strange uses.” In other words, the stomach wanted what it wanted, but appetite, like all desire, was a liability. And with enough discipline, you could disregard it and fill the stomach with drab blocks of pure common sense instead.

It was only because Burnham had had this epiphany, and proved his hypothesis in the growling laboratory of his own gut, that he could consider hippopotamus steaks such an obvious solution to America’s meat shortage 30 years later.


For all his self-control, Burnham was susceptible to gold fever and spent years during his young adulthood rashly chasing rumors of lost mines around the American Southwest. He had only one small strike, at age 22. It brought him just enough money to send back to the town in Iowa he’d long ago escaped, for a girl he’d met there, Blanche Blick, and make her his wife. He bought them a house in an orange grove in Pasadena and settled into a more conventional life as an upstart Californian citrus grower.

But somehow the man with an alchemical ability to turn crud into food couldn’t manage to produce oranges from orange trees. The economics of his operation quickly bottomed out, and the sedentary lifestyle he’d carved out for himself and Blanche left him restless. The whole project had been a serious miscalculation. Burnham spent his time reading books about Africa and dreaming.

Burnham’s infatuation with Africa had started as a child in Minnesota. An older girl named Katy Boardman, charged with babysitting him for a few days, had read Burnham adventure stories about young boys trekking into the wilds of a southern territory known as the Orange Free State—one of the republics founded by the descendants of Dutch settlers called Boers. (In the mid-1800s, Boers living in the British-controlled Cape Colony, in present-day South Africa, had undertaken a large-scale migration known as the Great Trek, seeking autonomy.) The stories Katy read each evening brought Burnham his only moments of calm and focus during his stay at the Boardman home. Otherwise, he and Katy’s four younger brothers were running riot through the place, at one point shaving the family’s pig with Mr. Boardman’s only razor. But at bedtime every night, all five boys would sit still, beguiled by those stories from Africa, and Burnham had gone on reading similar ones ever since. Even as he wandered the Southwest as a young man, he tried to stay up on the developments in the region, following along as longstanding strife between the British and the Boers even sparked a brief war in 1881.

Burnham was particularly enthralled by the Cape Colony’s prime minister, Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was a shrewd and aggressive imperialist—a “superbrain,” Burnham called him. Burnham was swept up by Rhodes’s vision for remaking the African continent. Like many people of his time, Burnham earnestly believed that the transformation of Africa was a noble and even perversely humanitarian goal, never recognizing the hubris and vile racism that underlay it. “Rhodes saw Africa as a vast unkempt field, calling to him to be cleared,” Burnham wrote. He was striving to plant “the flower of civilization” there.

Frontiers like this were Burnham’s natural habitat. It’s why he’d been drawn to the Southwest in his youth. “It is the constructive side of frontier life that most appeals to me, the building up of a country,” he explained to a friend. “When the place is finally settled I don’t seem to enjoy it very long.” But the Southwest had been tamed, wrestled from the Indians and demystified. And as deflating as it was to admit, Burnham had only truly participated in the tail end of that conquest.

Now he was transposing all those same boyish ambitions to southern Africa, where the deserts happened to look remarkably like the ones he’d spent a decade traveling. Sitting in his orange grove in Pasadena, something about the blank slate he perceived in Africa and the industriousness of Rhodes seduced him. “I was as one summoned by an irresistible call,” he wrote. He figured Rhodes would need a good scout, one who knew how to operate in daunting desert terrain. He left for Africa with his wife and young son, Roderick, on January 1, 1893.

IV

The Human Epitome of Sin and Deception

In late January 1900, the novelist and war correspondent Richard Harding Davis was sailing from England to Cape Town on a ship called the SS Scot. The journey lasted 17 days, and every night, Davis noticed, the men on deck would gather around the same small, reserved man with piercing blue eyes. The crowd consisted of big-game hunters and career soldiers, many of whom had held command in British wars in India or Sudan—roughneck, capable survivors, in other words, with their own yarns to spin and advice to give. But they all sat like schoolkids, Davis later wrote, pelting the quiet man with questions.

The man explained to them how to tell a column of dust raised by a cavalry from one kicked up by a wagon train; how to read the speed of a horse from its prints; how to conceal a campfire. The crowd was impressed with the quickness and clarity of the man’s answers, but more impressed that, in the couple of instances when he wasn’t able to answer, he told them so—it was a unique combination of mastery and humility. This man was Frederick Russell Burnham, of course, on his way back to Africa seven years after that first impulsive trip. He had made his name fighting for Rhodes’s Cape Colony and gained a reputation as a scout. A series of conflicts had flared up almost as soon as Burnham and his family arrived in South Africa in 1893. Rhodes’s forces were pressing into Matabeleland, in present day Zimbabwe, and struggling to suppress the Ndebele tribe there. Burnham leaped right into the battle. It felt like the Indian wars of his youth all over again. Before long, Matabeleland had been occupied and rechristened Rhodesia.

Three years later, when the Ndebele staged an uprising and the so-called Second Matabele War erupted, Burnham and his family were living outside the city of Bulawayo. There was a second child now, a two-year-old girl named Nada. As the conflict intensified and the Ndebele advanced, the Burnhams were moved into Bulawayo for their protection. The city was being hastily locked down and fortified with homemade defenses; the Burnhams and another family were stuffed into a three-room shack, with their livestock milling outside.

Soon, a virus ripped through the colonists’ oxen. Thousands of animals died in the course of three weeks. “The scavenging hyenas and vultures could make no impression on the thousands of huge, swollen carcasses that blocked the roads for miles,” Burnham remembered. Bulawayo was 500 miles from the nearest railroad—it was with oxen carts that the colonists brought in food and supplies. Soon, thousands of people began dying, too. “For weeks,” Burnham wrote, “there was an unremitting stench.” The colonists couldn’t spare the fuel to cremate the bodies, and the men—going out at night to defend Bulawayo against raids by the Ndebele, who had put the crippled city under siege—were simply too exhausted during the day to bury them.           

Eventually, Nada came down with a fever. By that point, the remaining livestock had been eaten. So had the pets, including Nada’s three ostriches, which she’d been given as chicks. Ultimately, Nada was one of many children who could not outlast the siege. Burnham was off fighting when she died, and it was up to Blanche to enlist some friends to bury her daughter in a shallow grave outside town. Burnham was devastated, obsessing over a series of painful and unanswerable question—questions, he later wrote, that started with If only…, and even more wrenching questions that started with Why…. That June, he received a critical bit of intelligence, locating a man believed to be the Ndebele’s religious leader and commander, or Mlimo, in a secret cave. Burnham was sent to assassinate him. Sneaking into the cave, he paused a second to watch the holy man. “Constantly before my enraged vision rose the picture of my wife vainly holding to her breast our dying Nada,” he later wrote. Then he shot the Mlimo under the heart and ran out of the cave ahead of the commander’s men, lighting villages on fire as he went. 

The following year, at age 36, Burnham left Africa for Alaska. Gold had been discovered, and he was again determined to be part of the beginning of something big. But the gold still evaded him. He kept up on the news from South Africa: the antipathy between the British and the Dutch-descended Boers was escalating again. Burnham wrote to his friend, H. Rider Haggard, explaining that he now spent six hours a day in Alaska traversing a map of southern Africa in his mind, seeing all the trails and streams that led out of the city of Pretoria; picking the right spots to camp, obtain fuel, and stage the animals if there was another war. By now everyone felt one coming. “I fear I will miss it,” Burnham wrote glumly.         

He was mining quartz north of Juneau when, on January 4, 1900, a telegram arrived from the new British commander in South Africa, who had heard about Burnham’s service during the previous conflicts. It read: “Lord Roberts appoints you on his personal staff. All expenses paid if you accept. Start shortest way Cape Town and report yourself to him.” Burnham was en route to Africa two and a half hours later, aboard the same ship the telegram had come in on. Once in England, he transferred to the SS Scot, where Richard Harding Davis found him, reluctantly mesmerizing his fellow passengers night after night.


The Second Boer War was not going well for the British when Burnham received the call. The Boers had surprised the colonists, shattering their imperial confidence with a string of shocking and decisive victories right after combat had started the previous fall. 

In truth, the entire conflict was saturated with feelings of bewilderment and disarray. Two modern historians describe the Second Boer War as a clash characterized by a “capacity to produce confusion and ambivalence” and a “wide variety of half-truths.” (Even the war’s immediate causes are hard to pull from the slop of competing propaganda; in part, the British were simply seeking control of the Transvaal, a Boer territory rich in gold.) And for the British, “the scale of [the war’s] embarrassments and traumas were not merely shocking,” but relayed back home, vividly, by a new kind of popular press. (Both Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle covered the war.) By December of 1899, England was determined to change tactics. Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts of Kandahar was installed as the new commander in South Africa. Roberts began assembling his team, summoning Burnham as his chief of scouts and Major-General Lord Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum and Aspall as his chief of staff. Kitchener was a particularly merciless strategist, and helped steer the British through a series of barreling offensives. Within months, the tide had turned completely. Soon the Boer government in the Transvaal would be shattered, and its leadership would flee to Europe. But the Boers kept fighting tenaciously as guerrillas—a decentralized and lethal swarm. Burnham’s job was to gallop around inside this fractured conflict, undetected.

Like a lot of freelance adventurers involved in the war, and even many British citizens, Burnham felt great respect for the other side. He was awed by the Boers, in fact. He believed that they were uniquely menacing adversaries because, like the best scouts of the American Southwest, they’d somehow retained the instincts and senses of more primitive men. In a way, Burnham considered himself a Boer at heart, trapped in the wrong nation or time. His entire life, he’d felt people nudging him toward a world of “soft carpets, soft food, soft life, soft men and women,” he wrote. But “sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization or religion; for then I might have been outwardly, as I am now at heart, a thorough savage, nothing more.” For years after the war was over, he would carry on about the virtuosity of two of his enemies in particular: the Boer’s lead scout, Danie Theron, and a more enigmatic figure working underneath Theron. The man was known as the Black Panther of the Veld. “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met,” Burnham would tell an interviewer 30 years later. He was “a man of extraordinary power.”

The Black Panther’s name was Fritz Duquesne. Burnham had heard that he’d adopted the nom de guerre as a boy, after watching a wild panther stalk its prey at a watering hole. Duquesne noticed how efficient the animal was—how it always waited to attack, intent and totally untroubled, until the other animal was compromised. The boy vowed to emulate the panther and made it his totem. The panther, Burnham wrote, was a wild predator that no one had ever succeeded in taming. By the Second Boer War, Duquesne had become just as cunning and sinister.

Duquesne would spend the conflict trying to kill Burnham, and Burnham was assigned to kill Duquesne. Burnham called him the “human epitome of sin and deception.” Another writer described him as a “walking living breathing searing killing destroying torch of hate.”

Captain Fritz Duquesne
Captain Fritz Duquesne

Duquesne was only one of countless threats Burnham had to dodge during the war, as his commanders sent him to infiltrate and sabotage the scurrying, deadly remnants of the Boer army. Burnham’s exploits were numerous and bizarre. Once, he hid for two days and nights inside an aardvark hole. Another time, he floated down a river disguised as a dead cow, drifting under a fresh, fleshy hide with two eyeholes cut out of it, to size up an enemy camp downstream.

In the spring of 1900, he was captured by Boer scouts but managed to conceal his identity. The Boers had been given index cards describing the famous Frederick Russell Burnham—a supposedly ruthless, godless, illiterate rogue from the American West. Realizing this, Burnham sparked an erudite theological debate with one of his captors—was baptism by immersion the one true route to salvation, or was it baptism by sprinkling?—then followed that up by reciting some poetry. Eventually, he slipped away from the Boers’ wagon train in the dark. As day broke, he hunkered in a fallow field, hidden just barely by four inches of vegetation, and resigned himself to lie there in the heat, with his hat over his head for camouflage, until the sun set again and it was safe to move on. Stuck in the brush, he became fixated on a thick ear of corn he’d jammed in his breast pocket before escaping, worried it was sticking up just enough beneath his shirt to give him away. He was already carrying one whole biscuit and a fragment of a second; the corn suddenly seemed to him like a horrible indulgence. “What a fool to be such a glutton for food!” he later remembered thinking. “I was not living up to the traditions of the American scout.” But a Boer patrol came and went. Burnham had waited them out, invisibly.

Eventually, he made it back to a campsite and from there was sent on a series of missions to cut supply lines. He spent his 39th birthday, in May of 1900, hiding in enemy territory, preparing to blow up some bridges, feasting on a ration of chocolate and condensed soup. Then, in early June, he was given 25 pounds of explosives and sent to cut the railway connecting Pretoria to the Indian Ocean.

After setting out, Burnham encountered a group of Boers in the distance, and his horse, Stembok, was shot. The animal fell on him. His spine burned. He assumed his back was broken. But he managed to reach his target anyway—a specific point on the railway, beside a distillery—traveling the rest of the way on foot, vomiting blood and compressing his abdomen with both hands to lessen the pain slightly, as though he were holding his guts together manually. (At one point, he wrote a farewell note to his wife, Blanche, and dropped it on the ground, hoping British soldiers would eventually pass by and find it.) Then, after rigging his explosives and detonating them, he hauled his busted body into a grove of eucalyptus and hid, trying to make himself invisible yet again as a unit of Boers fired systematically into the trees to flush him out. At one point, a commander sat on horseback less than 20 yards away from where Burnham was hiding, chastising his men for their ineptitude. Eventually, the troops gave up and moved on.

Hours later, Burnham heard the voices of British soldiers approaching. He was rushed to a field hospital, where doctors determined that, though his spine was not damaged, his internal injuries were severe. Lord Roberts promoted him to major and sent him to recuperate in England. On the ship back, he chatted with a young British newspaperman named Winston Churchill who had also been captured by the Boers and escaped. The two men swapped stories and, though Churchill’s involved taking many risks which Burnham, as a scout, could not condone, the scout ultimately understood that the writer had done the best he could. “His moves were restricted by the handicap of physical weakness,” Burnham wrote, “which made a twenty mile run at night”—what Burnham judged to be the most straightforward move in those circumstances—“entirely beyond his power.”

In England, Burnham was invited to dine with Queen Victoria and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, a high honor for heroism during wartime, by King Edward VII. Burnham, with his characteristic stoicism, described the award as so humbling and unnecessary that it was “almost humiliating.” “I felt of no more importance than a grain of sand on the shore of the mighty sea,” he wrote.


Slowly, Burnham’s injuries healed. The darkness of Nada’s death was dissipating, too. Blanche had given birth to another child—a son named Bruce—and they joined Fred in England. By 1905, the couple were hatching a plan to return their family to Rhodesia and restart their lives.

The Burnhams’ oldest child, Roderick, was now 19 years old and in school back in California, living with his grandmother. One night that October, he woke and ran to her, shrieking from a nightmare. He claimed that he had watched his little brother chase a toy boat into deep water and sink to his death. The next day, a telegram arrived from England. It was from Blanche and Fred, and it read: “Bruce drowned. Coming soon.” Bruce was seven years old. He’d been swept away in the Thames.

The Burnhams returned to California, wrecked. They spent a lot of their time at home, overlooking a picturesque arroyo, in a secluded area of Pasadena called San Rafael Heights. Burnham tried his best to console his wife. It was a time of recovery and repose. “The wild quail, the meadow larks and mocking birds still drown [out] the ding dong of the American locomotive,” he wrote to a friend the following February, “and the squeak of the trolley car is still very faint. Nature has kindly softened the acute sorrow of my wife. So all in all, this year of 1906 can not be such a dreary and painful one as 1905.”

It was during this time that Burnham started to think seriously, and ambitiously, about an idea he’d had many years earlier. Maybe it was because Bruce’s death had made the horror of Nada’s slow starvation feel fresh again. Or maybe it was because Burnham was marooned at home, glaring at the arid and relatively lifeless landscape around him—a place, he knew, that had already been drained of so much of its wild, edible game by short-sighted hunters. Eventually, he sat down to write an article about this idea of his, hoping one of the major magazines back east might be talked into publishing it.

“There is in Africa a wonderfully varied range of interesting animals,” he wrote. “Most of the desirable ones could easily be introduced into our own Southwest.”

Part Two

Four years later.

V

We Ought to Have More Creatures

“Transplanting African Animals,” by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, was published in New York’s Independent magazine in January 1910. Before long, a chain of serendipitous connections were made and Burnham was invited to share his ideas in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture. It would be a long afternoon of testimony, but at the very start a federal researcher named W.N. Irwin summed up the matter nicely: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee,” he told the congressmen, “in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.”

It was March 24, 1910. Under discussion was H.R. 23261, a bill to appropriate $250,000 for the importation of useful new animals into the United States—the hippo bill, as the public would come to understand it. H.R. 23261 had been introduced by the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard, who had limited himself to a very short statement at the start of the hearing, not wanting to detract from the impressive roster of experts he’d assembled—“three gentlemen,” he explained, “who probably have devoted more time than almost anyone else to this matter.”

Ceding the spotlight was not in Broussard’s nature. Then 45 years old, Robert Foligny Broussard was a raucous and charismatic Democrat from New Iberia, Louisiana. He was the son of a Cajun planter and had lived in the district he represented for most of his life. He loved speechifying and glad-handing and generally addressed himself to the job of campaigning the way a gourmand addresses himself to a platter of oysters—despite having never encountered any real opposition in his seven successive reelections. A native French speaker, he sometimes traveled to give campaign speeches for colleagues in close races in Maine or Massachusetts, parachuting in to charm any French-Canadian constituents in their mother tongue.

Robert Foligny Broussar
Robert Foligny Broussar

Louisianans knew Broussard affectionately as Cousin Bob. He claimed to be related to a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish—sometimes to a full half of them. “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins,” one Saturday Evening Post profile noted. “That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.” A company in New Orleans named a cigar after him.

Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. Launching a national effort to import foreign animals that could benefit American society, especially hippos, had been percolating on Broussard’s legislative agenda for some time, and he had been referred to Burnham by mutual friends in Washington who knew the major would gladly advocate for any bill he introduced to fund that work. It was a stroke of symbiotic political matchmaking. Four years earlier, after returning to Pasadena from England following his son Bruce’s death, Burnham had tried to jump-start his own African animal project in Washington. He had called for 30 varieties of edible antelope—klipspringers, gemsboks, waterbucks—as well as other animals, including giraffes, to be imported from Africa and plopped down in the American Southwest. The pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot, then head of the forestry service under President Theodore Roosevelt, had been scrambling to claim and protect more land as federal reserves, and Burnham had imagined those areas as ideal incubators for the transplanted creatures. New populations could be built up under the government’s protection, then dispersed. Formerly vacant, unproductive landscapes could be converted into wonderlands for sportsmen and new storehouses for the nation’s food supply. Burnham and several wealthy friends had even raised $50,000 to pay for the first wave of importations. They’d had a successful meeting with President Roosevelt. Pinchot had written to Burnham, “I have talked with a good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.”

But the proposition had eventually broken apart in the churning, acidic stomach of Washington politics. An enemy of Roosevelt’s in Congress had lumped the president’s support for the plan into a broader, petty attack. Importing antelopes and giraffes suddenly became politically impossible. The experience had left Burnham angry—mostly at himself. He’d been naive enough to believe that America made decisions about its future in a more commonsensical way.

This time around, though, Burnham was partnering with an insider. He and Broussard were like Darwinian finches—the same species of capable specialist evolved to thrive within two parallel environments. As adeptly as Burnham maneuvered through the African desert, Broussard seemed to maneuver through the disorienting wilderness of Washington, reading the landscape, performing what could only seem like magic to outsiders. In Broussard, Burnham saw new hope now that his gorgeous idea for America might actually become a reality. He called the congressman “a tower of strength for the movement.”     

Broussard, for his part, had locked onto the potential of African animals for his own idiosyncratic reasons—and they did not, initially, have anything to do with food. Cousin Bob had actually set out to solve a different crisis for his constituents. The crisis was a flower.

Water hyacinths had been brought to New Orleans in 1884, distributed as gifts by the Japanese delegation to an international cotton exposition. New Orleanians loved the frilly, pale lavender flowers and gradually planted them as decorations around the city in garden ponds. The hyacinths multiplied rapidly. (The plant reproduces asexually.) Soon they were spreading through local waterways, clotting into impenetrable mats, then drifting toward the mouth of the Mississippi like big, menacing hairballs toward a drain.

By 1910, when Broussard introduced his bill, the flowers had been plaguing his state for at least a decade. They’d clogged up streams and made shipping routes that had previously moved millions of tons of freight unnavigable. They’d blanketed rivers and wetlands, hogging the oxygen and killing fish. The hyacinth had destroyed fishermen’s livelihoods and transformed some of the state’s greatest resources into a chain of stinking dead zones. The War Department was staging an all-out offensive against the flower, “[b]ut they have only been partially successful,” Broussard said. “They clean a stream today, and in a month it is covered all over again with the same plant.” They’d even tried throwing oil on the hyacinth, but the plant would just sink to the bottom, wait out the disturbance, then send out another bulb and rise again.

Broussard was not the sort of man who could abide such defeat. He liked to plug up problems with big solutions; he was “a large operator,” one reporter wrote, who “goes in for broad effects.” It occurred to him that perhaps some animal could be brought to Louisiana to swallow this particular problem up, and he seems to have hit on the hippopotamus after encountering the curious, aging bureaucrat he’d now called to brief the House Agricultural Committee just before Burnham.

William Newton “W. N.” Irwin was a veteran researcher at the pomological branch of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an apple guy, basically—“one of the foremost fruit experts in the country,” according to The Washington Post. Irwin appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre. (Another of his crusades was trying to convert Americans from eating chicken eggs to eating turkey eggs. The advantages of turkey eggs were just so obvious to Irwin: they were richer, larger, and more nutritious and had thicker shells and membranes, so they stayed fresh longer. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat a bunch of turkey eggs until six months after he’d purchased them. And still, he bragged, “the yolks would drop out round and plump, and the white, or albumen, would be perfectly normal.”) He had first laid out the case for hippopotamuses while delivering a paper at a conference in Missouri the previous year. He reviewed the causes of America’s gathering meat crisis and noted that, in the past, the country had sidestepped these kinds of Malthusian forecasts by expanding just a little farther west. There had always been more land to put into production. But now the great prairies had all been overgrazed or carved into farms; there was little suitable rangeland left to occupy. The only way forward, Irwin concluded, was to find ways of wringing nourishment out of land that now seemed barren or worthless—for example, the vast marshes along the Gulf Coast. Extracting the energy embedded there would require assembling a new set of tools—new technologies. The hippopotamus was one such technology.         

Hippopotamuses eat aquatic vegetation, like water hyacinths—loads of it, Irwin learned. Deposit some hippos in a hyacinth-choked stream, he argued, and they’d suck it clean in no time. That is, hippos could solve Louisiana’s problem with the flower while simultaneously converting that problem into the solution to another—an answer to the Meat Question. The animal, Irwin now told the committee, would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” The hippopotamus was a perversely elegant win-win.

Of course, it could be hard to see that logic through all the lavish weirdness of the proposal. But for Irwin—and Burnham—any resistance to their idea came down to simple small-mindedness. The only reason Americans didn’t already eat hippopotamuses, Irwin claimed, was “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Like Burnham, he saw the Meat Question as a test of American ingenuity and resolve: To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them. And, also like Burnham, Irwin seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to let any emotional objections or queasiness detract from the divine common sense of their plan. At times he seems to have gotten a little pissy about it, actually. A few months earlier, Irwin had invited a Washington Post reporter to his office, fed him a stick of hippo jerky while showing him a photograph of five East African men skinning the very beast he was now digesting, and whined: “I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths. Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail.” In one scientific paper, Irwin compared himself to Christopher Columbus, being laughed at as he sailed toward what looked like the edge of the earth but was, in reality, a new and nutritionally superior world of turkey eggs and hippopotamus brisket.


When it was Burnham’s turn to testify, he echoed Irwin’s arguments but tried to imbue the bureaucrat’s geeky reasoning with his own firsthand experiences and gravitas. Burnham challenged the committee to consider how bizarre it is that we eat only cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry—just four types of animals, basically all of which had themselves been imported by Europeans centuries ago. Why, somewhere along the line, had we stopped feeling entitled to improve our country’s food stocks by infusing them with animals from the great global pantry abroad? “I think we are allowing one of our greatest assets to lie idle,” Burnham told the committee. It was only the passage of time that had made a pork chop or a bowl of chicken soup feel American—not their actual origins. Time would make hippo roasts just as familiar.

Burnham also noted that hippopotamuses would be only a few shades stranger than other animals recently brought into the country. Twenty-five years earlier, for example, an Englishman named George Cawston had started an ostrich farm near Pasadena, where Burnham lived. Cawston had been made fun of initially, caricatured as a crazy man riding ostriches—he offered ostrich rides at the farm—but he was now making a fortune selling ostrichplumes for pillows and ladies’ accessories. More recently, the federal government had introduced Russian reindeer as a food source in Alaska. And in the 1850s, Burnham noted, the nation’s Secretary of War and eventual president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had brought African camels to the deserts of the American Southwest, convinced that they would outperform horses as pack animals on that terrain. And they did—the camels’ endurance impressed everyone, just as Davis smugly insisted they would. But in that case, too, it was explained to the committee, silly emotions had gotten in the way of good sense. The soldiers on horseback made fun of the soldiers asked to ride camels; the camel riders began refusing to ride their camels. Eventually, the experiment was discontinued, and many of the camels were left to scatter in the desert.

Burnham told the committee that he’d actually stumbled onto one of the feral descendants of these camels while traveling through the region with a cowboy friend in his youth. “We were five days chasing one of those animals with the best horses we could get in Arizona,” he explained. Eventually, they caught the camel, and though it took days of roping and fighting they were able to tame it. Burnham and his friend started concocting plans, thinking maybe there’d be a market for camels if they rounded enough of them up. It never happened. As Burnham explained, “one of the Apache Wars broke out at that time, which was more interesting than breaking camels, and we both went off to that.” But he’d seen firsthand how well a foreign animal could adapt to America—how well it could serve us. His dream of importing useful new animals was born then and there, he told the congressmen. “And it has clung to me ever since.”

It was an impassioned, impressive testimony. But Congressman Broussard had invited another speaker that afternoon, one who would wind up being the star attraction. Broussard introduced this man to the committee as a “hunter of great note” in Africa who happened to be touring America now, lecturing on the African continent’s wild animals. “I now desire to present to the committee,” Broussard announced, “Captain Fritz Duquesne.”

It was him, the Black Panther of the Veld. Two of Broussard’s three expert witnesses—these men seated in the hearing room, graciously educating the 61st Congress of the United States about the usefulness and deliciousness of hippopotamuses—were, in fact, arch enemies who had vowed to assassinate each other.

Duquesne took the floor and sought immediately to establish his singular credibility on the subject at hand. “I am as much one of the African animals as the hippopotamus,” he began.

VI

A Unit of Hate

The details of Fritz Duquesne’s life dart around in a deep pool of uncertainty. Partly this is because the journalists of his day who assembled them were unscrupulous, but mainly it’s because Duquesne would dramatically reinvent himself again and again.

Frederick L’Huguenot Joubert Duquesne (pronounced du-cain) was born in the Cape Colony on December 21, 1877—according to one suspect source, at least; friends would claim that even Duquesne did not know his own age. He was a lean and alluring man with a youthful, clean-shaven look. He was said to be a champion womanizer, with an unflappable confidence that seemed drawn from some mysterious wellspring. His hair was black, or else it was brown. His eyes were brown, hazel, or blue. He spoke with a clipped British accent, which may have been fake.

Duquesne grew up on a farm among other Boer families. His father was a hunter and trader who was constantly traveling, and so Fritz was raised by his mother and his Uncle Jan, who’d been blinded when an elephant gun backfired on him during a hunt. As a boy, Duquesne would watch the adults return from the river with a hippopotamus—they were among the easiest animals to hunt—then butcher its massive carcass and divide the meat among their families. It was up to Duquesne and the other kids to collect the fat and sell it to the French soap manufacturers who came around to claim it.

As a teenager he was sent to school in Europe. He was studying at a military academy in Belgium, learning about weaponry and explosives, when a letter arrived from his father, calling him back to fight for his people against the overbearing British. It was 1899; the Second Boer War was underway.

Duquesne arrived at Boer headquarters in Pretoria, a city in the Transvaal republic, northeast of the Cape Colony, just before the British aggressively revised their strategy and the war turned uglier and more unruly. Over the next year, Roberts and Kitchener would funnel the Boers into concentration camps and scorch the earth behind them. There were as many as 160,000 Boer prisoners in the camps at one time; 25,000 would die there by the end of the conflict in 1902.

Boer soldiers like Duquesne began roving the land in small guerrilla squadrons, without the security or support of a formal army. Duquesne was captured and escaped at least twice. (In one failed attempt, he painstakingly dug through the grout of the prison wall with a spoon, pushing the resulting dust out the window to blow away in the wind. It took weeks and ultimately came to nothing: When Duquesne finally tried to wriggle through the hole he’d opened, the stone wall—which he’d rendered structurally unsound—partially collapsed on him. A guard found him pinned and unconscious the next morning.) At one point, he was shipped all the way to a prison in Lisbon. But he escaped easily, first finding the time to seduce his jailer’s daughter. He then made his way to England, claimed to be a Boer defector, enlisted as a British soldier, hitched a ride back to the front in Africa, and took off on his own again.

Duquesne became a military courier, delivering messages between Boer commandos. Traveling around, he saw the devastation of Kitchener’s scorched-earth policy—the fires, the horses sprayed with bullets so the Boers could not use them, the crops burned and the livestock shot up and clubbed. He was sickened by how much the British had obliterated, how desolate they’d left the land. There was virtually no one left, except for the occasional pockets of women and children who fed Duquesne in his travels.

During this time, Duquesne found an opportunity to visit his family’s homestead, north of Pretoria, after 11 years away—according to the writer Clement Wood, who in 1932 published a detailed but extremely romanticized and journalistically tenuous account of Duquesne’s life. Duquesne knew that his father had died shortly after calling him back to fight but had no other news of his family. Wood writes that it wasn’t until Duquesne had gotten off his horse, and touched the blackened stone that had once been the corner of his house’s foundation, that he knew where he was; the British had so totally destroyed the place, it was unrecognizable. Duquesne found a servant there who had worked for his family since he was a child. The old man, Kanya, was living in a primitive shelter he’d dug for himself in the ruins. Hunched over and demoralized, Kanya explained that the British soldiers had hung Duquesne’s blind uncle Jan from a telegraph pole with a cow rope, then jabbed at his body with their bayonets. They’d taken turns raping Duquesne’s sister Elsbet, then shot her. Then they’d tied his mother’s hands, raped her, and carried her off.

Duquesne assumed that his mother had been taken to the nearest concentration camp, a few days away on horseback. He sped there and, disguising himself in the British uniform he’d been given as a supposed defector, entered the camp and tried to track her down. He found her in a barbed-wire paddock clutching a seven-month-old baby, both of them starving and dying of syphilis—essentially dead already.           

Before leaving, Duquesne pledged to his mother that he would kill 100 Englishmen for every drop of blood in her body. But he felt nothing for the baby—it was his half-sibling, but it was also half-British, the evidence of his mother’s rape. Riding away from the camp, still in uniform, Duquesne saw two captains in the British army approaching. He saluted them. Once they’d passed, he turned in his saddle and shot both men in the back. Then he got off his horse and kicked each in the face.

Any number of these details that Wood relays could be wrong—possibly all of them. But at the very least, the story was as an attempt to explain one unmistakably true thing about Fritz Duquesne: that at some point in Africa, he became radicalized, consumed with searing rage for the British and for Lord Kitchener personally.

“Something happened inside of him that had fused him into a unit,” Wood wrote, “a unit of hate.”


Duquesne was captured one last time, late in the Boer War, while plotting a sensational symphony of explosions around Cape Town. The British shipped him to a prison camp on Tucker’s Island, in Bermuda, with his wrists and ankles bound so tightly that he’d be scarred for the rest of his life.

He wasted no time in escaping. In one version of the story, Duquesne coordinated a jailbreak with two other prisoners, banging out their plans in Morse code from their cells. They slipped past the guards and dove into the sea with their clothes and boots tied to their bodies as bullets whizzed around them. They spent three weeks on the lam, subsisting mostly on onions pilfered from people’s gardens at night. Eventually, Duquesne reached the port town of Hamilton, where, according to a 1995 biography by Art Ronnie, Counterfeit Hero, he established himself as a pimp for a prostitute named Vera.

It was a strategic job placement; in the course of her nightly business, Vera acquired detailed information about the ships moving in and out of the port. Duquesne had been her pimp for only a week when he managed to get one of Vera’s clients drunk and learned he was a crew member on a private yacht about to sail for Baltimore. While Vera serviced the sailor, Duquesne stole his uniform and snuck onto the ship in his place, huddling into one of the holds, pretending to be drunk. He was eventually discovered, but he hit it off so well with the yacht’s owner, a middle-aged inventor of a powdered headache remedy, that he was ultimately invited to ride along. Duquesne set foot on American soil on July 4, 1902. Unless, according to another account, it was on December 16.

There was peace now in southern Africa—the Boer territories had been subdued and claimed by the British. But, given his sinister machinations during the war, Duquesne believed he would not be welcome there. He was on his own now. With the help of a network of Boer sympathizers on the East Coast, he slowly began constructing a life for himself in America. He went to New York and got a job selling subscriptions for the New York Sun. Soon, after proving himself and deploying enough of his charm, he was bumped up to reporter. Duquesne was an immigrant, in other words, living his own lonely version of the classic American immigrant story—reinventing himself, hustling. And it was working. Seven years later, Fritz Duquesne found himself sitting in the White House with the President of the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt, preparing to leave office in early 1909, began enthusiastically plotting a stunning first act to his retirement: a big-game-hunting expedition to East Africa, undertaken in conjunction with the Smithsonian. Roosevelt spent months studying up, writing letters to men who’d hunted in the region, figuring out which caliber firearm to use on which species and how exactly to topple a lion or rhino. Somehow, Duquesne, with his native’s knowledge of the continent and its wildlife, had inserted himself into this informal committee of experts and was invited to meet with the president that January. They talked for more than two hours. Duquesne was impressed with the President. He told the press, “He seems to have mastered all the details.”

Over the next year, Roosevelt’s journey through Africa would unfold in the newspapers back home in daily, time-delayed dispatches. It became a national fascination. (By the end of 1909, for example, there were two separate children’s games called With Teddy in Africa, featuring a miniaturized Roosevelt and his local guides to skin and field-dress miniaturized giraffes, hippopotamuses, and warthogs.) Duquesne had been dropped into the center of that excitement, briefly, during their meeting at the White House. Now he’d do his best to capitalize on it.

He wrote a series of syndicated columns called “Hunting Ahead of Roosevelt,” in which he drew on his own adventures in Africa to speculate about the kinds of animals and adventures the president was now encountering. When that momentum seemed exhausted, Duquesne went negative, keeping his name in the papers by mocking Roosevelt, denigrating him as nothing more than a dandy tourist blustering across the continent with a team of Africans to do the real hunting for him. He offered his own unflattering translation of the honorific reportedly given to Roosevelt by his African guides. (“Bwana Tumbo,” Duquesne told the press, meant “Mr. Unusually Large Stomach.”) And as Roosevelt readied to return in early 1910, Duquesne announced that he believed the former president might have contracted a deadly, still-dormant disease and should not be allowed back into the country.

By then, Duquesne had adapted his hunting stories into a theatrical lecture called “East Africa—the Wonderland of Roosevelt’s Hunt” and taken the show on tour. It featured moving pictures and stereopticon slides of “hunting scenes and savage life in darkest Africa,” all narrated by “Captain Fritz Duquesne,” as he’d taken to calling himself: “a man who knows and feels what he tells because it is what he has lived.” As it happened, he was booked for two shows at the Columbia Theatre, in Washington, just as Broussard was gathering experts for his hippo hearing.


In a sense, then, Duquesne’s appearance at the committee hearing was both an advertisement for his performances and performance in itself. The man wanted attention, and he knew how to work his audience when he got it.

Duquesne affably walked the congressmen through his knowledge of hippos and parried their skeptical questions with composed and charming assurances. He described how easy it was to domesticate a hippo; how you can feed a young one milk from a bottle, “like a baby,” and lead it on a leash like a pudgy hound. “It is absolutely not dangerous,” he said of the animal and described the meat—especially from young, castrated males—as a delicious, satisfying, and sustaining meal. (“Splendid food,” Duquesne insisted, “excellent food.”) As proof, he pointed proudly to how well his own people, the Boers, had performed in the recent imperial wars, despite being outnumbered. “There was nothing mentally or physically defective about them,” he explained, “and they lived on hippopotamus.”

Duquesne was not finished, however. He recommended elands, a kind of brutish antelope, as another phenomenal addition to American wildlife. Also giraffes. And what about elephants? Hannibal’s army crossed the Pyrenees on elephants, Duquesne reminded the congressmen, so this should give us all some inkling of the animal’s usefulness and stamina. “It went right around the Pyrenees,” he said, “backward and forward.”       

It was a fetching, whip-smart whirlwind of a performance, and it seemed to sweep up everyone. Before it was over, one congressman had invited him out to Bethesda to have a look at some captive zebras being bred there and offer an expert opinion.

“I think I have about exhausted the proposition,” Duquesne finally told the committee. “I have finished.” Although, he added, if the congressmen wanted him to perform his lecture right then and there, he’d be glad to. He happened to have all his transparencies with him.

VII

The New Food Supply Society

The hearing was followed by a surge of excited publicity. “Hippopotami for Dixie,” one headline read. The Chicago Tribune covered the proceedings right above news that Delmonico’s, the famous steakhouse, had been forced to raise the price of everything on its menu due to dwindling meat supplies. Another story speculated that, because full-grown hippopotamuses would be too large to profitably ship to the stockyards in Chicago, smaller slaughterhouses would have to be built on-site, creating a constellation of local food systems, and breaking the monopoly lording over American meat production. (Only four years earlier, in The Jungle, Upton Sinclair had exposed the horrendous abuses of that monopoly—the way, for example, workers sometimes slipped into rendering tanks, then were churned together with scraps and sold as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.) Most newspapers led their coverage with splashy quotes from Fritz Duquesne, but even the torturously uncharismatic W. N. Irwin got called on occasionally. (“I like to say ‘hippo’ instead of the full name, because it is shorter and somewhat more euphonious,” Irwin paused to explain to one reporter.) The momentum felt unstoppable. According to The Washington Post, it was “a question of only a very few years now when large shipments of hippos will be made to America.”

It wasn’t likely that Congress would be able to act on Broussard’s appropriation bill before the end of its session, but Broussard, Burnham, and Duquesne believed that, with the right legwork, a reintroduced version would breeze through the next one. And so they decided to build a new organization to leverage their position and keep the pressure on—a lobbying firm, essentially, that they would call the New Food Supply Society. Shortly after the hearing, the congressman invited Duquesne and Burnham down to his plantation in Louisiana to hash out some preliminary plans.

It’s unclear what, if any, contact the two enemies had had in the nine years since they’d fought against each other in Africa. The evidence suggests that Burnham and Duquesne never actually crossed paths during the war—just loomed heavily, and terribly, in each other’s minds. Theirs was an old-fashioned kind of rivalry. What adhered them to one another was a dismaying and unshakable respect, nothing as vulgar as hatred. It involved a bizarre kind of honor; Duquesne remembered that he had once “tossed coins with a brother scout for the privilege of having first shot [at Burnham,] of splitting his body with a bullet,” but had never managed to track the great scout down. Now their inadvertent partnership on the hippopotamus project gave them an opportunity to finally know one another at close range. They’d fought on different sides but were still soldiers—part primitives, deep down—and they were presumably far more comfortable with each other than with the genteel politicians surrounding them.

Burnham was impressed by his old rival. “Duquesne was clever, educated and resourceful,” he would recall. He knew all about the sins in his past, but chose to force them out of his mind. He wanted to help the Boer. Duquesne was free-floating in permanent exile and, nearly a decade after being cast out of Africa, still struggling to set a new trajectory for himself in the United States. Burnham believed that this noble attempt they were making to answer the nation’s Meat Question would show his former adversary, firsthand, the sort of hard work, imagination, and values that made America great. It might finally steer Duquesne’s talents in a productive direction. The hippo project was a way to convert Duquesne, to cleanse him.

Burnham was ambivalent about playing the reformer. He remembered his own experience as a kid, suffering through life with his pious relatives in Iowa. But he believed that if he could understand what “had transformed this strong and remarkable man into a being abnormal and terrible” and “conquer the cruel darkness” that had infected Duquesne somewhere along the way, there was a chance that the wily Boer could “become one of the world’s noblest figures.” And so, Burnham later wrote, “I set out to win over to genuine Americanism one of the most remarkable men I had ever met.” Duquesne could be assimilated, made useful—just like the hippopotamus.


 As Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham began plotting the formation of the New Food Supply Society in the spring of 1910, each man was being driven by different levels of idealism and opportunism, and by different semi-secret motives. Letters began flying between the three men, and then also—all of a sudden—to and from a fourth man as well, a New York City–based writer and inventor named Eliot Lord.

It’s possible someone may have actually asked Lord to participate in the fledgling New Food Supply Society, or he may have just barged his way in, but within two days of the hearing he was writing to Burnham, claiming to already have rounded up some of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives for the group’s organizing committee and detailing what his own duties in the organization should be. There was a slipperiness to the man, not unlike Duquesne’s, but Lord’s slipperiness was clumsier and less convincing. His rapid-fire updates to the other partners came on a series of mysterious and seemingly random letterheads: John A. Stewart, president of the Carbonating Company of America, or Huff & Coryell Underwritten Securities, or the Republican League of Clubs. Repeatedly, he nagged Burnham to ask a mining magnate he knew from his Africa days to bankroll the organization.

Burnham was suspicious of Lord. He’d gone about everything in his life with caution and poise, and he found Lord’s rashness and moneygrubbing irritating. He described Lord to a friend as “flighty and without any financial balance.” Burnham was ready to forward the society’s goals, to ask friends for financing and give speeches to groups of influential sportsmen and naturalists he had access to. But he wanted to see a real plan in place first. He imagined the New Food Supply Society becoming a “permanent and valuable branch” of the nation’s new conservation movement, but so far it felt pretty wishy-washy. He wrote to Broussard: “I do not wish to go among my friends and ask for their names for a society that is soon to go the way of so many abortive congresses and federations and high sounding things mentioned about twice in a Sunday paper and then forgotten.”

Broussard agreed. “Like you,” he told Burnham, “I am adverse to organizing any movement unless energy, spirit and intelligent management are to follow the organization.” But Broussard was also becoming busy with higher-profile projects. He was journeying back and forth to Central America all summer, part of a delegation trying to bring an upcoming World’s Fair to New Orleans. And he’d spend August traveling his district, shaking the hands of his many Louisianan cousins and wringing all the available joy from another reelection campaign, even though he was once again running unopposed. Still, he told Burnham that he hoped to schedule a meeting with the would-be New Food Supply Society at some point soon—to sit down, all of them, and talk things out face-to-face.

Lord did not relent. He kept claiming, throughout the summer, to have an increasingly impressive roster of dignitaries ready to become charter members of the New Food Supply Society. He unilaterally announced plans to send Duquesne, as an “agent of the Society,” on a lecture tour of Ivy League colleges and then the leading seaside and mountain hotels. Of course, the New Food Supply Society still did not technically exist, and so, again and again, in letters to Broussard and Burnham, Lord begged them to finally incorporate it. He even went so far as to compose one of these letters to Broussard on a sheet of New Food Supply Society letterhead. In the upper left corner, Lord listed Broussard as chairman of the society and himself as secretary. “My compensation can be arranged for after the Society is in funds,” he informed the congressman.

Duquesne, meanwhile, seems to have been the only one doing any concrete work. Not long after the hearing, the society had sent him on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana, and he hoped that his role as freelance hippo expert might soon turn into a legitimate job. Lord was farming out articles Duquesne wrote about African animals to newspapers, which in the interim was a nice bump for his career, and Duquesne kept making sure that the other members of the would-be society saw his clips.

In short, Duquesne wanted credit. He made it clear that he was doing this work at his own expense and that the newspapers seldom paid him for his articles. In a letter to Burnham, he described writing African animal essays all day until his hand cramped and his handwriting became illegible, at which point he’d switch to using a typewriter, which carried its own costs—ribbons, maintenance, and so on. Burnham tried to buck him up. (“My dear Captain,” he wrote. “You certainly are pushing your part of the society in advance of the rest of us.”) He told him he would try to get Lord and Broussard to finally hammer out some financial arrangement and employ Duquesne properly. Duquesne replied to Burnham that he didn’t appreciate being left in the dark and was getting fed up with Lord’s “glowing promises.” “I do not want this movement to die through undue satisfaction or dry rot,” he said.

Months passed like this. Burnham tried to keep his optimism up, writing to pitch new acquaintances about the idea and scheduling public appearances, including his speech to the Humane Association of California in Pasadena that fall. At one point, he sent Lord $25 to keep the operation running. But the time between the men’s letters grew longer and longer. In September of 1910, Duquesne wrote to Broussard: “What have you that is new or valuable in the way of suggestion? If any make them and I shall act.” Broussard replied: “There is no news to communicate.”

The following month, the New York World published an article about the importation of African animals which apparently credited the idea to Charles Frederick Holder of Santa Catalina Island in California, a well-known fisherman of exceptionally large tuna. Duquesne was irate. He sent copies of the article to both Burnham and Broussard, seething, and demanded that Broussard issue some sort of universal correction to the press.

It was a momentary outburst; soon, the slow and painful birthing process of the New Food Supply Society would quietly resume. But something in Duquesne had snapped. He may have believed, deep in his gut like Burnham did, that importing hippopotamuses was the right and necessary thing for America—that the animal, if transplanted properly, would thrive here. But it was clear by now that he was working primarily for the prosperity of his favorite transplanted African animal: himself.

“It seems every day I hear of someone else, not Duquesne, being the man who brought this matter before the people,” Duquesne wrote to the congressman. “I am working day in and day out to keep this matter before the people, at some expense too.” But now, he explained, there were half a dozen other writers wandering around New York, all cribbing from Duquesne’s published work to sell stories about their supposed plans to import African animals.

“The thing was never heard of in DC till I spoke to you,” Duquesne insisted to Broussard. “No one else, mind you. Only Duquesne.” 

Part Three

Seven years later.

VIII

Captain Claude Stoughton

Around Thanksgiving in 1917, the head of the New York City Police Department’s bomb squad, Thomas J. Tunney, asked two of his detectives to begin investigating a certain Captain Claude Stoughton, a British officer who had served in the West Australian Light Horse division and was now stationed for a time in New York.

It’s unclear why exactly Tunney had taken an interest in Stoughton, though his suspicions seem to have grown out of an ongoing investigation of a recent explosion at a warehouse in Brooklyn. City authorities had also been approached about Captain Stoughton by a widow on Riverside Drive. America had entered World War I that April, and the woman was troubled by sympathetic comments about the Germans which she’d heard a slightly inebriated Stoughton make at parties, and even more so by the style of his mustache. He wore it “trained upward in imitation of the well known style affected by the German emperor,” she explained.

Tunney’s detectives began digging up what they could on the man. They obtained a photograph of him, a slender and handsome man in uniform, and learned that he lived in a second-floor apartment at 137 West 75th St. But an eventual search of the apartment produced photos of Stoughton dressed in other countries’ uniforms, too. Another photograph identified him as a war correspondent for a Belgian newspaper and showed him wearing his hair in florid curls. In another, he sat in tall grass and wore a thick black beard. Another pictured him with ammunition slung over his torso, standing over a dead white rhinoceros. (Clearly, Tunney wrote, the man “fancied photographs of himself, as he made up rather dashingly.”)

The trove of paperwork the detectives recovered was similarly fragmented and irreconcilable. There was an insurance policy for a staggering $80,000 worth of motion-picture film, taken out five years earlier, protecting against “fires, pirates, rovers, assailing thieves, jettison, barratry of the master and mariners and all other perils, losses and misfortunes.” There were newspaper articles—piles of them, which, according to The New York Times, detailed “practically every bomb explosion since the war began,” with a special focus on a ship called the SS Tennyson, which had blown up a year earlier, after leaving Brazil for New York. One of the clippings described an investigation into the Tennyson explosion that had led to a British safe-deposit box, where police seized $6,740 in cash in an envelope addressed to someone with the virtually unpronounceable name Piet Niacud.

Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet
Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet

The men had also obtained a program for a theatrical lecture staged seven years earlier. The cover featured a very small circular photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt in safari gear, and a much larger studio portrait of Captain Stoughton. The captain was wearing khakis and clutching the holster of his sidearm, while glaring dramatically into the middle distance as though he were stalking a lion. He was identified here by another name, one that had appeared in several other documents as well—including, most troublingly, a letter of introduction from a diplomat in Nicaragua, describing him as a man who had “in many circumstances rendered notable services to our good German cause.” The name was Fritz Duquesne.

“A thousand questions sprang up in our minds about the man,” Tunney remembered. They started following whatever leads they had. At some point, they reached out to a well-known adventurer in California who, according to a magazine clipping they’d found, had once appeared alongside Duquesne at a congressional hearing about hippopotamuses in March of 1910.

IX

Preparedness

In 1917, Frederick Burnham was living in relative seclusion. Shortly before the First World War started, he’d sold the house in Pasadena and moved his family and in-laws to a ranch in Tulare County, California, backed up against Sequoia National Park. He felt that Pasadena had swollen into a stifling and crowded suburb. The ranch, which the Burnhams called La Cuesta, offered them privacy, space, and some very well-deserved peace.

The phase of Burnham’s life that had included the hippo hearing, seven years earlier, had been busy and stressful. While the New Food Supply Society was struggling to get off the ground, he was also traveling back and forth between Mexico and California, establishing copper mines and irrigation projects in the Yaqui Valley for a number of financiers, including the Guggenheim family, J. P. Morgan, and John Hays Hammond, a mining baron he befriended during his days in Rhodesia. Burnham considered Mexico “the most active region left in the world”—the next unruly frontier, rich with opportunities—and he was drawn to it just as he’d been drawn to the Southwest as a boy and Africa as a young man. But Mexico, too, eventually burst into violence. And when the Mexican Revolution began, in 1910, Burnham was called down to watch over Hammond’s interests; at one point, he would command an encampment of 500 armed men on the banks of the Yaqui.

The move to La Cuesta ranch presented him with yet another empty frontier to master and improve—but a tranquil one, on a smaller scale, far removed from any geopolitical violence. He imported white-tailed deer from Mexico and took pride in how they prospered. He introduced wild turkeys, peccaries, pheasants, and game bantams. The Burnhams were part of a small community of settlers living deep in the Sierras, widely dispersed—people who worked hard and made do on their own. Burnham thought of them as a “lost white tribe.”

“When the World War broke,” he remembered, “it was some time before the reality of it penetrated into our deep canyon.” But when it did, the lost tribe sprang into action. Young men filed out of the mountains to enlist and fight. “Elderly women walked four miles in the heat of summer over dusty mountain roads to knit and sew for soldiers over seas,” he wrote. This determination reassured Burnham. Otherwise, he was unsettled by the war. The new technological mode of warfare—the gassing, machine guns, and trenches—had “turned us all into military robots,” he wrote. He argued that the traditional skills and ethos of self-reliance that those old scouts had taught him as a boy remained as important as ever, and he worried that they were being lost.

Self-reliance was becoming an obsession of Burnham’s—the only sensible response to the growing disorder of the world. In the run-up to the war, he’d been extremely sympathetic to the so-called Preparedness Movement in America—the belief that conflict was inevitable and that President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t building a sufficiently large and capable military to handle it. Burnham and his friends traded letters about “Preparedness,” extolling it as an ideal, griping about the glaring unpreparedness of those around them. And in July of 1916, Burnham was listed as a grand marshal’s assistant in San Francisco’s Preparedness Day Parade.

The parade would be a stunning display of civic preparedness, featuring more than 50,000 marchers: 200 nurses in uniform; 500 physicians and surgeons; 200 optometrists and opticians, prepared to help the nation’s eyes; a vaudevillian actress, dressed as the Goddess of Preparedness; and a Division of Six-Footers, which was essentially a few rows of very tall people organized by a six-foot-four gentleman named J. R. Martin. But the day was disrupted by a terrorist attack. Antiwar, anti-preparedness radicals detonated a suitcase bomb shortly after the start of the parade, killing 10 and injuring 40. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the insolence that had begun churning in the world—the audacity it took to try and catch a Preparedness Day Parade by surprise.

Burnham kept preparing, however. In fact, he prepared more vigorously now. In early 1917, he enlisted as one of 18 lieutenants in a battalion of aging, able-bodied men from around the West that his friend Theodore Roosevelt had begun zealously organizing and was threatening to lead into battle himself if President Wilson continued to keep the nation’s military on the sidelines. By now, American writers had related Burnham’s feats in Africa, making him a famous war hero. But it gnawed at him that he’d never actually fought for his own country. He thought, at age 55, that he’d finally get his chance. But Roosevelt’s army never shipped out. It wasn’t until America finally joined the Great War in April 1917 that Burnham found an idiosyncratic opportunity to serve.

Manganese, a mineral used to make steel, had suddenly become invaluable during the war: a scarcity developed after shipments that the U.S. relied on, including German exports, were compromised or cut off. America scrambled after new exports from Brazil and other South American countries, but also took a hard look at its own potential reserves. The mineral had not been worth much during the gold and silver rushes, and engineers now began poring over old U.S. Geological Survey documents and historical maps, looking for any sign of deposits that the miners had skipped over.

Burnham attacked the problem differently. He began rounding up prospectors he’d encountered in his youth. They were wizened old nomads now, but, Burnham would remember, they’d retained an “indescribable spiritual quality” and “perennial optimism” that allowed them to “wander vaguely over the desert wastes with the patience of the burro and the imperturbability of the Sphinx.” Burnham began roaming the desert with these men, hunting for manganese. Many of them were able to lead Burnham back to deposits they remembered stumbling across years ago. Soon they were pulling manganese out of the hills in Nevada, from the sides of Mount Diablo, outside San Francisco, and from the belly of Southwestern deserts, and sending it off to be bolted into the flanks of the modern war machine. It was the only inheritance this nearly extinct species of American frontiersman could manage to leave: “the desert people’s best tribute to the nation,” as Burnham put it. For him, it was reassuring proof that old skills could still contribute in a new kind of war.

In other words, Burnham spent the years after Broussard’s congressional hearing essentially championing the same ideals he’d fought for in Washington: self-sufficiency and industriousness powered by an underlying optimism. As a young scout, he’d taught himself to stay awake for longer than seemed humanly possible by thwacking the back of his head with his fist if he started to nod off. Now, at the outset of the 20th century, America clearly had problems—horrible and frightening ones. But they seemed solvable to Burnham if the nation would only rap itself on the head with enough determination and force, if it would shout at itself to wake the hell up. His loyalty to this belief was unwavering. And in this way he was the perfect foil to his old nemesis, Fritz Duquesne—who during those same years, the New York City police detectives were now learning, had been slowly shedding his belief in everything. 

X

Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition 

Duquesne had worked hard to cobble together a small amount of notoriety and influence by the time he appeared at Broussard’s hippopotamus hearing, and as the New Food Supply Society bumped along, he was determined not to let any of it go. He branched off on his own, marshaling all his entrepreneurial energy to stay in the limelight. He wound up spiraling into darkness instead.

At first, Duquesne simply took the hippopotamus idea and built on it, eccentrically. In the spring of 1911, he organized a series of banquets in Washington and New York, likely as showcases for a potential animal-importing venture he was considering launching on his own. He served guests a menu of imported African springbok soup, dik-dik, and hippo croquettes. Next, he explored bringing elephants to Central and South America and selling them as beasts of burden. And after that, he came improbably close to staging an incomprehensible publicity stunt for an American matchstick manufacturer, wherein Duquesne would bring over a band of indigenous Peruvians and have them drive a herd of imported llamas across the eastern United States, from New York City to the company’s headquarters in Ohio.

 In 1913, however, Duquesne began planning a more promising business venture—one that apparently had started in earnest but would gradually contort into an ambitious and deadly con. Theodore Roosevelt was now organizing a follow-up to his African expedition: a long, daring journey to trace one of the Amazon’s tributaries through the Brazilian jungle. Duquesne saw another chance to capitalize on the public’s fascination with Roosevelt’s adventures, just as he’d done with his lectures during Roosevelt’s safari.

He started canvassing acquaintances, and then acquaintances of acquaintances, for money to produce Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition. It would be part movie, part lecture; he’d travel through the jungle with his wife Alice, filming the same sorts of things that Roosevelt would encounter, then narrate his footage live on stage. (Duquesne first encountered Alice while locked up in the British prison camp in Bermuda—she was the daughter of an American bureaucrat stationed there. It was a classic meet cute: he was resting under a tree, taking a break from his chain gang, when a ball from her tennis game came rolling toward him.) Duquesne eventually secured funding from the Thanhouser Film Corporation and the Goodyear tire company—he’d apparently agreed to do some rubber hunting in South America on the side—and agreed to deliver the finished travelogue in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, in 1915. He bought 20,000 feet of film, at four dollars a foot, and insured the lot of it before sailing out of New York, thereby generating the policy that Tunney’s detectives would discover in his apartment four years later.

Apparently, not one foot of the film was ever used. World War I began shortly after the Duquesnes left New York, in the summer of 1914. The details are foggy, but President Wilson’s initial insistence that the United States remain neutral seems to have disillusioned and enraged the Black Panther. Duquesne’s contempt for England, forged during the Second Boer War, was so overpowering that, in his mind, the only conscionable response to the outbreak of the Great War was for America to team up with Germany and crush the British Empire. In short, he hated Britain so much that he would hate any nation that refused to hate it, too. According to his biographer Clement Wood, Duquesne’s attitude became: “There are no good Americans except the anti-English ones.”

Duquesne sent Alice back home on a ship from Brazil, then went to the German consulate and offered up his services as a spy and saboteur. He started hanging around the docks in disguise. From then on, Duquesne would move through life in a cloud of aliases. These included Frederick Barron, Colonel Bezin, F. Crabbs, Colonel Marquis Duquesne, Fred Buquesne, J. Q. Farn, Berthold Szabo, Von Goutard, Vam Dam, Fritters, Worthy, and Jim. Some people knew him as the Handsomest Man in Europe.

But now, on the docks, Duquesne morphed into a frumpy and feeble middle-aged botanist from the Netherlands who walked wrenched over in a stoop and wore thick, unflattering glasses. He called himself Frederick Fredericks.


As Fredericks, Duquesne hung out in bars, sidling up to drunk English sailors and offering them bribes to carry rare orchid bulbs to his friends and relatives abroad. But the packages contained explosives; Duquesne would later claim to have sunk 22 ships and started 100 dock fires during this time.

Most famously, Duquesne would claim responsibility for the destruction of the HMS Hampshire, a British ship that sank west of the Orkney Islands, in northern Scotland, in 1916, killing more than 600 men aboard, including Duquesne’s old nemesis Lord Kitchener, now Britain’s secretary of war. (Clement Wood’s 1932 biography, titled The Man Who Killed Kitchener, relays as truth Duquesne’s totally fabricated account of how he supposedly infiltrated the Hampshire, posing as a young Russian count named Boris Zakrevsky, then signaled a German U-boat to take the ship down.) But, as Frederick Burnham later pointed out, much of what Duquesne actually accomplished during his time in South America was likely to disrupt outgoing shipments of manganese—exacerbating the problem that Burnham and his tribe of prospectors would file into the desert to solve. That is, the two adversaries still somehow managed to lock themselves in an oblique, intercontinental standoff—Frederick Burnham versus Frederick Fredericks, with one man racing to rebuild what the other was breaking apart.

In February 1916, Duquesne packed the film from his aborted motion-picture project into a trunk and registered it as cargo aboard the SS Tennyson, a British ship heading for New York. Then he went about engineering the ship’s destruction.

Maybe there was no film in the trunk; maybe it was filled with explosives instead. Or maybe they were in the six boxes labeled “Minerals,” which, investigators came to believe, Duquesne had also stashed aboard the Tennyson. But something on the ship exploded as it approached the equator. Three sailors were killed in the fire. Before long, a clerk who claimed to be a co-conspirator was captured by British intelligence and gave up Duquesne’s name. He also led authorities to the safety-deposit box and the envelope full of money waiting for “Piet Niacud.” “Niacud” was “Duquesne” spelled backward phonetically.

Duquesne was now wanted for murder by the British. But before long, on April 27, word came in The New York Times that Duquesne had himself been murdered. He was traveling through the Bolivian frontier when his party was raided by “hostile Indians.” Then, two weeks after that, a second dispatch in the Times reported that he was, in fact, alive—that, though badly wounded, he’d heroically fought off the vicious Bolivian raiders and escaped. The world, it seemed, had underestimated the tenacity of Fritz Duquesne.

But the truth was, there were no Bolivians and there was no attack. Duquesne seems to have faked his own death, then regretted the decision and miraculously resurrected himself. According to Inspector Tunney’s account, police eventually discovered that the first wire report from Buenos Aires, telling the Times of Duquesne’s death, had been filed with the byline “Frederick Fredericks.” 

atavistillu-1429650230-5.jpg

XI

Frauds

By the beginning of 1917, Duquesne was a suspected murderer and a fugitive, a fake film producer and a formerly dead botanist, and likely still a German spy. But it was taking American authorities time to piece all this together, and Duquesne was either audacious or reckless enough not to care if they did. That summer, he resurfaced in Washington, D.C., and was very quietly puttering around under his own name, trying desperately to latch onto some kind of living.

Duquesne connected with Horace Ashton, an old friend whose photographs had illustrated some of his hunting articles. Ashton did his best to help Duquesne, even putting him up for a job as a U.S. censor and propagandist for the war effort. Ashton later explained to police that he’d only learned Duquesne was back in the country by chance. During a visit to Washington from New York, Ashton had taken a beautiful young secretary to dinner. The woman later wrote to him: “You may be interested to know that Captain Duquesne is in Washington, but does not want it to be known.” She was Robert Broussard’s secretary—the former congressman, now senator, from Louisiana. Apparently, Duquesne had reached out to his old comrade from the New Food Supply Society, too. And Broussard, presumably in the dark about Duquesne’s recent activities, had also tried to help, coming close to getting him hired doing low-level clerical work under the “acting quarter-master general and director of purchases, storage and traffic” of the U.S. Army.

After a while, however, Duquesne must have started to seem like a lost cause—broke and unemployable. Ashton brought him back to New York and let him crash at his apartment—the second-floor flat on West 75th Street. There, Duquesne attempted to get back on the lecture circuit. But the zeitgeist had changed. His old material was irrelevant now—the public wasn’t interested in learning about African safaris, only in hearing Allied war heroes tell battle yarns. And so Duquesne transformed himself into Captain Claude Stoughton, a nervy and debonair military man who had, his promotional materials claimed, “perhaps seen more of the war than any man at present before the public.” Stoughton had been bayoneted three times, gassed four times, and stuck once with a hook.

Captain Stoughton’s career took off. His talks made decent money, his heroism earned him respect, and ladies found him alluring. Interesting people invited him to parties. Duquesne was wrenching his way back into society. His invented persona had such magnetism and such possibility, in fact, that he began deploying his alter-ego in a wide variety of personal appearances. Claude Stoughton was a gifted booster, brimming with pep and dynamism, and he seemed willing to promote any cause if it kept the admiration and affection flowing. This even included making speeches to pull in donations for the Red Cross and to sell Liberty Bonds. Stoughton would appear uniformed, before crowds of devoted American patriots, and belt out slogans like, “We must have dollars as well as men in the fight for freedom!” The irascible Black Panther, whose contempt for England had metastasized so completely that he’d gone to work blowing up ships for the Germans, was now raising money for the Allied war machine.

The biographer Art Ronnie writes, “It is difficult to explain the paradox of Fritz Duquesne at this time.” This is an almost preposterous understatement, but also, ultimately, as truthful and illuminating as one can be. There’s a cynical way to read Duquesne’s activities in New York: that he was up to no good, running some diabolical con that would eventually throw the world he’d infiltrated into chaos, just as it always did. But it’s also possible that Duquesne simply liked the attention, the performance. And maybe he liked it so much that he wouldn’t allow even his deepest and most sinister principles to break him out of character—because his character’s life was so much more gratifying than the remnants of his own.

Ronnie describes him as “an arrogant prisoner of his own ego.” He had stopped caring about anything except his own glorification. The Black Panther was an adrenaline junkie and a nihilist now. There was nothing he wouldn’t get behind, and there was nothing he wouldn’t destroy.


Duquesne was arrested in New York on December 8, 1917. He was charged with insurance fraud. Investigators alleged that, aside from orchestrating a scheme to claim the insurance money for the film he blew up on the Tennyson, he was also running a similar, parallel fraud—one that accounted for Inspector Tunney’s original arson case in Brooklyn. While in South America, Duquesne apparently agreed to produce educational movies for an Argentine board of education, bought $24,000 worth of film on his return to New York, insured it, stashed it in the Brooklyn warehouse, then set off an explosion that burned the building down.

Duquesne was held in a city jail for months as the fraud charges knotted into complicated legal cases, and the British haggled for his extradition for the explosion aboard the Tennyson. He started behaving erratically. His appearance changed. The alluring glint in his eye turned into something wilder. So did his hair. He started blathering nonsensically.

This transformation was met with skepticism, of course. In May 1918, a judge ordered a three-person “lunacy commission” to assess his condition and issue a “lunacy report.” Duquesne appeared at the commission’s hearing ranting and unhinged, shouting orders at the doctors who’d come to testify as though he were commanding them in battle. The lunacy commission sent him to a state mental hospital in Beacon, New York, exiling him alongside a man who whistled constantly, believing he was a train, and another man who, Ronnie writes, “said he was not Napoleon but Napoleon’s tomb.” At some point, Duquesne’s wife, Alice, visited, shook his hand through the bars, then divorced him. It was “obvious he had gone German,” she said.

Soon, Duquesne’s body stopped working as well. In court one day, he collapsed and claimed to be suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. This elicited even more cynicism from the government, but when doctors stuck pins in his legs and under his toenails—torturing him, in short, to prove he was malingering—Duquesne never once wriggled or winced.

And so he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital on a stretcher and installed in the very last bed of a long, secure ward. He had a view of First Avenue through a window with three iron bars. He slept with his blanket over his face and every day asked to be set by the window in a wheelchair so he could watch the birds. The nurses adored him and would lift his slack body wherever it needed to go. He got lighter and lighter. He read the newspaper with a pair of pinhole glasses he improvised out of cardboard. The birds started eating out of his hand. He wasn’t an old man, but he seemed like one. Then one night he escaped.

Duquesne had managed to acquire two small hacksaw blades and had been quietly going at the window bars day after day as he sat in his wheelchair. Eventually, he got all the way through two of them and, just past midnight on Tuesday, May 27, 1919, four days before he would finally have been extradited to England, Duquesne squeezed out.

He’d been faking paralysis for seven months. (Later he claimed to have been vigorously massaging his legs, to keep his muscles conditioned, during his twice-daily visits to the bathroom.) After wiggling through the window, he leaped six feet onto the roof of a neighboring ice house, or perhaps shimmied down using a blanket as a rope. Then he leaped again from there to the ground. And still “even this display of agility,” reported The New York Times, “did not give him his liberty.” Duquesne was then “forced to climb a brick wall about six feet high and an iron fence with menacing spikes, about eight feet high.” Then, after he’d done all that, he lurched down 27th Street toward the Hudson River, hopped a ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey, and disappeared.

The wiliness and determination of it all was jaw dropping. Duquesne had waited patiently until he’d receded to near invisibility, then pounced. It was a classic Black Panther performance. It must have killed him that no one was around to see it.

A month later, in fact, Duquesne messengered a letter to a friend in New York, purporting to lay out the dramatic mechanics of his escape. The operation involved two swashbuckling, fictitious accomplices and a foreign sports car zooming away in the night. The letter was a kind of press release; Duquesne wanted his friend to get the story published. “Nota bene,” he wrote. “As many papers as possible. Keep clippings.”

XII

Taking Chances

There are no herds of hippopotamuses in Louisiana. As far as I can tell, not one ever set foot in the bayous of the Gulf Coast. The idea was never exactly defeated but seems merely to have evaporated unspectacularly over a very long period of time.

In March 1911, a full year after the committee hearing, Frederick Russell Burnham traveled to Washington to meet with Congressman Broussard again about the hippo idea. They decided that Broussard would reintroduce his bill that spring, and in the meantime Burnham would lead an exploratory trip to Africa, scouting out other good candidate species for importation to strengthen their case. He would leave as soon as possible.

“We are serious in the movement, and I am confident of the success of the project,” Burnham told the Washington Herald. A year earlier, the New Food Supply Society had seemed awash in goodwill from the public and the press. But America had apparently turned more skeptical now; as Burnham gave interviews around Washington and New York that week, he sounded increasingly pained to stress the sincerity and value of their vision. He kept trotting out his imported-reindeer and ostrich-farm examples as proof of concept. Finally, he just told one reporter: “I have spent 11 years in Africa, and I have had two years of experience in British East Africa and have traveled about and led expeditions into the interior, so I know the lay of the land pretty well, and I think I know what we are doing,” and left it at that.

Burnham never sailed for Africa, however. He was forced to cancel his expedition at the last minute, when the revolution in Mexico escalated and his business partners called on him to protect their investments along the Yaqui River. Even so, he kept sending Broussard encouragement and information: tips he’d elicited from a famous German circus master for shipping wild animals long distances; photos of the ostriches at Cawston’s Ostrich Farms in Pasadena, with an assurance that “if that strange and erratic bird can be handled and domesticated,” then the other “magnificent animals of Africa” could be, too. Broussard, meanwhile, made one set of meticulous political calculations after another about the society’s next move, postponing the introduction of his bill from one upcoming session of Congress to the next. But he’d soon leave the House for the Senate. Then, in 1918, he passed away.

W. N. Irwin, the Agriculture Department bureaucrat—the old man who had told The Washington Post, “I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”—died within a year of his appearance at Broussard’s congressional hearing. Scientific papers that Irwin had written continued to appear long after his death, drifting into journals like whispers from a particularly petulant ghost. One, published in 1914, proposed importing a breed of pygmy hippo instead of the larger variety, because it would be easier to control. Another made the case for turkey eggs, which even in death, apparently, Irwin found to be superior.

Eventually, officials at the Department of Agriculture contradicted Irwin’s reasoning in the press, insisting that hippos were a terrible idea and that America ought to work instead to turn those useless-seeming marshes into grassy pastures, then give the South beef cattle to raise on that reclaimed land. Because people ate beef. Because beef was a normal meat to eat.

And that’s essentially how America did choose to break through the Malthusian barrier that the New Food Supply Society saw coming in 1910. Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times—an overblown, reeking grotesque of the exact conditions the water hyacinth was creating there, far more modestly, in Broussard’s time. Meanwhile, the flower continues to cause problems. The state of Louisiana alone spends $2 million a year spraying herbicides at it.

These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen—consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.

I’m not arguing that America would be a better or more beautiful place if it had imported hippopotamuses in 1910. But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident in its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much about how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places where there were no hippopotamuses.

Somewhere along the way, our politics, and maybe our psyches, too, became stunted by a certain insecurity—by the fear that someone is quietly sneering at us, just waiting to skewer and betray us if we take a bold chance. Who knows how we became so guarded. And maybe it’s naive to think that we weren’t back then. But the fact is, Robert Broussard’s bill did exist. It was discussed and debated. There was a window when anything was possible. Then the window closed. In retrospect, it’s hard to even pinpoint a moment when America said no to hippopotamuses. There were just too many moments when it failed to say yes.

In the end, Frederick Burnham and Fritz Duquesne stood at either end of a spectrum—a spectrum where optimism shaded slowly into cynicism. The petering out of the hippo scheme, and the horrible reality of world war that arose on its heels, may have been a point when America took a step away from Burnham and toward Duquesne; when we became just a little more convinced that modern life would be governed by the sinister logic of a Black Panther and not the lucid vision of a scout. Some orchid bulbs are actually explosives. Some paralyzed people can secretly walk.

Summarizing the whole episode at the end of his life, Burnham wrote that, in his memory, the difficulty with the animal-importation plan started with one particular congressman’s objection. The man had argued that, if exotic species like the hippo were introduced for the common good, wealthy, self-interested hunters would simply sneak in and kill the animals for trophies. It was inevitable, the congressman said—betraying a conviction that people are basically sly and opportunistic, and should never be trusted.

You can call that cynicism or you can call it realism. But it’s the attitude that’s given us a hundred years of hippopotamuslessness in America.


In the summer of 1943, a man named Mart Bushnell visited Frederick Burnham at his home in California. Burnham was 82, still four years away from his death, and accustomed to visitors. Men who had read about his exploits as boys kept turning up to meet the old scout before he died. They were never disappointed. Bushnell, after his own pilgrimage, wrote: “Frequently, these almost legendary characters fail to measure up to expectations—but not Major Burnham. He surpassed even the highly colorful adventurer he has become in my own imagination.” Burnham still had a thick head of hair, nearly all his teeth, and a mind that was as quick and focused as ever. Most of all, Bushnell was taken by the same enduring quality of Burnham’s eyes: “clear, steady, and almost magnetic in their probing,” he called them.

Bushnell was visiting on business from the Boy Scouts of America. Burnham was not only a longtime member of the group’s National Council but a model for the entire organization—the original Boy Scout. The group’s founder, the Englishman Lord Robert Baden-Powell, had been one of Burnham’s commanders in Africa and was so impressed by his friend’s integrity and ability that he aspired to build an institution to raise generations of similarly capable men. The Boy Scouts wore neckerchiefs because Burnham had always worn one in the desert. Their motto, “Be Prepared,” couldn’t have been a clearer distillation of his beliefs.

Bushnell had come to discuss the creation of a Major Frederick Burnham Medal for Frontiering and Scouting Skills. And, he’d learn, Burnham had very strong opinions about what should be required to earn such an honor: Boys, he felt, should demonstrate mastery of everything from “stalking and evasion” to “axemanship,” and should have to hike in isolation for two days and nights with almost no food, foraging for wild vegetables. In short, Bushnell reported back to headquarters, Burnham was disappointed that the Boy Scouts weren’t doing more to put America’s youth through the kind of intensive training that the old scouts like Holmes had put him through in the deserts of Arizona as a kid nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Major Burnham, Bushnell explained, was “vitally concerned with the virility of the country’s future man power.”

America was now in the throes of a second, gruesome world war—“war to the nth degree,” Burnham called it. “It is beyond shallow emotion, beyond good and evil as commonly reckoned.” And yet, he argued, “not even the world-wide harvest of death need dismay us.… In spite of war’s present black-out, the future is certain to be brighter than all the ages past.” Somehow his optimism was still unflinching, and he projected it, almost tangibly, into the space around him. Bushnell told his superiors that his visit with Burnham was “one of the most stirring experiences of my life. How I wish every boy in America could feel the impact of this wonderful fellow’s personality!”

Burnham was also a wealthy man now. Twenty-five years earlier, he and his son Roderick had struck oil on an overlooked piece of land between Los Angeles and Long Beach. He used the money to buy three adjacent houses in a new neighborhood being built on the bucolic fringes of Los Angeles. Roderick and his oldest daughter’s family moved into two of the houses, and Burnham and Blanche took the third. Directly above it, on a scrubby, mostly desolate hillside that Burnham said reminded him of the landscapes of Rhodesia, was propped a tremendous white “O”—part of a sign to advertise the new real estate. The developers were calling the area “Hollywoodland.”

Burnham built a study for himself on the first floor and filled one wall with dozens of framed portraits of the friends and mentors who had influenced his life: Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes with his dog, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the forward-thinking forester and conservationist in Roosevelt’s administration who’d championed Burnham’s animal-importation scheme since he took his first crack at it in Washington. The New York Times had once claimed that Burnham’s story was one “no novelist could write because of its seeming incredibility.” (Ernest Hemingway and Cecil B. DeMille, however, would later both be working on screenplays about Burnham at the time of their deaths.) But now Burnham committed to setting it all down himself, and would spend much of his last years at his desk, a large ornate map of Africa behind him, writing simple essays and remembrances. In 1943, he collected these pieces into a book, printed a few hundred copies, inscribed each, and distributed them personally to friends. “Dear Pinchot,” he wrote in one. “Once upon a time we took an active part in trying to save this nation from starvation. Hippo meat would now be welcome.”

Burnham called the book Taking Chances. The title came from an Ohio senator who had said: “It is the spirit of venture, of taking chances, that has built America. Without it we cannot go forward, with it we cannot fail.” One of the chapters in Taking Chances, “The Totem of the Black Panther,” was about Fritz Duquesne. Duquesne was now in his late sixties and had just begun serving a 20-year sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. The Black Panther had reappeared briefly after his hospital escape, posing as a New York City vaudeville critic named Major Fred Craven, but subsequently disappeared again. Then, in 1941, after two years of FBI surveillance—of tailing Duquesne on the streets of Manhattan and orchestrating meetings between him and a double-agent in a bugged office in Times Square—the government arrested Duquesne as the alleged leader of a 33-person Nazi spy syndicate. The so-called Duquesne Spy Ring included a thuggish Gestapo operative trying to foment strikes among American workers, an aging male librarian, and a seductive figure skater named Lilly Barbara Carola Stein. The Bureau accused Duquesne of coordinating the syndicate’s communications with Germany, sending the Third Reich technical information about military gas masks, fuel tanks, airplanes, and munitions, and plotting to start fires at American industrial sites. Prosecutors produced his communiqués as evidence: the Black Panther had stamped each with an inky, attacking cat.

J. Edgar Hoover bragged that the operation that led to Duquesne’s arrest was the most ambitious and well-executed spy roundup in American history, and it produced what is still considered the nation’s largest espionage case. In the arc of Duquesne’s life, however, it amounted to just another con—a final, eccentric, and ham-fisted epic. His FBI file described him this way: “Excellent talker with captivating personality. Inveterate liar. Sexual pervert.”

“His doom fills me with sadness,” Burnham wrote of his old adversary in Taking Chances. He had tried to redeem Duquesne, and was still hopeful that some empathetic and perceptive historian might one day absolve the Boer by showing he was merely “a product of the extreme hate to which we have all contributed, and for which we continue to pay the price.” Burnham still kept a letter from Duquesne in his desk in the Hollywoodland study: “To my friendly enemy,” it read, “the greatest scout in the world, whose eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.” And among those portraits on the wall, he’d hung an old, framed picture of the Panther, too—just a reedy, awkward boy in his first military uniform, looking sideways.

Burnham was organizing his papers at the time, as well—preparing them, and the singular life they chronicled, for posterity in archives at Stanford and Yale. One day in 1944, he came across a typescript of the speech he had given to the Humane Association at the hotel in Pasadena, 34 years earlier, while advocating for Broussard’s bill. There in the text was his younger self, ardently challenging his audience to recognize that the “complacent belief in the unending plenty of our natural wealth” had now been obviously disproven, but also unveiling an idea that could restore that feeling of promise in America—one that just made so much sense but would require working against “overwhelming difficulties and the loud guffaws of the ignorant” to make a reality.

Burnham read the speech over. His hand shook with age, but he pressed hard and scrawled a note across the top:

“The facts are still unrefuted” signed, “FRB – 1944.”

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Note on Sources

All events described and dialogue quoted in American Hippopotamus are drawn from congressional transcripts, first-person accounts, personal letters, contemporaneous newspaper and magazine stories, scientific journals, and published biographies of the subjects. These include the books Scouting on Two Continents and Taking Chances, by Frederick Russell Burnham; Counterfeit Hero: Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy, by Art Ronnie; The Man Who Killed Kitchener, by Clement Wood; Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis; He-Who-Sees-In-the-Dark: The Boys’ Story of Frederick Burnham, the American Scout, by James E. West and Peter O. Lamb; In Meat We Trust, by Maureen Ogle; and The Boer War: A History, by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge.

Much material was also drawn from the Robert F. Broussard papers, at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Frederick Russell Burnham Papers, split between the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Thanks to I. Bruce Turner for his research assistance in Lafayette and to Caitlin Verboon for her research assistance in New Haven.

Finally, personal communications with Rod Atkinson, a great-grandson of Frederick Russell Burnham’s, and documents he provided were invaluable. Thanks to Rod for his help and enthusiasm for the project, as well as to Captain Russell Burnham of the U.S. Army, another great-grandson of “The Major.”

Island of Secrets

If John Lane can prove the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo, he just might be able to save one of the last truly wild endangered forests on earth. 

The Atavist Magazine, No. 09


Matthew Power (1974-2014) was a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, and his work appeared in The New York Times, Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, Outside, Granta, Slate, and elsewhere. He was included in Best American Travel Writing in 2007, 2009, and 2010, and Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2009.

Expedition Photographs: Dylan van Winkel, Sarah Wells, Matthew Power
Photographs of Tree Kangaroo and Fred Hargesheimer: John Lane
Jungle Recordings: Matthew Power
Tok Pisin Recording: Robert Eklund
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Design and Music: Jefferson Rabb
Editor: Alissa Quart

Published in November 2011. Design updated in 2021.

One

“The world is apt to judge of everything by the success; and whoever has ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name.”

Captain William Dampier, on the wreck of his ship HMS Roebuck after discovering the island of New Britain, 1699

In the summer of 2007, John Lane was driving along a rough dirt track on the western end of New Britain, an immense tropical island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, when he noticed a local man who had set up a large cage by the roadside. Lane, a California geologist and explorer who had traveled to New Britain on a research expedition, stopped to take a closer look. Inside the cage was an animal the size of a large raccoon, with a thick coat of soft gold-and-chestnut fur extending to the tip of its long tail. It moved languorously and looked at Lane with deep brown, heavy-lidded eyes set into a gentle face. In its curved claws it grasped a red jungle flower. From a captive specimen he had seen in the botanical gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Lane recognized the animal as a species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in the world.

Lane was in his early forties, and his day jobs included running a small environmental consulting firm and working as an adjunct science professor at California State University, Chico. His obsession, however, was cave exploration, and during the previous decade he had mounted ambitious caving expeditions in the far corners of the world, including Borneo and Sumatra. But Lane was not a biologist, and his curiosity about the animal went only so far. The villager wanted 1,000 kina for it, about $500. What am I gonna do with a tree kangaroo? Lane recalls thinking. He snapped a few pictures and drove on.

A photograph circulated online. Lane started getting inquiries about it. A BBC film producer wanted to know where the picture had been taken, and several zoologists wrote asking if he had more photographs. The animal, they told him, wasn’t thought to exist on New Britain. Unlike their Australian cousins, tree kangaroos—genus Dendrolagus, from the Greek for “tree hare”—have, true to their name, evolved to live in trees. They are extraordinarily agile climbers, living high in the forest canopy and descending only to forage. Their long tails provide balance, and their powerful legs are like spring-loaded shocks, allowing them to jump from the upper canopy—as much as 60 feet up—to the ground, unhurt.

Today, most of the known species of tree kangaroo are threatened, several of them critically. They are endangered by overhunting and by massive habitat loss as New Guinea’s rainforests are cleared to create oil palm plantations. There are twelve known species, ten on mainland New Guinea and two more in northern Australia. The last known new tree kangaroo species was discovered in 1995 in a remote mountain range on the New Guinea mainland. In the world of comparative zoology, the discovery and description of new species are the building blocks of a career, but from what Lane could tell no specimen of tree kangaroo taken from New Britain had ever been studied.

Although New Britain lies only 50 miles offshore from New Guinea, deep water has always kept the two geographically isolated, and most evolutionary biologists believe the existence of native tree kangaroos on the island to be highly improbable. Even if the tree kangaroo Lane had seen was from the island, the theory went, it was likely the product of ancestors brought there to be used as pets or food by early human settlers arriving in open canoes as many as 30,000 years ago. The ecological term for an animal that has received this sort of human-assisted migratory boost is ethnotramp. The New Britain tree kangaroo could be a species brought from the mainland, or an altogether unknown variety: since no tree kangaroo like it had ever been studied, its provenance remained a mystery.

Lane sent out inquiries to some biologists in the field and received an enthusiastic email from Ken Aplin, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert in Australo-Papuan marsupials who had worked extensively in New Britain. Aplin said he’d spent a recent field survey looking for fossil evidence of tree kangaroos on the island, hoping to clarify their origins as native or introduced. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, who has discovered 2 percent of the world’s known mammal species, sent Lane a note that read: “The New Britain tree kangaroo identity remains unresolved. Perhaps you will find some trophy skulls or other samples that will help resolve the tree kangaroo question.” That was all the encouragement Lane needed, and he began plotting an expedition in the hope of doing just that.

New Guinea and its surrounding islands are among the world’s great reservoirs of biodiversity. According to a tally by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 new species were identified there in the past decade. The vast majority of these were plants and invertebrates—important to science but hard to put on a fundraising poster. New species of charismatic megafauna, on the other hand, are extremely rare. If the New Britain tree kangaroo were somehow a species previously unknown to science, it would be huge news, alone worthy of an adventure.

But Lane began to develop a grander vision for his mission: Perhaps the discovery of the tree kangaroo could lead to the preservation of thousands of square miles of rapidly disappearing wilderness on the island. By some estimates, half of New Britain’s primary tropical rainforest had been lost since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975. An application for Unesco World Heritage status for New Britain’s Nakanai Mountains had been submitted by the nonprofit Conservation International in 2006 but had made little progress toward ratification. “If there were a major discovery,” Lane told me, “it’d kind of be a freight train for conservation. Maybe there would be a greater sense of urgency.” He seized upon the idea of the tree kangaroo as a catalyst to action, an animal that could catch the imagination of scientists, the media, and the world.

Lane called up a friend at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is based in Chico and is known for its interest in environmental causes, and coaxed the beer maker into sponsoring his enterprise. During the following several summers, Lane coordinated expeditions into the trackless wilderness of the Nakanai, a largely unexplored range of limestone karst riddled with thousands of caves. Tree kangaroos had been spotted in the region by locals, and the prospect of exploring its vast and uncharted cave network was an additional enticement for Lane. In 2009, he got together a crew of scientists and student assistants from Chico State and hatched a plan to operate the kangaroo search and conduct other biological surveys from a jungle base camp at the edge of a lake that filled an enormous caldera, the cauldron-like center of an extinct volcano. The area is one of the wettest on earth, receiving more than 24 feet of rain annually. In a world that, to Lane at least, seemed to harbor fewer and fewer mysteries, the New Britain tree kangaroo was a concrete example of nature yet to be discovered. He imagined the creature as an avatar of a wildness he wanted both to witness and to conserve.

There were, it should be pointed out, some logistical hitches to Lane’s plan to find a tree kangaroo, not the least of them the fact that he was a geologist, not a biologist, and knew almost nothing about the behavior and habits of genus Dendrolagus. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote, difficult, and expensive places in the world to mount an expedition, with few roads and little infrastructure to speak of, and with a population frequently volatile toward foreigners. Terrible weather, impenetrable terrain, malaria, crocodiles, high crime, corrupt public officials: I easily discovered these obstacles after a few minutes of Googling. None of them are likely to be made simpler by having your chief sponsor be a beer company. And yet in the summer of 2011, when I first spoke to John Lane and he invited me to come along on his next expedition, something about the way he described the landscape of the Nakanai silenced my doubts. I booked a $3,500 plane ticket and packed my bags.

Two

The cloud-draped, dark green coast of New Britain rose out of the impossibly blue waters of the Solomon Sea, its march of volcanic cones vanishing into a haze set aflame by an equatorial sunrise. The crescent-shaped island is 14,000 square miles, home to nearly half a million native Papuans and Austronesians who between them speak dozens of distinct languages. In the previous 47 hours, I had traveled more than 12,000 miles on five flights—JFK–LAX–SYD–BNE–POM–HKN. I had crossed both the equator and the international date line to get there.

Scarcely a road or clearing was visible in New Britain’s forested and mountainous interior, where steep valleys carved their way down the flanks of volcanoes. Near the north coast, the mountains eased into plains. The forests morphed from the rugged texture of native canopy into a flat and uniform pattern of green dots. These were oil palm plantations, an economic bonanza and an ecological nightmare. From the air, the landscape seemed like something dreamed up by a computer: nature expressed in binary absolutes. Millions of acres of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have been razed to make way for “green gold.” An acre of mature palm trees can produce nearly three tons of oil in a year, and palms now supply a third of the global edible-oil market. There is an almost limitless appetite for it, in products from soap to chocolate to lipstick to biodiesel.

When we landed at the tiny, oil-palm-surrounded airstrip in the coastal town of Hoskins, a throng of Papuans stood pressed against the airstrip’s fence. I was met by a Papuan driver and piled my gear into a white Toyota Land Cruiser with “Hargy Oil Palms Ltd.” stenciled on the door. Conservation attracts strange bedfellows, and John Lane had taken up with an organization that would otherwise be his natural adversary: one of the largest palm-oil producers in New Britain. One of the very industries that Lane hoped to keep from despoiling the forests of New Britain was also a chief supporter of his expeditions.

Palm oil has a serious public-image problem. Environmental groups have faulted the industry for the massive deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra that is pushing the orangutan toward extinction in the wild. In 2004, some companies and nonprofits got together and created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the goal of creating sustainably produced palm oil. The RSPO now includes enormous multinational corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Nestlé and environmental nonprofits like Conservation International. By meeting a strict set of environmental guidelines, producers could become certified sustainable. What sustainable really means, and whether environmental groups are participating in a greenwash of the industry or an exercise in realpolitik, is a source of much debate and hand-wringing in environmental circles.

Hargy Oil Palms, as part of its effort to meet its RSPO goals—or at least appearing to—was lending its support to Lane’s expedition. When I asked Lane about this, and whether it represented an attempt to make palm oil seem eco-friendly, he was acutely aware of the irony but unapologetic. “They have a very serious mandate to achieve sustainability,” he told me, “and sponsoring us is part of that. They know that I’ve been critical of their industry in published papers, but working with them is really the best way to have input in what they do.”

We tore off in high gear, the diesel 4×4 roaring and jouncing over potholes as the Papuan driver shouted stories to a pair of industry auditors who had arrived on the same flight. He spoke in Tok Pisin, the creole of Papua New Guinea and the lingua franca of the country’s 860 language groups. I stared out at mile upon mile of perfectly straight rows of oil palms, their fronds spliced into gothic arches, our movement opening up ever shifting lines of perspective far into their shady depths. Dark-skinned, shirtless Papuan men with polesaws harvested great bunches of the bright red palm fruit and stacked them in piles by the roadside.

We drove for several hours, over dozens of bridges that wash out with every rainy season, past sulfuric-smelling volcanic springs boiling up from the ground. There are still dozens of active volcanoes on the island; its former capital, Rabaul, was crushed beneath three feet of volcanic ash in 1994. The town can still be reached only by airplane or boat. We finally arrived at the Hargy Plantation, and a uniformed guard opened a barricade as we drove past neatly cropped expanses of lawn and bushes filled with hibiscus blossoms. John Lane was sitting on the porch of the guesthouse when we pulled up, looking out over a wide sweep of coast far beneath him.

Lane kept his thinning hair cropped close, framing a sun-creased face, ruddy cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed grin. His patter was Northern California laid-back, a sort of stoner deadpan. Knowing New Britain mosquitoes carry deadly falciparum malaria, I asked him what kind of malaria pills he was using. “They’re actually anti-malaria pills,” he replied. “I think you might have the wrong ones.”

As we talked, he stooped to pick up a stick from the ground, balancing it on his forearm. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spike-covered, cigar-sized New Guinea spiny stick insect. The enormous bug tried ineffectually to escape, marching slowly back and forth along Lane’s arm. “We make some of our best insect collections on the lawn right here,” he told me. An iridescent green bird-wing butterfly the size of a paperback drifted by on the breeze.

This was the first time in weeks Lane had emerged from his base camp in the caldera. There, a crew of several researchers and a few students from Chico State conducted surveys and collected insect and animal species. We may live in a world that seems bereft of geographical blank spots, but even through the unblinking gaze of Google Earth, the caldera’s low-resolution satellite imagery was obscured by clouds. “There are less and less of these places in the world,” he told me as we studied an old topographical map of the caldera. It was as close to terra incognita as one could wish for, an irresistible attraction for Lane.

Of course, being off the map is not always best for a nation’s economic survival. Papua New Guinea won full independence from Australia in 1975, and 97 percent of its land is still in the hands of its native tribes. It is astonishingly rich in natural resources—copper, natural gas, timber, palm oil—and yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of less than $1,500. In the past generation, there has been a massive boom in resource extraction across the country, including a $15 billion Exxon Mobil pipeline project, though little of the new wealth has trickled down to the natives. Official corruption is rife, and the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is a crime-ridden pit where boomtown contractors stay in $500-a-night hotels and gangs of “raskols”—disaffected youth from the highlands—wreak havoc outside compound walls.

Graham King, the Australian general manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation, sat drinking tea on the porch with Lane and defended the oil palm industry as an economic necessity for New Britain. “No other cash crop survives here,” said King. “Oil palm is a beautiful fit in this rainfall and soil.” He pointed out that in 2010, the plantation paid out $20 million to 3,500 small oil palm growers in the area, on top of wages to plantation workers of $15 million. “In a developing country, people’s livelihoods are important,” said King. “Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth don’t seem to realize that.” Nevertheless, it is one of Papua’s many paradoxes that the palm-oil industry has become critical to its citizens’ survival even as it has destroyed the environment they inhabit.

All of King’s product is shipped to Europe, and the largest buyers of palm oil—multinational manufacturing giants like Nestlé and Unilever­—claim they will convert to 100 percent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015. Even the Girl Scouts have pledged to make their Thin Mints and Samoas contain oil derived from sustainable palm-oil plantations. Less than 10 percent of the 50 million tons of palm oil produced annually meet the RSPO sustainability standard, but King wants to be on the right side of history, or at least the market. One of the key RSPO standards, which has made Lane much more comfortable working with King, is that primary forest cannot be touched. This doesn’t at all mean that the forests of New Britain are protected; it just means that Hargy Oil Palms won’t be clear-cutting the forests. They are nevertheless being rapidly destroyed by logging, expanding agriculture, and oil palm operations not following the RSPO guidelines. King swept his hand over the topographical map of the area where Lane’s base camp is set up. “It would take two years and it would be all gone,” he said. A 2008 report in the journal Biological Conservation showed satellite evidence that a fifth of New Britain’s lowland rainforest had vanished between 1989 and 2000. Since independence, perhaps half of the island’s forest cover has disappeared.

Enter John Lane and the mysterious tree kangaroo. Lane is not a policy wonk or a development expert, and he has little interest in being part of the NGO world with its endless meetings and half-measures. His dream role in conservation is the spectacular turnaround, the heroic diving catch, employing mainly a sense of adventure and force of will. If the tree kangaroo were out there, and if he could demonstrate its value to the world, it might be the tipping point to save this place. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the thing. This was Lane’s third venture into the forest of the Nakanai to look for it, and he planned to push himself farther into the unknown landscape than he had ever gone. His take on it seemed to echo the doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s famous words on climbing Everest. “We’re going out there,” Lane told me, “to see what’s there.”

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Dendrolagus inustus, the grizzled tree kangaroo (Illustration from Mammals of Australia by John Gould) and Dendrolagus bennettianus, the Bennett’s tree kangaroo. (Lithograph by J. Smit, late 19th century)

Three

The Hargy Plantation covers 25,000 acres, and we followed a dirt road to the plantation’s outermost edge, where the endless lines of oil palms ended and the rainforest began, to begin our search. At the trailhead, a half-dozen “bois” waited for us in the shade, wrestling and goofing around with each other in their native Nakanai. (“Boi” is the Tok Pisin term for a guy; the girls are called “meris.”) They were from the Nakanai tribe and lived in a village of thatched huts near the plantation, where many of their fathers and older brothers worked. They were all barefoot, and chewed buai, a mixture of betel nut, mustard, and lime that turned their teeth bright red. Lane had hired them, for seven dollars a day, to ferry loads of fuel and food along the muddy five-mile trail to base camp. One had carried in a 30-pound car battery for the radio, another a huge propane tank for the stove.

The bois were like teenagers anywhere on earth, loud and anarchic when in a group, and basically indifferent to me. The language barrier was nearly insurmountable, with Lane knowing only a few phrases in Tok Pisin and none at all in Nakanai. One of the better English speakers was a good-natured twentysomething named Daure—pronounced “dowry”—who had become a village hero after being chosen for the national cricket team. Daure taught me one of Tok Pisin’s most useful words, bagarap: damaged, broken, destroyed. It derives from the British colloquialism buggered up and can be used to describe anything from flat tires to geopolitics.

Employing the bois was part of the bargain for being allowed to set up base camp in the forest, Lane told me. The Nakanai tribe communally owned all the forestland that lay before us. The problem Lane faced was getting the tribe to recognize the lasting value of conserving the place. Everyone in the tribe was aware that their forest represented millions of dollars in quick and easy wealth, and the material temptations of modernity are pervasive and ubiquitous. Money, materialism, capitalism: Lane knew he couldn’t shield the Nakanai from the corrosive influences of the developed world. “In the past five years, I’ve seen the rapid Westernization of the landowners,” said Lane. As if to illustrate this, one of the bois walked by, a pair of bootleg “Calvin Klain” underwear showing above his waistband.

We descended along a steep trail, the bois leaving barefoot prints in the black mud. Hornbills flapped overhead, their wings carving a deep whoosh whoosh whoosh through the air. Epiphytes—plants that grow upon other plants to reach sunlight and nutrients—dangled from overhead branches like chandeliers. Understory plants grew head-high where an old-growth tree had recently fallen and opened up a gash in the canopy. The perfectly smooth and multihued trunks of rainbow eucalyptus shot straight through, eight feet across and topping out 250 feet above the forest floor. Those trees are a favorite of pulp companies, Lane explained, and are said to make excellent paper. This was the third time Lane had set up base camp in this spot in the caldera, and each year the jungle swallowed all signs of their presence, the trail erased by crowding plants. There were dozens of water crossings on the walk in, and we scrambled down steeply carved banks and forded knee-deep streams.

On an earlier expedition, Lane had handed out copies of his tree kangaroo photograph and asked several locals to keep an eye out and send him any reports. He had received an email from Angelus Palik, a plantation employee:
 

For your information tree kangaroos do exist on the island of New Britain. We sighted one adult (female) about 3 km inland from Area 12 next to the Lake Hargy. The adult female escaped and we caught its baby and took it home. We gave the tree kangaroo some sugar cane and banana. Unfortunately it died.
 

I asked Lane what became of the body of the tree kangaroo joey, which would seem to be a key piece of evidence in the mystery.

“They ate it,” he said.

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John Lane looking up at a limestone drainage in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Four

As I clambered over fallen logs, I scanned the canopy for tree kangaroos and checked the trunks of trees for their telltale claw marks. Lane told me to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wandered off the route, I could easily fall down tree holes, where hot lava cooling around ancient trees had left deep cylindrical shafts dropping as much as 10 feet straight down. I stared anxiously at the jungle floor, and as we walked Lane told me about himself and his previous adventures. He grew up in the middle of a pack of eight siblings, his father a nuclear engineer who traveled the world with his huge family. They lived in Tokyo when Lane was a child, and by age 7 he would wander for hours around the city, searching its strange alleys and corners totally alone. It was a kind of freedom children are rarely afforded today. He thrived on it.

His childhood gave him a taste for exploration, and he got into caving in his twenties. There was something about caves that captured Lane, perhaps the mystery of going someplace no human being had ever gone. Caving was also what first lured him to New Britain, its limestone karst riven with hundreds of miles of tunnels. Lane had heard of whole rivers vanishing into the island’s fissured earth or shooting out of mountainsides like fire hoses. There were vast caverns home to colonies of bats with five-foot wingspans. Throughout the 1990s, in his quest for places as untouched by man as possible, he had traveled the world on a series of caving expeditions. In Borneo, he descended miles into the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cavern ever discovered. “A quarter-mile wide, half a mile long, and 400 feet high,” Lane told me. “They say you could put four 747s end to end and spin them around.”

He soon led another expedition, to the Gunung Buda (White Mountain) cave system in Borneo, for National Geographic. The massive caves were filled with endemic species and spectacular rock formations. Lane was so inspired by what he saw that he arranged to meet with the Malaysian minister of the environment to preserve the extraordinary site. Eventually, thanks in part to his efforts, the Gunung Buda became a national park.

Through that experience, Lane saw how a big discovery could lead a government to act in the name of conservation. If it could happen there, why not in New Britain with the tree kangaroo? He recognized the differences in the two situations. “Getting things done here is a lot harder than any other place I’ve been,” Lane told me. “I keep thinking I’m getting closer to some solidification of conservation of the area, and then I don’t know. Would it just be a paper park?” But having had a taste of what adventure and exploration could achieve, he’d decided to make a life of it.

This sort of life had its victories, but there were great risks. Things could easily go too far and spin out of control toward the irrevocable. And so they did in 2001, when Lane and a good friend and expedition partner, a 34-year-old archaeologist named Adam Bodine, went “tubineering” with a group of 18 people, riding inner tubes in extreme Class V whitewater down the middle fork of the Feather River in California. Running through a particularly difficult section of rapids, Bodine was tossed from his tube and drawn into a strainer, a barricade of boulders and logs that allows current to flow through but can quickly trap a person. He vanished. “Nothing came out the other side but a shoe and a helmet,” said Lane. He and a few of his companions searched frantically, but after 10 minutes had passed they knew their friend was dead, his body lost beneath the rushing water. Lane was devastated, sobbing as he broke the news to the rest of the group.

Bodine’s death had a tremendous effect on Lane, reinforcing the enormity of the risks that he undertook. It was all an abstraction, he felt, “until shit goes down.” But that abstraction had been made manifest in the worst possible way. Lane returned two months later and spotted his friend’s skull at the bottom of a pool downstream. “He always lived his life at the limit,” Lane told me. “I think he accepted that outcome as a possibility.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment, perhaps a defense that Lane had constructed knowing that such a fate might befall himself as well. Lane had a daughter by then, a fact which underscored the consequences of the risks he took. But he couldn’t entirely withdraw from a life of adventure and found himself soon drawn again to the ragged edges of experience.

In more than a decade of globe-spanning cave expeditions, Lane had had a wide array of close calls: A tiger had paced around his tent in Sumatra; an angry tribesman had brandished a spear at him in Papua New Guinea; he’d stepped on a king cobra in Borneo. There were encounters with crocodiles, bears, pit vipers, kraits, sea snakes, and rattlers. But none were so close as one day in August 2006 when he descended into the Bigfoot cave system deep within the Marble Mountains of Northern California. Bigfoot was an adventure much closer to home, one of the deepest alpine caves in North America. The year-round temperature in the cavern is 38 degrees, and he and his group of fellow explorers made a 300-foot rappel from Bigfoot’s entrance down a series of steep pitches. As he lowered himself to the floor of the grotto, a 400-pound chunk of rock came loose from the wall in the darkness, smashing into his chest and knocking him to the ground. At the same instant, a massive boulder broke away from the rock face and became wedged against the wall directly over his head.

Lane was smeared with dirt and blood and badly bruised, and when his companions pulled him up, they discovered he had fractured his calf bone, the break nearly coming through the skin. The group’s first-aid supplies consisted of two Advil and an elastic bandage. Lane didn’t go into shock, but that only made the pain more acute. Worse, with just one usable leg, Lane knew he could never climb back out the way he had come in, even with his companions’ help. But there was, according to their charts, an alternate route, a quarter-mile belly-crawl through a narrow crevice with the Lovecraftian name Lurking Fear.

Dragging his leg behind him, Lane hauled himself forward through the blackness alone, trying to keep his face clear of the 36-degree stream that half-filled the passage. After a soaked and freezing crawl that seemed to take hours, Lane had to climb a steep rock face, his useless leg dangling as he ascended in his harness. The slightest jostling of his leg caused him agony. “The only relief was knowing that each step was one closer to home,” Lane later recalled. He finally scrambled out to sunlight and reached the group’s base camp. After drinking an entire box of wine to blunt the pain, he fashioned a crutch from a branch and limped five miles back to his car.

The incident frightened Lane and his wife, Anna. Of course, it wasn’t the first time: Lane’s frequent absences from his family had never been easy, but with two kids they had become far more of a burden. Anna had been with him since she was 20 and he was 25. She had fallen in love with his spontaneity and curiosity, his willingness to drop everything and go on an adventure. Despite Lane’s broken leg and the thousand other near misses, Anna somehow remained calm about the physical risks he undertook. She knew that worrying would just consume her but accepted those risks were an inextricable part of who he was. Lane had curbed his expeditions after their first child was born, in 2000, but once their daughter was a little older he had persuaded Anna to let him go off again. Now the agreement was that he would not leave home for more than four weeks at a stretch. Lane loves his family but he’s still drawn to the edges of things. Besides, he told me, after he nearly blew up the entire family with a home fireworks display the previous summer, “Anna was glad I wasn’t home on the Fourth of July this year.” When I asked her what she thought motivated Lane, Anna conceded to me that he remained something of a cipher to her. What made him do what he did?  “I know him really well, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.

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Bioluminescent fungi in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Five

At 6 p.m. on the dot, thousands of cicadas buzzed in the forest. You could set your watch by them: a pulsing hybrid of subway brakes and jet engines. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the forest gloom deepened. As we stumbled the last mile by headlamp, I spotted a strange light along the ground. On a rotted log there grew a colony of bioluminescent mushrooms, each tiny gill clearly drawn in glowing green. Not long after, we arrived at the base camp, a wide clearing hacked out of the forest, with an enormous tarp strung across poles and tied down with vines. A large banner for Sierra Nevada Brewery hung across the entrance. This would be the staging ground from which we’d stalk the tree kangaroo.

A shout of greeting went up from a group of bois in ragged shorts and T-shirts sitting around a smoky fire of half-green wood hacked from the forest and split by machete. One picked up a burning ember and lit a Spear cigarette, a leaf of local tobacco rolled in newspaper. They all chewed betel nut, spitting the juice in theatrical blood red arcs onto the ground. A noisy card game was played by several bois splayed across a stick bed, and a radio broadcast some kind of screechy, saccharine Papuan tween-pop that made me long for the cicadas. A propane stove held a pot with our communal dinner, a glutinous mass of ramen and canned tuna mixed with gume, a spinach-like forest fern. There were about 10 bois and meris in the camp at any given time, and they were beginning to wear on Lane. They would stay up shouting over card games until 2 a.m. each night, and by sunrise at 5:30 were back at their game, seeming never to sleep.

The bois and the meris weren’t the only people besides Lane at the camp, however. As I strung up my hammock between a pair of trees, a bright light shone directly in my eyes. It came from a headlamp belonging to Dylan van Winkel, a herpetologist from South Africa by way of New Zealand. He was chasing a frog that had hopped along the leaflitter past his laboratory, a tarp strung above a table made of sticks lashed together with vines.

Dylan had joined the expedition with his girlfriend, Sarah Wells, a 30-year-old Brit working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology. They were committed zoology freaks. There was nothing more fun than spending weeks euthanizing skinks or scanning for nesting grebes (diving birds) waist-deep in a marsh. They lived together in Auckland, and Dylan had spent months reaching out to every field-research expedition he could find, hoping they’d be able to join one. Their dream was to get on board with one of Conservation International’s legendary Rapid Assessment Programs, well-funded blitzkrieg species surveys in some of the most remote and biologically rich locales on earth. In Papua New Guinea in 2009, 200 new species were found by CI field surveys, including a species of fruit bat that made headlines around the world for its uncanny resemblance to Yoda.

If Papua New Guinea is the World Series of zoology, in comparison with CI’s rapid assessments Lane’s expedition was the Chicago Cubs of field surveys, underfunded and a bit haphazard. But Lane was Dylan’s most enthusiastic supporter, so that is where the pair had cast their lot. They didn’t know much about New Britain, but there was always that lingering dream that something extraordinary and new would manifest. They certainly believed that they were looking in a good place. They had both taken thousands of photographs, gorgeous color-saturated portraits of the strange, tiny, fluttering, slithering things that populated the forest. “The biodiversity is just huge,” said Dylan. “We’ve been seeing all sorts of crazy-ass insects.”

Dylan was a 25-year-old with a surfer’s build, curly black hair, and a three-week scruff of beard. He told me his ringtone alternated between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. He showed off his collection of “herps” by the light of his headlamp. That’s herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles—most of which in New Britain are poorly documented. He had collected dozens and went out frequently at night to spotlight them on the wet leaflitter of the forest. Each one he caught would be euthanized with a shot of pentobarbital, the same drug recently approved for administering the death penalty in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. With tweezers, Dylan would extract a tiny sample of liver for genetic analysis and preserve the rest of the specimen in alcohol. His “lab” was a stick table covered by a tarp, with stacked Tupperware containers filled with coiled snakes, board-stiff frogs, and vials containing scorpions. He was hoping that some of what he had collected would be new to science.

Sarah had already observed and cataloged dozens of bird species around the base camp, but some of their other collection attempts had been less successful. The wire-mesh lizard traps they’d had Lane climb to place high in the tree canopy had been turning up empty. Dylan gestured to a large bundled net on his worktable. “That’s a mist net,” he said. “It’s for catching birds—or mist.” Sarah sounded discouraged. “I think we need to rethink our strategy,” she said. The one mammal they had managed to trap, a large native rat that Dylan believed was a species new to science, bit him on the finger and scampered off into the underbrush.

Three Chico State undergrads had joined the expedition as well: Heidi Rogers, Alan Rhoades, and Emily Ramsey. Bringing them along was part of Lane’s bridge-building with the university, and they had all been working on their own research projects, collecting spiders, documenting and measuring trees, and enduring the discomforts of camping out in an equatorial quagmire. It had not been an easy transition from civilian life. Heidi had maintained an upbeat demeanor despite being covered head-to-toe with a remarkable assortment of suppurating welts, sores, rashes, and bites. Alan and Emily, both 22, had been together since early high school and were now giving their relationship the ultimate stress test. Emily was a soft-spoken blond ingenue whose panoply of food allergies and intolerances to pretty much anything but white rice had kept her on a near starvation diet for weeks. She had been so sick upon arrival that she’d spent the first three days in camp without leaving her tent. Lane suggested in jest that she was also allergic to dirt, as she was the sole member of the expedition who managed to appear sparkling clean at all times. Her hapless, floppy-haired boyfriend seemed wracked between his innate desire to have a fun jungle adventure and the guilty feeling that he should be a full partner in her misery.

Lane felt that the expedition would build character in the students—that it would add meaning to their existences for them to suffer a little. “They’re going to look back on this all someday and realize it was the greatest experience of their lives,” he pronounced.

Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” which managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.

There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps for teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.

I observed to Lane that a bunch of Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web stitched between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 25 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled to out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he felt a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding in his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers. 

The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State president Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s number one party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, rendezvous with the students, and escort them directly back to Northern California.

After planning dozens of expeditions full of ego clashes and unpleasant surprises, Lane had developed various coping strategies. This, in part, explained his deadpan affect and seeming inability to get worked up over almost anything. He received the Chico State president’s direct order not to bring the students along with stubborn unflappability. “If you let that stuff get to you, you end up with a nine-to-five as a pencil pusher, stuck in traffic,” Lane told me. There was something in his tone that implied such a fate was the one defeat he really feared. So Lane had simply ignored Zingg’s request and met up with the students in Port Moresby to begin the expedition. And now here they were, deep in the New Britain jungle, far beyond the reach of any administrative consequence, ready to fan out in search of Lane’s elusive quarry.

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John Lane, Emily Ramsey, and Nakanai locals at base camp near the Hargy Plantation in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Six

On my third morning in camp, we all walked out to a small machete-cut clearing on the shore of Lake Hargy. The volcanic caldera’s lake had filled with millions of years’ worth of rainwater, and the sun burned mist off its glassy surface. From the rough dock of vine-lashed logs the bois had fashioned, I could see 10 feet down through the astonishingly clear water. The lake reaches three miles across, and a ring of forest-covered mountains rose above the far shore. The jagged mountains formed the edge of the Nakanai range, hundreds of square miles of unpopulated, untrammelled country divided by steep gorges and knife-edge ridges, and full of thousands of limestone caves. Lane told me the Nakanai never travel to the far side of the lake. The Nakanai are afraid of the thick mists at higher elevation, which they call “snow,” swirling with malevolent spirits.

Lane’s mission in the region was to search for the tree kangaroo and whatever else he might find. If he came across one of the creatures and by some extraordinary circumstance managed to grab hold of it, Lane and Dylan agreed there was only one option: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. To prove the creature’s existence, he would have to kill it. The mystery of the New Britain tree kangaroo seemed to be as much a problem of ontology as zoology. But Lane was not vexed by philosophical questions. He had always been drawn to the unfilled spaces on the map, and he wished them to stay that way. These lost places were a screen upon which he could project his desires. And by that same promise of mysteries to be revealed, most of us had been drawn here by Lane’s mercurial vision.

Lane, Dylan, and I gathered our gear by the lakeshore. Given the limited rations and certain difficulties of our plans, only the three of us would travel into the Nakanai, while the rest of the group continued their research in the forests around the base camp. We carried a machete, climbing harnesses, several hundred feet of rope, a small cookstove, Dylan’s collecting equipment, and a camera trap for identifying animals moving along game trails at night. Lane carried a GPS unit, but it would be of limited use. The only topographical maps that exist for the region were created by the Australians in 1978, and the gradient on Lane’s copy was so coarse that a 200-foot cliff wouldn’t even merit a line. I’d brought a dozen freeze-dried camping meals. Lane and I had jungle hammocks, with rain flies and mosquito netting attached. Dylan would have to improvise, building stick beds with the machete. Considering our remoteness and the extreme topography, I asked Lane why he hadn’t brought a satellite phone. “Sat phones take the fun out of it,” he replied dismissively. “Our lives are soft enough as it is.”

I was beginning to understand the ways Lane elevated improvisation to a life philosophy. On our expedition, there was always some crucial supply missing, some unexpected obstacle to overcome. For example, Lane had planned for us to have a small aluminum rowboat to transport our heavy gear across the caldera’s lake. The boat had been acquired, but it needed to be helicoptered in from the plantation. Despite Lane’s persistent pleading for more than a year, the helicopter pilot had never gotten around to doing it. So we would make do, and that would be half the fun, according to Lane. He showed me the vessel that instead would ferry us the three miles across: a pair of inner tubes to which the bois had lashed a latticework of sticks with vines. The platform was scarcely bigger than a front door, and there were three hand-carved paddles. This didn’t seem terribly safe. Hargy is a lake where crocodiles—which can grow to 20 feet—had migrated inland and now basked along the shore. “I really don’t think they’re likely to come out to the middle,” said Lane.

In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.

As we paddled, our raft seemed a little society adrift in a wilderness outside of time. Lane recited his litany of corny and mildly dirty jokes to offset the spookiness of our isolation. (“What’s the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scotsman? Mick Jagger says, ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud.’ A Scotsman says, ‘Hey MacLeod, get off of my ewe.’”) After three hours, we reached the far side of the lake, where we dragged the raft through thigh-deep mud to the shoreline and stashed it in the 10-foot grass. There was no trail to be found. Great sails of buttress roots propped up forest giants, and the high canopy cast a cathedral gloom over the forest floor. A strangler fig the size of a house grew from a hillside, its mossy roots a dendritic maze. Lane studied the map and decided to make for what appeared to be a ridgeline rising from the lake edge toward the cloudy heights. We shouldered our heavy packs, and Dylan struck out first, machete in hand, hacking at vines. I gradually picked up on his personal lexicon of Kiwi-influenced slang, generally used to denote varying levels of approval: If he was excited for something, he was “frothing”; if deeply disappointed, “gutted.”

Dylan told me tree kangaroos give off a strong, musky odor, so I inhaled deeply, hoping for a whiff. Instead, I smelled rotting vegetable matter and my own sweat. As ever, I searched overhead for a glint of chestnut fur among the mossy branches. Almost immediately it began to rain, pounding down so hard that it was like being held beneath an open hydrant, the roar so loud we could barely hear one another. We didn’t even bother with raincoats, which would only drench us from the inside with the humidity. The jungle was filled with mutant versions of flora more familiar as houseplants and garden flowers, 10-foot ferns, head-high begonias, and fluorescent-pink impatiens erupting from the rotting crevices of trees. Rattan, that Pier 1 standby, was here a flesh-tearing horror, with stems covered in three-inch spikes and cat-claw thorns lining the undersides of its fronds. My clothes were soon shredded and my forearms bloody with deep scratches.

Dylan stopped frequently to roll over rotten logs, each one like a lottery scratch-off whose jackpot was yet unnamed species of spiders, beetles, and frogs. At one point, he squatted and poked at something on the ground with the machete, a slimy heap of half-digested seedpods. “Cassowary shit,” he said. We all took pictures. Five feet tall and weighing perhaps 60 pounds, the Bennett’s Cassowary is one of the more dangerous creatures in the forest. It resembles a flightless steroidal turkey, with a royal blue neck streaked with red, a mound of shaggy black feathers, and dagger-like spurs on thick legs. The birds can be territorial and will attack humans, leaping and punching with their spurs or head-butting with an ax-like crest of bone atop their skulls. “He can jump up to a meter in the air, and he’ll go for your throat, your stomach, or your groin,” Lane casually observed. He had been charged by one, of course.

The terrain suddenly steepened. We scrambled up the muddy hillside, wedging against roots and grasping at saplings to pull ourselves upward. We seemed to have missed the manageable ridgeline we had spotted on the map and were forcing our way up a drastic incline. As I climbed, I knocked loose a chunk of limestone the size of a basketball, and it smashed 100 feet down the hillside, echoing against the trees. The forest grew claustrophobic, offering nowhere to gain a view outward. With the thick canopy overhead, it became difficult to get the GPS unit to even register a waypoint. Finally, smeared with mud, we arrived at a slightly flat spot and hacked a camp for the night from the vine-tangled undergrowth.

We were at nearly 3,000 feet now, and the air turned chilly and damp as soon as the sun had set. I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag, assuming the tropics would be hot enough at night to make one unnecessary. Within a half-hour, I’d put on all the dry clothes I had, including my otherwise pointless raincoat, and still shook uncontrollably with cold. Lane dug into his pack and tossed me a small packet containing a Mylar space blanket. There was a picture on the package of a smiling woman wrapped in one—presumably not in the euphoric end stages of hypothermia. I found myself constantly glancing upward at the silhouetted branches, looking for some sign in the dripping expanse of foliage: a long dangling tail, a moving shadow, anything.        

From a scientific perspective, of course, stomping through inaccessible rainforest and looking around at random trees is hardly a methodologically sound way of finding a tree kangaroo. Some of the best research on tree kangaroos in the wild has been done by Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She used native hunters with tracking dogs to locate the animals, then sent climbers up into the branches after them, until, to escape, the tree kangaroos leaped to the ground, where they were promptly tackled, radio-collared, and released. There are few other ways to make long-term observations. But Dabek’s research and dedication have achieved real results; she persuaded local landowners to create a 180,000-acre conservation area around the heart of the tree kangaroo’s habitat on the mainland’s Huon peninsula. It took Dabek 10 years, and extraordinary cooperation by the native communities, to establish the protections.

That is exactly what Lane would have to do—a long process of diplomacy and trust-building with the local tribes—but it was unclear whether he had the patience for that. Lane was aware of this, of course, but rigorous methodology and slow diplomacy were not his preferred M.O. My own feelings wavered between resentment at having come halfway around the world on a half-assed goose chase and a sense of wonder that we were searching for something rich and strange at the far end of the earth. But there I was, and there was nothing much to do but follow Lane deeper into the jungle. He was out there trying for the big win, the Hail Mary that would save New Britain with one grand and miraculous discovery.

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Lake Hargy in New Britain (Photos by Dylan van Winkel)

Seven

There is a phrase in Tok Pisin, longpela taim, which means “a long time ago.” And from a long time ago until the present, outsiders have rummaged through this corner of the world for supporting evidence of their dreams. It has filled the popular imagination as a place where desires could be imprinted onto an unknown, “primitive” landscape. This has led to resource booms in copper, timber, gold, natural gas, and palm oil. But it has also spurred far more esoteric and less financially rewarding quests. The blank spaces on its map have beckoned a long parade of entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of their fantasies, and Lane is hardly the most unusual.

Papua New Guinea’s history with foreigners is filled with both seekers and the lost. Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, traveled there in 1961 to collect tribal art and vanished. There were rumors for decades: He had drowned or had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles or natives, or was living out a Colonel Kurtz–like exile deep in the jungle. A cult of searchers arose, but after 50 years they’ve failed to unearth any solid evidence. Similarly, a retired Australian aircraft engineer named David Billings has spent 17 years, and $100,000 of his own money, searching fruitlessly in the jungles of New Britain for the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart, which took off from the mainland. But these, at least, are quests for something that actually exists.

The Creation Research Society (CRS) stands out even among the many oddball Western groups obsessed with Papua. The CRS bills itself as a “professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons” devoted to a version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis. The society publishes a quarterly “peer-reviewed journal” that seeks to build an evidentiary basis for young-earth creationism, the Bible-based belief that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. In March 2006, CRS Quarterly published an article titled “The Fiery Flying Serpent,” by David Woetzel, a New Hampshire business executive and avid cryptozoologist. Woetzel described a 23-day expedition to Papua New Guinea in search of a living, possibly bioluminescent flying dinosaur natives call the ropen.

Woetzel recorded interviews with several natives of Umboi, a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast of New Britain, who claimed to have seen the flying creature. One night, while alone in his camp, he witnessed a “spine-tingling sight”: “a glowing object passing low on the horizon. … The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds, too brief to photograph it. … [We] spent five nights looking for the Ropen. Our vigils were to no avail, despite the excellent view and our even employing a dead wallaby as bait.”

Lunatic as the CRSers’ quest seems, there was something in Lane’s mission that accorded with the ropen hunters, the Amelia obsessives, the Rockefeller-heads, and all the other seekers after lost things who pilgrimage to this part of the world. But the outsider adventurer who inspired Lane to come here was none of the above. Instead, he was an American World War II reconnaissance pilot, a Minnesotan named Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer. In June 1943, Hargesheimer had been shot down over the Nakanai range, and an Australian cartographic unit during the war named the newly discovered lake in the caldera in his honor.

By mid-1943, the war in the Pacific was beginning to turn. Guadalcanal had fallen, and the Japanese had been driven from the New Guinea mainland. Their largest outpost in the region was the massive airbase at Rabaul, on the eastern end of New Britain, where more than 100,000 troops were stationed. As a photo reconnaissance pilot, Hargesheimer flew unarmed over Japanese-held territory, his machine guns replaced by a trio of cameras. He recorded the landscape for mapmaking in anticipation of an Allied land invasion and kept a constant lookout for signs of Japanese movement across the island: newly built airstrips, hidden supply barges, troop encampments. Then as now, much of the interior of New Britain was a mountainous wilderness; the only signs of human habitation were found along the coasts.

On the morning of June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer flew his twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, named the Eager Beaver, out over the Dampier Strait. He traced along the north coast of New Britain, searching for Japanese movement. He spotted what he thought was a new air strip in the jungle and prepared for a low-altitude pass to photograph it. His plane quivered, and he watched as his left engine burst into flame. He went into a defensive dive and felt bullets ricochet off the armor plate behind his cockpit. When his second engine died, Hargesheimer knew he had no choice but to bail out. He pulled the canopy release and was sucked out into open sky. Drifting slowly down beneath his parachute, Hargesheimer watched the Japanese fighter swing back around, certain it was coming in for the kill. But the pilot veered away. Hargy came back to earth, crashing down through a grove of eucalyptus trees.

He was banged up, with a deep gash on his head, but alive. He bandaged his wound with parachute cloth and took an inventory of his supplies. He had a small inflatable raft, a machete, a compass, a pistol, a packet of matches, a fishing line and hooks, penicillin, two chocolate bars, and a booklet, Friendly Fruits and Vegetables: Advice to Air Crew Members Forced Down in the Jungle. He was in the middle of a wilderness, 75 miles behind Japanese lines, in a region where tribal loyalties were uncertain and rumors of cannibalism still abounded. And although it was ostensibly the dry season, it rained torrentially every day. Hargesheimer decided to make for the coast, hoping to encounter some friendly natives who would shelter him until he could arrange a rescue.

He walked for 10 days, sucking on his chocolate to make it last, sleeping under a tent of parachute cloth, and struggling through a landscape of steep ravines and difficult vegetation. Finally, he came across a grass-roofed native shelter by a small river and set up a base for himself. He managed to start a fire with his final match, and he lived on roasted freshwater snails and a single fish he managed to shoot with his pistol. He was soon near starvation and crushingly lonesome. What if he had survived the crash only to die a slow death in the jungle?

Finally, after a month alone, he heard voices approaching. Before he knew it, a few tribesmen stood before him. He wished he had run and hid: He didn’t know if they were friendly, and he spoke only a few words of Tok Pisin. Then one of them handed him a letter. It was a greeting written by an Australian coastwatcher, a member of one of the small radio teams that hid behind enemy lines and provided early warnings on the Japanese.

Deciding they were on his side, Hargesheimer followed the natives to their village on the coast. There, they made him a feast of bananas and smoked fish. When he contracted malaria and couldn’t eat for 10 days, a nursing mother fed him every day from a teacup filled with her breast milk. In a few months, he became fluent in Tok Pisin and came to care greatly for the people who helped him. They risked their lives by hiding him. When Japanese soldiers approached the village, the natives hustled him into the jungle. He once had to climb high up in a eucalyptus tree to avoid detection. “At the top I found a mossy nest that had evidently been the sleeping place of some animal,” he later wrote. “It was a perfect hideout.”

Finally, nine months after he was shot down, the coastwatchers made contact with an American submarine, and Hargesheimer and several other stranded airmen were rescued. He sent a telegram home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” In two weeks, he was back in Minnesota.

After the war, Hargy thought often of New Britain. In 1960, he returned to the town, now called Nantabu. The villagers all remembered him and were delighted that “Masta Predi” had come all the way around the world to see them again. He wept with joy. Later, the villagers performed an elaborate “singsing” for him. Hargesheimer had brought gifts, but he wanted to do more for the people who had saved his life. He ended up building a school nearby, providing a free education to generations of native children. He even moved to New Britain with his wife and taught there with her for several years.

Ultimately, Hargesheimer retired to a vineyard in Grass Valley, California, and self-published a memoir. At 89, he got a call from a caver who lived in nearby Chico. John Lane was planning his first caving expedition to New Britain, and a friend had recommended he contact Hargesheimer for advice. They soon became good friends. Lane promised Hargesheimer he would go to New Britain and try to find the Eager Beaver.

That first expedition didn’t go quite as planned. After losing all their gear connecting through Tokyo, Lane and his companions had trekked with burlap bags to a village near where they thought the crash site might be. They went to an enormous bat-and-spider-filled cave several hours’ hike above the village, but there was no sign of Hargesheimer’s plane.

Lane left a disposable camera with a villager. The manager of the Hargy Plantation offered a reward to anyone who could find the wreckage. Then, three months later, Lane got an email with pictures of the Eager Beaver. In July 2006, Hargy and Lane traveled back to New Britain. Lane hiked in to the site to cut a helipad, and a group of native Kol tribesmen showed up and demanded $70,000 for outsiders to enter their territory. The Kol are nomadic hunter-gatherers, among the least assimilated tribes in New Britain, but luckily Lane and Hargy had a local missionary with them, one of the few white people in the world who speak Kol. They negotiated the price down to 15 cans of tuna, a tarp, and the plastic chair they’d brought to carry Hargy to the crash site.

A group of villagers carried Hargesheimer up to the Eager Beaver. The wreckage was spread over a quarter-mile area down a steep streambed. They found a section of the tail riddled with bullet holes and one of the enormous propellers stuck into the ground like a javelin. Even the cameras that had been mounted to the P-38 were there.

Hargy died almost a year ago, but the school he built in New Britain still exists, and Lane sits on the board of its nonprofit foundation. He was a different sort of person than Lane, but one who had clearly inspired him deeply. Hargy had led a life that was at once a humble service and an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps there was a way for Lane’s own life to encompass both of those things. “When I met Fred, caving sort of went on the back burner, and this became more of a conservation project,” Lane told me. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had hoped to achieve here, had grown from that strange, serendipitous friendship, and with Hargy in mind he would push on no matter how absurdly long the odds appeared.

Eight

Day after day, we pushed onward into the depths of the Nakanai. Things were starting to unravel. The landscape itself was our biggest adversary, steep and vicious, the air heavy with decayed vegetation. Dylan hacked a route through a wilderness of bamboo and neck-deep tanglefoot ferns. The ferns were so woody and interwoven, it sometimes took 20 minutes to go as many yards. Stinging caterpillars dropped down on our exposed necks. My waterlogged leather boots were nearly sliced through by vines; they smelled like a damp catacomb. I had an angry rash across my chest, and Dylan diagnosed himself with the early stages of trench foot. We were also running low on provisions, with little remaining but corned beef and Hiway Hardman biscuits, but Lane cheerfully assured us we would be fine with no food for a few days. We hadn’t seen so much as a tree kangaroo claw mark or scat pile.

Carrying our heavy packs also slowed us down. On a high forested ridge, we decided to make a base camp. Hoping to capture a still shot of a tree kangaroo, Lane set up his motion-sensing camera trap every evening, but he only wound up taking inadvertent portraits of himself. One morning I heard a loud rustling outside my hammock and prayed that it was a tree kangaroo rifling through my pack. I sat up and watched as an enormous wild boar crashed its way down the ridge. The forest seemed spooky and echoing, and Lane speculated that this was the domain of the Nakanai’s dreaded one-armed, one-legged Pomeo people of local legend. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been to this place, too far for even the most ambitious native hunters to roam. Lane judged from the map that we were above a series of steep ravines that cut into the heart of the Nakanai wilderness.

Fallen logs held their shape but collapsed into compost at a touch. I could see the jungle’s soil being created before my eyes. On one steep section, I clung to a root, then slipped and fell into a rotten log. Thousands of furious inch-long red and black ants swarmed out, and some stung me, white-hot and electric. I was surprised by the sound of my own screaming, raspy and high-pitched, echoing through the forest as I tried to brush them off in panic. Lane looked up from below me, unconcerned. When I made it down to him, ant bites swelling across my stomach, he gave me a look that seemed to say, Suck it upkid, this is part of the deal.

We stumbled down into a dry creek bed, and I suggested to Dylan that he mark a notch in a fallen log so that we would know where to turn back up the ridge. As he swung, the blade of the machete glanced off the wood and sank into his knee, blood flowing down over his shin in rivulets. Dylan sat down, and we looked at the cut, a wide red smile just below the patella, going nearly to the bone. “Uh-oh,” said Lane, in a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Machete owie.” Dylan seemed unfazed. Part of the grand project with our tree kangaroo hunt, it seemed, was trying to make living itself hard work again. Dylan refused to turn back and wrapped a dirty bandanna around the wound to stanch the bleeding: a machete wound would proffer significant bragging rights back home.

We picked our way carefully over the mossy boulders of the streambed. After several hundred yards scrambling along the ravine, we came to an abrupt stop. The dry streambed dropped over a smooth saddle of rock and plunged straight down for 100 feet into an even deeper canyon. Lane told us we would need to return the following day with our ropes. We turned and began the long climb to our base camp, hundreds of vertical feet above us through the jungle.

Back in camp, the afternoon rains pounded down. Dylan tossed me a little envelope dug from the depths of his pack. It was a suture kit. Illuminating the wound with my headlamp, I used a syringe to wash it with rainwater, trying at least to get the mud out. I grasped the curved needle with tweezers and pushed it through the edge of the wound, then drew the suture through. I repeated this process through the top edge of the incision. Dylan directed me as I went, and I tied the thread into a sloppy but passable stitch, the wound closing like a Ziploc bag. With the next suture I hit a vein, and blood gushed down his shin. I tied it off again, and finally it was closed. “That’s a mean cut,” said Dylan, with a hint of pride. “Wicked!”

We returned to the waterfall in the morning, 200 feet of climbing rope looped over Dylan’s shoulder. Lane tied a secure anchor around several boulders. Despite his often laissez-faire approach to safety, Lane took preparations for the descent seriously. He clipped our line into the anchor and tossed it over the lip of the dry waterfall. One at a time, we rappelled into the abyss, kicking away from the mossy rock face and sliding down the line.

Limestone cliffs rose sheer above us and formed a slot canyon, as vertical gardens of ferns and orchids dripped down. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well. The sky was barely visible as we scrambled down the narrow canyon, and it seemed certain that no human had ever before been in this exact place. I was so lost in my ruminations about the wilderness that I almost ignored Lane’s warning to stop. I looked up and saw that we had come to the top of a second waterfall, probably twice as high as the first, and we were out of rope. It would be impossible to go any further. “I guess that’s the end of the line,” said Lane, looking out at the dark jungle valley below the falls. His voice didn’t sound frustrated or relieved, merely matter-of-fact that his endless search would now turn elsewhere, like Ahab with ADD. I wondered if, for him, it was not as much about finding things as looking for them. Not finding them just meant he had a reason to come back and try again.

An immense tangled tree jutted from the cliffs beyond the waterfall. I tried to will a silhouetted tree kangaroo to climb out along its branches and gaze down from its secret world, indifferent to our presence. Ethnotramp or not. Real or imaginary. I knew that wishing for it to appear was just another form of magical thinking. I knew that just proving the tree kangaroo’s existence was not likely to be the most effective way of saving this wilderness. And yet the forest beyond still seemed to glow with mystery and possibility. I did not want a world bereft of such secrets. I thought of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen-like acceptance when he failed to reach his eponymous goal in The Snow Leopard. “I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.” Looking out from the edge, I did not feel ashamed at our failure.

Having literally reached the end of our rope, we turned back up the canyon and scrambled to the base of the first waterfall, where our lifeline of rope hung down. Without it, we would be completely trapped. I attached a set of ascending devices to my harness and clipped into the line, inch-worming my way up the 100-foot rock face. Halfway up it started to rain, a driving vertical torrent, and water began to run down the slick, mossy wall. By the time I pulled myself over the top, the rain was blinding, pouring off broad leaves and filling the dry pools of the streambed. I perched on a log that had braced itself across the ravine.

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan pulled himself up, and by then the stream’s pools had filled and begun to join together, running in a steady flow over the edge. New streams burst in along the sides of the ravine, adding to the fast-rising torrent. The anchor for the climbing line was soon underwater, and the stream below cranked up to a muddy brown roar, cascading over the edge to where Lane was trying to climb up to us. Dylan scrambled up to my log, and we stared at each other, wordless at the chaos that had erupted below. I could not see Lane and feared he had been trapped by the flooding water, maybe swept downstream or pinned against the rock face by the flow. We were both powerless to help him, and we both knew that if he was hurt or trapped, it would take days for us to bring help. I thought of his friend Adam Bodine, drowned years ago. Lane’s adventure-promoting decision not to bring a satellite phone now seemed the height of hubris. A dull panic stirred in my stomach. The water pounded down from above and roared over the falls, the thin lifeline of rope stretched taut.

And then a hand splashed up, followed by another, followed by a waterlogged Sierra Nevada Brewery baseball cap. Lane dragged himself over the edge, stood in the knee-deep flow, and gasped for breath, the water running off him. He whooped, shouting for the first time since I’d met him: “That was epic! Super hairy.” I wondered if this moment of danger and then a last-minute reprieve was what he had been looking for all along.

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A Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo in captivity near Kimbe Bay in New Britain. (Photo by Matthew Power)

Nine

We were out of rope, out of time, and almost out of food. So the next day we made the long, treacherous descent back to the lake’s edge, where the raft waited. We paddled across the lake through driving rain, the mountains of the Nakanai receding in the distance.

When we returned to the camp, we were happy to find that the place hadn’t devolved into Lord of the Flies in our absence: There had been no nasty breakups or petty acts of violence, and no sticks had been sharpened at both ends. Even so, the Chico State students were more than ready to go home. The bois began breaking down the camp. Dylan and Sarah dismantled their lab and packed the specimens, hoping that something new to science was floating in one of the little jars or stacked in Tupperware. (Lane warned Dylan to be careful bringing specimens back through Australian customs. Last time, a giant cockroach had scuttled out from his baggage and customs had confiscated his penis gourd.)

We all stumbled over the shoulder of the volcano, back to the edge of the known world, the oil palms marching across the landscape in formation. In a few months, there would be little sign that anyone had ever been at the camp in the caldera, save a few collapsed stick beds decaying back into the earth. We were just visitors here, the ultimate introduced species.

I got a ride down from the plantation to the coast, into the little town of Kimbe Bay. Hundreds of Papuans bustled among the stalls of a market. A man tried to sell me a baby crocodile, its jaws bound shut with string. There was a small resort in town that catered to tourists, mostly foreign scuba divers who had come to explore the sunken World War II wrecks and coral reefs. A guard let me in the gate, and I walked down a path lined with bougainvillea and jasmine perfuming the humid air. Far to the back of the grounds, in the shade of a spreading tree, I saw it at last. It was perched on curved ebony claws, crouching upon a branch mounted to the inside of a 10-foot steel cage. Its long and impossibly soft brown-golden tail hung straight down, like the pendulum of a stopped clock. The creature turned slowly to watch me as I approached, its face placid, limpid. Its soft brown eyes looked out at the human world through a grid-pattern of bars. Wherever it was from and however it had arrived on this island, this tree kangaroo was a captive now to the dreams of men. It blinked sleepily, slowly turning and curling up on its branch.

Months later, I emailed Lane at home in California. He was back to the routines of ordinary life—his day job, hanging out with his kids—perhaps feeling as much a captive of the modern world as the creature I’d seen in the cage. He was trying to persuade the university and Sierra Nevada to get on board for another expedition next summer. Lane planned to return to New Britain regardless, despite—or because of—the fact that we had found nothing. The Eager Beaver, the tree kangaroo, the grand and noble plan of turning the Nakanai wilderness into a national park: All his obsessions derived from one prime motive. What Lane really wanted was to strike out in search of lost things in our networked, globalized, utterly found world.

Looking back he still felt, given his crippling budgetary limitations and the elusive nature of his quarry, that the expedition had been a success. He recognized all the things we could have done differently in our search for the tree kangaroo: Hired local hunters with dogs, gone from village to village with photographs, or offered a bounty for its capture. But Lane felt that he had made some progress toward the larger goal, building relationships with the native landowners and the plantation. And perhaps some of what Dylan had collected would be new species to science. “The unknowns, the unexpected, or just bad luck can be debilitating,” Lane told me. “At times I wonder how bad can it continue to get, and sometimes I think about throwing in the towel, but overcoming those situations is extremely empowering.”

Lane’s dream now was to persuade the native landowners to build an ecotourism resort where the base camp stood. He envisioned kayaking, canyoneering, cave exploration, and bird-watching. Tourists would come from around the world to see the Hargy caldera. Of course, the logistics would be formidable. Where would he find the money to construct permanent structures? How would they build at such a remote site, miles from the nearest road? How would they train the Nakanai villagers to run it, given Western expectations of creature comforts? And then there were the crocodiles and scorpions and giant spiders. Lane understood all those things, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “It takes time, money, patience, and fortitude,” he said, “but most of all, I have to keep moving forward and trying.”

Next year, he told me, he was going to build a zip line.

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In Memoriam
Matthew Power
(1974-2014)

Before the Swarm

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Before the Swarm

Intrepid naturalist Mark Moffett is tracking an ant species on a march toward bug-world domination. What a controversial theory of insect society may tell us about our own.

By Nicholas Griffin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 03


Nicholas Griffin is the author of four novels and one work of nonfiction. He lives in New York City. His next book comes out in 2013.


Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Cover Photo and Portraits: Brandon Harrison
Additional Research and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Ant Photography: Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures
Original Botfly Video: Paul Thomson, Yale University
Special Thanks: The Evolution Store, New York City, http://theevolutionstore.com/

Published in March 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Embedded

When I shook Mark Moffett’s right hand, I glanced at his left and noticed it was swollen with a distinct red mound the size of a grape. He followed my gaze. “Have you met my botfly?” he asked, grinning. It was late October, and we were standing outside a research station at the foot of the Sierra Nombre de Dios, in northern Honduras. Or at least Moffett and I were standing: His botfly, a white maggot that had been implanted through a mosquito bite and had grown to three quarters of an inch in length, was apparently dead.

“I could see its breathing tube, but then I banged my hand on a door, and I think I’ve killed it,” he said, sounding disappointed.

“Does it hurt?”

“No … it’s dead.”

“Should it be removed before we head into the rainforest?”

“No,” said Moffett. “I’m waiting for my body to absorb it.”

Moffett, one of the world’s leading naturalists, is 52, red-bearded, barrel-chested, and prone to wearing sandals while walking in rainforests or lecturing at New York City intellectual clubs. He spends most of the year traveling. In his closet at his office in Greenport, Long Island, hangs one tweed jacket and a single bow tie with a pattern of orange butterflies.

He had come to Honduras to, as he put it, “look for critters.” Kathy Moran, a senior editor at National Geographic, says that, “in an age when we’re all used to wearing one hat, Mark needs an entire rack.” Moffett holds a Harvard Ph.D. in entomology, is an accomplished scientist, an award-winning author and journalist, one of the best nature photographers of his generation, and an aspiring comedian. Long ago, he left academia to trudge through jungles, occasionally cheating death, drawn by the odd behavior and extraordinary complexity of some of the world’s most neglected creatures.

The northern Honduran climate is so stifling that even the October cold season is hot. The downpours came every afternoon and lasted hours. Honduras is jaguar territory, but Moffett doesn’t care for big cats. Though he’s been shooting for National Geographic for 25 years, the appearance of feline cubs or baby polar bears on magazine covers makes his eyes roll. Moffett’s favorite creature, the ant, is a lot less lovable. (The bullet ant is among his favorites. It sits at the top of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which compares its bite to “firewalking over flaming charcoal with a rusty nail in your heel.”) “Ants,” Moffett tells me, “are melodrama.” They forage and fight, build and destroy. “You can take a box of dirt with a colony in it, stare at it for two weeks, and know the ins and outs of their society,” he says. The fact that ant society is generally dictated by hierarchy and specialization makes it all the more interesting to a man who can’t seem to stand either one.

When Moffett walks, it’s always with his heavy camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, in one hand. It has a short, thick lens and is custom-mounted with additional flashes and batteries. Around his neck is a jeweler’s loupe, a minuscule high-powered magnifier, vital for getting a close look at the tiny specimens he pinches up from the ground. Moffett wanders haltingly, prodding stones, overturning logs, staring up tree trunks, breaking apart rotting wood, snapping dead vines. He’s been known to spend months in the field looking for individual species and then pass entire days sitting cross-legged, waiting to capture a single moment of curious behavior.

Moffett has devoted years to the study of Hymenoptera, the order of insects that includes wasps, bees, and ants. It is a line of work that also kept such men as Charles Darwin and Alfred Kinsey occupied, as well as Moffett’s mentor, E. O. Wilson. Many of the biggest ideas to have rocked science in the past 150 years have come from studying the societies buzzing around us.

On this particular expedition, Moffett is looking for evidence to support a still controversial theory: that ants form superorganisms—colonies that effectively function as a single body. In Honduras he’s in search of two of the most pronounced examples: hyperaggressive army ants, which move in killing columns and bivouac in a living ball on the forest floor, and leafcutters , the agriculturalists of the ant world. The latter, Moffett points out, have been farming on a large scale for at least 12 million years longer than we have.

Last year, Moffett released a book, Adventures Among Ants, to widespread acclaim, lectured across America, including at the Smithsonian, Caltech, and the World Science Festival, and was a guest (for the third time) on The Colbert Report. The media has been dreaming up new names for him: the Indiana Jones of Entomology, the Jane Goodall of Ants, and the Martha Stewart of Dirt. On his Web site he calls himself Dr. Bugs.

Some fellow scientists, however, can have other words for him. The more he crisscrosses the lines separating television, books, lectures, adventure, and biology, the further removed he becomes from the academic world he sprang from. His critics accuse him of passing off observation as science. Reviewing Moffett’s book in the journal Nature, Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, wrote that Moffett “wants to be the first to see a new ant escapade and capture it on film, not to test hypotheses.” Another scientific journal critiqued his “chatty paragraphs.” It noted Moffett’s “willingness to dispense with rigor in the face of a compelling tale” and accused him of “storytelling gone amok.” “He earns a living as a photographer, not as an entomologist,” Gordon told me. “He’s not out collecting data to test hypotheses and establish new results. He’s not asking the community of scientists to evaluate the data. There’s a game we play, and he’s not in that game.”

Moffett, however, values his independence above all things. He calls universities places “filled with nervous people.” He survives on book advances, lecture money, grants, and National Geographic assignments. He maintains attachments to Harvard and the Smithsonian; they are prestigious but unpaid. “That way I don’t have to be indentured to anything,” he says. He has often lived without health insurance or savings, juggling television-news appearances, chat shows, Web interviews, newspaper reporters, magazine columns. He also posts videos to YouTube that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Moffett traverses the boundaries between science, adventure, and journalism, and he believes none should exclude the other. He seems to agree fully with a sentiment expressed by Charles Darwin in 1856, that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” And with his latest theory, he intends to prove it.

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Moffett believes that a new understanding of ant colonies will illuminate human urbanization. (Photo by Brandon Harrison)

2. ‘Pheidole Moffetti’

Moffett wasn’t always outgoing. Like many biologists who spend their lives devoted to an unloved species, he had an introspective childhood. He was born in the tiny town of Salida, Colorado, and his father, a Presbyterian minister, remembers Moffett giving individual names to the ants and insects that passed through their backyard. “Through graduate school, I was very shy and reclusive,” Moffett says. He credits the change to his camera. “Once I learned to tell stories with pictures, I found that people would be interested in me in a natural way, and I would flow into the kinds of stories I tell now.”

During his preteen years, his family moved to Wisconsin, and he started attending meetings at the Wisconsin Herpetological Society, a place populated, he says, by “a mixture of serious scientists and bizarre amateurs.” Max Nickerson, the eminent herpetologist who founded the society, says Moffett was “the youngest member—easily.” The majority were master’s candidates. Moffett was 12 years old.

Three years later, his father left the church and became a career counselor at Beloit College, near the Illinois border. Moffett, never one to let classes interfere with his education, dropped out of high school and began to work casually as a research assistant to the college’s biologists. Liberal Beloit turned a blind eye to his missing diploma and let him enroll. Determined to be an autodidact, he avoided any courses that coincided with his interests, roaming from German to psychology, music to anthropology. To this day, he’s never taken a class in entomology.

His first break came at 17, when Nickerson invited him on a species-collection research trip to Costa Rica. Because he had once caught a black-tailed rattler by himself in Arizona, and perhaps because of a dearth of volunteers for the role, Moffett was given the job of snake wrangler. While biologists with long poles wrested poisonous vipers from trees overhanging rivers, Moffett would stand in the water beneath and catch them. He used one hand to break their fall and the other to grab for the backs of their heads to avoid being bitten. He felt so at home in the jungle that he kept a wild pet in his tent, a Hercules beetle the size of a man’s fist. It ate a banana a day and kept him awake at night with its heavy breathing. Nickerson was soon surprised to find his teenage apprentice pursuing his own fieldwork on insects. It was, he says, “the sort of experimental design I’d expect from a master’s candidate.”

By the age of 20, Moffett’s name was already appearing in scientific publications for work he had done chasing lizards, snakes, and butterflies across Central and South America. Still, Moffett’s heart remained with his “unloved ants,” an affection that had been cemented when he read a book called The Insect Societies, by Harvard professor E. O. Wilson. He still remembers it as “an awesome book full of arcane mysteries.” On a whim, Moffett wrote Wilson and asked if he might visit the world’s most famous entomologist. Wilson replied simply, “Come by.”

If Wilson was surprised to see Moffett when the young man tapped on his office door, he didn’t let on. One was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a high school dropout with a few academic citations. Moffett’s first words were “Hi, Ed.” Until he enrolled at Harvard, Moffett wouldn’t realize how presumptuous his behavior had been. What was important was that the great scientist shared his enthusiasm. “It was like being with another boy who loved ants,” remembers Moffett.

Wilson encouraged Moffett to apply to Harvard’s biology department for his Ph.D., and then selected Moffett as his only graduate student for seven straight years. What Moffett hadn’t learned by avoiding entomology classes he discovered instead in the lab and out in the field. The University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology housed the department, and it was home to the world’s largest collection of ants. Moffett would open compartments at random, searching for a species interesting enough to study. In the corner of one drawer, he spotted an ant whose enormous major workers, the heavy lifters and warriors of the colony, measured 500 hundred times the size of their minor colleagues. He eventually gave the ants their common name, marauders. Their main habitat was in South Asia, an area ideally situated for Moffett’s traveling tastes: hot and cheap.

Moffett left for India the moment he received his first research grant. Most scientists would drift back to their academic home after a few months; Moffett stayed for two and a half years. After three months at Harvard, he left again. Though he admits that the university contained a few “marvelous pools of positive energy, including Wilson’s lab,” Moffett says he spent as little time there as possible. “I’d already figured out that I could live in Asia for six months on $100,” he says. From abroad, he mailed fresh articles to Harvard, balancing remote research with mainstream academia.

Moffett was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Wilson, a man so closely associated with fieldwork that he titled his autobiography Naturalist. Recently, Wilson was asked if there was anyone he considered an intellectual heir. He replied, “I’m especially proud of Mark Moffett. He’s a real naturalist, more than I.” Wilson even named an ant species Pheidole moffetti. According to the professor, its genus is both “dominant and hyperdiverse.” According to Moffett, it’s simply “a bigheaded ant.”

But Wilson’s status as a grand old man of science was achieved in part by tempering the naturalist impulse with the rigors of a university existence, something his protégé has little tolerance for. Moffett admits to problems with “pretty much all authority.” “To have someone tell me what to do in biology never made sense to me,” he says. “I don’t like exams. I don’t like giving exams, and I don’t like meetings.”

National Geographic’s Kathy Moran points to this as “perhaps the one weakness” in Moffett’s diverse career. As a biologist who taught himself to tell stories, a photographer who understands narrative, a man who can entrance audiences, he is obviously a teacher. Moran points to the fact that had Moffett stayed within academia, “he would already have a generation of scientists generating buzz” on his behalf. Wilson, at 81, has certainly benefited from the rise of his disciples to scientific prominence. Moffett chose to find his community in places more remote.

3. Shot From an Inch Away

As a grad student, Moffett thrived in the field. His lodgings in Sullia, India, had no running water, electricity, or toilet, but he was delighted to be on the ground with the marauders. To document his observations, he began taking photography seriously. He spent time with a species of swarming ants and immediately noticed something about them that seemed peculiarly Indian: Minor workers hitched rides on the back of the giant majors like mahouts and their passengers being ferried by elephants.

Moffett bought a book on how to shoot supermodels and shrank the process down to ant size, using three $15 flash attachments that jolted him with electric shocks. He’d received a small grant from the National Geographic Society, and Moffett, saving money by pushing his luck, mailed six rolls of film to the magazine and asked if they could be developed on his behalf. In response he received a Telex announcing that a staff writer was coming to India to meet him. As Moffett recalls, the cornflakes at the hotel breakfast in Bangalore cost more than he spent in a week.

The magazine had developed the photographs on the off chance that Moffett had produced a single usable frame, and the prints soon found their way to Mary Smith, a National Geographic editor who had worked with Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey. She fell in love with Moffett’s work; he was, she said, the only person who could make ants “look glamorous.” Moffett was baffled by the attention, since he hadn’t seen the developed photographs. To his surprise, he was made a National Geographic photographer, and he has taken pictures for the magazine for 25 years. (Moffett photos have appeared in several anthologies of the magazine’s best work.)

Moffett’s success as a photographer springs from a combination of technique, patience, and doggedness. No matter how aggressive the species, most of his photographs are taken from an inch away. He has spent hours sitting in dirt or dangling from a rope tied off against a tree branch, 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy. Sometimes he’ll stand six feet from an ant hill, binoculars pressed to his eyes, losing track of his surroundings. In Thailand, he once crawled after a trail of ants for hours, until he bumped his head against the foot of a bull elephant. It stared at him, blinked slowly, and moved away.

Elephants aren’t the most dangerous thing Moffett has run into. In Iran he was part of a group of American biologists who had been targeted by kidnappers. But the group was running late, and a bus of Italian tourists was seized by mistake. “It was our loss,” he says. “They were fed well, kept in a very interesting mountain habitat, and released in a few days.” Searching for the world’s most toxic frog—a side project—in Colombia’s Chocô region, Moffett hired a suspected narcotics trafficker to lead him into a rainforest valley. Not far from what Moffett describes as a “slimy coastal town,” he found himself negotiating between his armed guide and the valley’s residents, the latter carrying blowpipes.

In his 1994 book The High Frontier, Moffett recounts attaching his harness to a tree by using a crossbow to shoot ropes around the limbs. Suspended at 150 feet, he lost control of his line and cartwheeled into a surprise discovery—an ant’s nest. During a rapid descent from the canopy in a rainstorm, he was electrocuted by his own camera equipment. As Wilson once said, “I don’t know how he’s still alive.”

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A leafcutter worker transporting a leaf with smaller ants aboard to defend against predators.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)
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Moffett photographs a researcher inserting transmitter in viper in Tam Dao, Vietnam.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

4. Nature’s Risks

For safety as much as for company and cost, Moffett occasionally coordinated his perpetual fieldwork with biologists from other disciplines. One such companion was the herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a cobra specialist and the founder of the herpetology department at the California Academy of Sciences. The two biologists had become friends during a lecture stint Moffett accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, and they bonded over their mutual fascination with “disrespected creatures.” Slowinski called Moffett “bro.” Moffett believed they looked alike. They shared a passion for intrepid research, and Moffett would later write that he was captivated by the fact that Slowinski’s “habitual expression of sheer uninhibited wonder was matched by a precise and agile mind.” Over pizza at La Val’s in Berkeley in the summer of 2001, Slowinski invited Moffett to be part of a team that would conduct a general species inventory in the mountainous region of northern Burma.

In early September, the group began their walk near 1,400-foot Machan Baw village, an old British outpost, with a plan to climb to 10,000 feet. From the beginning, Moffett says, the journey was “tough going.” It was monsoon season, and the trails had turned to mud. Every evening they would pick leeches from their legs; every morning they would spit tobacco juice onto their skin to keep the bloodsuckers away. Moffett remembers that the rain puddles they walked through “were red with blood.” Slowinski, the expedition’s leader, was the only biologist who stuck with shorts and sandals.

Slowinski grew increasingly frustrated. Most of his energy had gone into coordinating food and research supplies. He suspected he’d been overcharged, while Moffett suspected his friend was being worn down by minutiae and the trail of bickering biologists, “each one with his own agenda.”

A week into their trek, when the team was still treading through subtropical forests, a Burmese field assistant returned to camp with a small cloth bag. As he passed the bag to Slowinski, he told him it contained a harmless Dinodon snake. Slowinski, like Moffett, had always been inclined to examine a specimen up close. He reached in and removed his hand, a thin gray snake attached to the tip of his finger. “That’s a fucking krait,” he said.

Moffett watched as Slowinski examined his finger closely, trying to determine if the tiny fangs had fully punctured his skin. The herpetologist knew that a krait’s poison is 15 times more potent than a cobra’s—the safest thing to do this far out in the jungle would be to cut the digit off. Slowinski opted not to. Within the hour, he realized he had made a serious error.

When Moffett thinks back now, he knows that both of them were comfortable “accepting the risks in nature.” Slowinski had been bitten in the field before, and sometimes a snake can bite without injecting toxins. Years before, when Moffett had been studying marauders, he had sat on the head of a fer-de-lance, a snake even more poisonous and many times larger than Slowinski’s krait. Moffett had jumped up, and the terrified reptile had hurled itself away from him.

Slowinski gathered Moffett and the rest of the biologists together and explained what would happen to his body if the neurotoxins spread through his system. They radioed for help as Slowinski advised them how to keep him alive. His mind would remain sharp, he explained, even as his body began to shut down. Moffett listened as his friend described how he would first lose control of his arms and legs, until he’d be forced to signal with a toe. Then he would appear comatose, and they would have to do his breathing for him. It was September 11, 2001. Their radio operator had heard the news from New York and Washington and had kept it to himself. They waited for a rescue helicopter to arrive. “Much of the time,” Moffett would write, “was spent in simple exhausted witness,” standing over Slowinski’s body.

The biologists stared at the sky. It rained heavily all afternoon, and the last hope of a helicopter rescue disappeared. Moffett and his fellow biologists continued massaging Slowinski’s heart for hours after he died. I asked Moffett if he changed his behavior in the field after what happened. “It’s not worth the trouble in life to become panicked about things,” he said. Then he paused. “We’re surrounded by the wondrous all the time.”

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A trap-jaw ant prepares to catch its prey, in Tiputini, Ecuador.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

5. When the Small Idea Is Big

The path Moffett chose has precedents, albeit from another century. Like all biologists, he’s an admirer of Charles Darwin. But he is a disciple of Darwin’s great rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. The two 19th-century giants had traveled separately and arrived at their theories of evolution simultaneously. To Moffett’s mind, however, Darwin had it easy; family money enabled him to devote himself to his ideas. Wallace, like Moffett, was lower middle class and spent a lifetime scrambling to support his calling as a naturalist—working as a civil engineer, teaching mapmaking, grading government examinations, and editing the work of lesser colleagues.

A hundred and fifty years later, Moffett has sought richer possibilities without wandering from the naturalist’s path. Yet the more he has insisted on creating his own world, the further he’s moved from the strictures of modern science. In his published work, for example, he doesn’t present a single idea at a time. In Adventures Among Ants, Moffett took the unusual step of including, by my count, nine hypotheses. He writes of the origins of army ant attack strategies and ponders how the practice of slavery among species in California might have originated as a form of food hoarding. Woven into his adventure narrative rather than explicated in peer-reviewed papers, his hypotheses have mostly been ignored by his fellow scientists.

Moffett, however, desires to be more than just an adventurer or a scientific journalist with a camera and a Ph.D. from Harvard. These days he isn’t merely looking to discover new ant species, though that’s always a pleasure. He wants to change the way humans regard our own world, and he wants to do that by pushing his mentor’s ideas into uncharted realms.

E. O. Wilson began his career by observing insect societies, and in his 40s he pioneered the idea of using those societies to help explain humankind. Among his most original, and most controversial, suggestions, laid out in 1975’s Sociobiology, was the idea that evolution plays a strong role in our own social organizations. According to Wilson, after hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we aren’t so much a tabula rasa as an accumulation of inherited experiences. He argued that there were limits on how much our behavior could be altered. At a time when America was passing from free love to disco, he argued that free will was partially an illusion. Though he devoted only the last chapter of his book to humans, Wilson was accused of biological determinism, as if humans shouldn’t be considered part of nature alongside the ants, wasps, and termites.

Thirty years later, Moffett is taking Wilson’s reverse anthropomorphism a step further and using ants to explain the design of our urbanized world. It’s Moffett’s contention that all societies, be they ant or human, follow the same rules as they grow in size and complexity. Highways and infrastructure, public health and safety, market economics, assembly lines and teamwork, division of labor, warfare, slavery and terrorism—all tend to emerge among ants, as they do among humans, not because of genetic similarities but because their vast societies require them.

It is both a fresh idea and a simple one. The 21st century is marked by ever increasing urbanization: 79 percent of Americans live in towns or cities, while China has 150 cities with more than 1 million people, all of which are still growing. When it comes to organizing millions of individuals, however, we’re rookies. Ants are the veterans.

A hundred years ago, a predecessor of Wilson’s at Harvard named William Morton Wheeler was considered one of the great scientists of his day. Among his contributions was the idea of the superorganism: the notion that in species such as ants, a colony should be considered a single being. Among other varieties, Wheeler concentrated his studies on the army ants that Moffett and I are pursuing in Honduras. The workers act as brain cells, Wheeler surmised, roving for intelligence; the queen is the womb; soldiers are the hands that defend and attack. Superorganism theory was forgotten until the 1970s, then resurrected, co-opted, and debated.

Moffett is looking to move beyond simple metaphors about ant colonies developing like organs in bodies, and he has adapted the superorganism concept to his own ends. A colony, Moffett believes, is fundamentally like an organism because it behaves as an absolute, unbreakable unit with a common identity. Ants literally wear this identity in the form of pheromones, as a scent. It signifies to their colony mates that they are connected to one another and simultaneously implies that all other organisms are foreigners to be avoided or attacked. The arrangement is similar to white blood cells that combat bacteria and other intruders in our bodies based on the absence of a recognizable biochemical stamp.

One particular species, Moffett believes, is leading the superorganism theory into new territory: the Argentine ant. Argentines are the only animal species other than humans that have learned to manage societies with billions of members. They have turned their superorganisms into what some scientists, including Moffett, call supercolonies: Argentine nests have expanded by territorial conquest across four continents, devastating other ant species along the way. When they reached the United States by steamer in the 1890s, there wasn’t a true competitor in sight. A hundred and twenty years later, the unimaginatively named Very Large Colony of Southern California has approximately 1 trillion members. It is one of four Argentine-ant colonies in the Golden State, and they are constantly warring with one another; each one derived from a separate, tiny colony back in Argentina. In Southern California, biologist David Holway of the University of California, San Diego estimates that the Argentine wars claimed as many as 30 million lives last year, between two of the colonies alone. Their bodies lie three-deep in piles in San Diego suburbs, hidden under the grass of mowed lawns.

The Argentines’ taste for warfare is aided by a key evolutionary adaptation. Instead of producing queens that fly off to form new colonies with new identities, they gamble on related queens that remain and breed together. In an average colony, a queen takes flight, mates midair with a male from another colony, and quickly looks for a place to establish her own nest. Once settled, she makes no decisions, focusing exclusively on the task of producing offspring. Her workers feed her, clean her, and dispose of her waste. And when she dies, the colony dies with her.

The Argentines’ outrageous success depends partly on their production of broods that can mix freely with one another: The ants, despite being born of different mothers, still consider themselves kin. Moffett contends that with this strategy, Argentine ants have rewritten the rules of life. “What it means is that their colonies have broken the usual ant cycle of birth and death,” he told me. “In a way, they’ve learned to never die.” Holway has spent ten years of his life studying Argentines and has written nearly 50 papers on the subject. “At a supercolony level,” he says, “they’re essentially immortal.” The genetic differences within the vast colony are small, and those tiny variations don’t prevent the ants from recognizing their common identity as the colony expands—even as, in the case of the Very Large Colony, it has expanded for more than a century. The ants’ loyalty applies only within their own society, however. Other Argentines are as much of an enemy as any other species of ant. (The species also evolved another specialty: Because of the rigors of their Argentinean habitat, they adapted to fight all day long. They have formed an army that never sleeps.)

In his description of supercolonies, Moffett again finds himself running afoul of at least part of the scientific establishment. Stanford’s Deborah Gordon sums up the opposition: “There is no functional supercolony of Argentine ants, no single giant colony stretching for miles, much less across the globe.”

Holway counters that Moffett’s is an unusual but valuable perspective, based in part on his desire to explore beyond the academic realm. Moffett considers his theory a parallel to human experience. “Imagine coming to this world,” Moffett says, “and looking first at a group of a dozen Bushmen around a campfire, then going directly to China with its population of over a billion. You’d think there was something fundamentally different between the two, but a child could be taken from one society to the other and survive without a problem. The key for the Argentine ants remains the strength of their identity, the ability to recognize their own society despite living miles apart in different environments and never having met.” Concludes Moffett: “The Argentines are just as versatile as we are.”

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A leafcutter ant cutting a papaya leaf, Guadaloupe.  (Photo by: Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

6. Empire State

Back in Honduras, Moffett was looking to observe the superorganism phenomenon in two collections of ants that hadn’t yet had to face the Argentine menace: leafcutters and army ants. Though climate change could expand their horizons, the Honduran rainforest remains too tropical for the Argentines’ tastes. When night fell, we spent an hour sweating our way up toward the cloud forest to a leafcutter nest Moffett had identified the day before. He estimated it contained around a half-million ants, a modest community in Moffett’s experience. In daylight the nest had been quiet, but Moffett suspected the ants would be hard at work at night. He moved around it with his flashlight, explaining the leafcutters’ agricultural life. The scene looked like a football stadium after a late-night game—thousands pouring out into the darkness, lit as if by floodlights.

With the beam of his flashlight, Moffett followed a column returning from a tree 60 feet away. If you were a leafcutter, he said, you’d be humping the equivalent of 750 pounds of vegetation. That would be a weight lifting record, except that instead of holding it for a few seconds, you’d have to jog three miles, including straight down the side of the Empire State Building. Luckily, once the ants reached the ground, their colleagues had cleared a vast highway to ease their progress. The roads leafcutters pave through the middle of the rainforest are wide and smooth, with sharp, well-defined curbs. Humans often mistake them for man-made paths and follow them into the rainforest, only to find themselves lost.

The ants don’t eat the leaf segments they carry. Instead, they chew the foliage into a mulch, and that mulch is fed upon by a fungus—the ants’ true food source. The nest works to keep the fungus properly fed, watered, and free of pests, making leafcutters the only creature other than humans and a few termites to farm on such an elaborate scale. Moffett explains that as ant societies grow larger, the need for organization and specialization increases. Among the ants are specialists in hygiene, sanitation, road building, defense. There are ants that carry a strain of bacteria to fight off pests that attack the fungus, and those that use their mouthparts to manually groom the crop. Traffic regulations are introduced in the larger colonies, where ants keep to one side. To follow the trail, they need a chemical scent. The smell is strong: One milligram of pheromone would be enough to lure a column of workers around the world multiple times.

A heavy rain began to fall without any warning drizzle. The rain itself was the signal, no chemicals necessary. The leafcutters dropped their cargo and, in a stream, poured toward the safety of the nest. Moffett stood looking down at the abandoned leaf segments.

While many biologists confer only with their colleagues, Moffett explores freely across disciplines. When he wanted to challenge the belief that leafcutters must be in constant communication while they harvested leaves, he turned not to other myrmecologists but to Henry Ford’s biographer, who explained that once efficiency had been established, Ford deliberately designed his factories to maximize productivity and minimize communication. Moffett believes leafcutters evolved to behave similarly.

Moffett also corresponds with Luis Bettencourt, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who, with his colleague Geoffrey West, created the field of urban science, developing rules and formulas for our own ever expanding cities. West and Bettencourt can predict, for example, exactly how much electricity a city of 1 million will need to sustain itself or the surface area that a city of 500,000 devotes to transportation. It doesn’t matter whether the city is in South Korea, Germany, or the U.S.—according to West, “Every city is the same.” He argues that “every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating.” West applies the principle to humans, but Moffett believes that ants, too, abide by it. Basiceros singularis are Ecuadoran ants, hunter-gatherers that live in small groups of a dozen, including their queen. They move only a tiny bit faster than their prey: snails. Yet in larger groups, as with leafcutters and army ants, the speed of their movement and productivity is stunning. “To me it’s obvious,” Moffett says. “Any New Yorker has much more in common with a leafcutter society than with any primate society. Chimpanzees don’t have traffic pileups or public-health issues. They don’t need to organize assembly lines to make their food. Leafcutters do.”

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An argentine ant (bottom) grabs the leg of a fire ant during a battle.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

7. The Hunt

We were not alone at the research station. Every once in a while as we walked through the rainforest, a flash would suddenly go off, and Moffett would grin. Three young Honduran biologists, part of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, had been setting camera traps for jaguars along the jungle paths.

The field biologists were working 18-hour days in rain and mud. Moffett sympathized. He knew exactly what it was like to go without a hot meal for months. While treating them to dinner one night, Moffett used what he calls his “ice breaker.” During our walk, he’d gathered a couple of trap-jaw ants. Their mandibles are controlled by trigger hairs activated by any object brushing against them. They snap shut at 145 miles an hour, the fastest muscle action of any animal on the planet. Under threat, such as sitting on a dinner table and being prodded by a bearded naturalist, the ant will deliberately dip its head and snap its jaws shut, launching itself backward to escape. If they were human, they’d be setting records for the high jump at 44 feet and the long jump at 132 feet. The laughing biologists plucked the from their dinner plates.

After dinner, Moffett was invited by the team’s young herpetologist, Mario Solis, for a walk in the rainforest in search of poisonous snakes. Solis carried three flashlights. “Once,” he said, “I had to make it down the mountain with just the light from my telephone.” Though Moffett was 52 and Solis still in his 20s, the age difference melted away through common interests. The two men would pause behind me, seeing what I missed: wolf spiders spread across a leaf, milk and rat snakes looping from trees branches. At one point, a tarantula shot across the trail. “They’re fast,” I said. “They have to be,” said Moffett, “otherwise the females eat them.”

The two men shared stories as they walked. Solis talked about setting a camera trap and feeling a sharp pain in his hand, then recoiling to see an army ant scout cutting into his skin. He looked ahead and saw that the green jungle in front of him was turning black. Tens of thousands of ants were rushing through the undergrowth, plant by plant. Army ants can travel at five miles per hour in columns of millions. Solis turned and sprinted down the jungle path.

Solis promised us that his team would keep their eyes open for army ants during the next few days. Moffett smiled at me. “They’re out here somewhere,” he said. He wanted me to