'Bring 'Em Back Alive': How one explorer changed what we know about animals
Author and filmmaker Frank Buck was an early voice for animal conservation, but his techniques would anger today's animal activists.
Mon, Jan 06, 2014 at 03:10 PM
A circus broadsheet from one of Buck's live performances.
Adventurer. Author. Conservationist. Filmmaker. Educator. Frank Buck was all of those things and more. The mustachioed, pith-helmeted explorer isn't all that well remembered today, but 80 years ago he was a celebrity of the highest order and he brought some of the world's most wild, dangerous and exotic creatures to audiences in America and around the world.
Born in Texas in 1884, the young Frank Buck possessed both a love of animals and a yearning for adventure. In 1911, after winning $3,500 in a poker game, his two loves dovetailed. Buck traveled to Brazil, where he began a lifetime of collecting exotic animals. The first birds he netted in Brazil earned him a healthy profit in New York, and those profits kicked off 18 years of animal collecting. Buck and his team of workers would travel the world to capture exotic animals, transport them back to America, sell them to zoos, and then head out back on the road.
In 1930, after losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash, Buck recounted his adventures in the first of several bestselling books, "Bring 'Em Back Alive" (co-authored with Edward Anthony). The opening lines hooked readers:
Almost any animal is dangerous when aroused. In 1926 I came close to being killed by a tapir, the meekest of animals.I was in Sumatra assembling a group of specimens that included some pythons, Sumatra hornbills, langur monkeys, civet cats, porcupines, a siamang gibbon and a tapir.Normally it would have been safe to bet that the pythons would make more trouble for me than the rest of this collection put together. But this was not a normal situation. It was the tapir that won the Trouble Sweepstakes, breezing in with several lengths to spare.
The first chapter also summarized some of Buck's philosophy about wild animals — and humans:
The experience proved to me all over again how foolish it is to generalize about animals. I've seen two tigers, for instance, animals of the same sex and age and caught at the same time, display utterly different characteristics. One grew so tame that after a few weeks I was putting my hand inside its cage and stroking the back of its neck; the other became more and more vicious, until the process of feeding it involved real danger and required absolute caution.It isn't much less intelligent to generalize about animals than it is to generalize about people. It's about as sensible to say, "Elephants are kind," or "elephants are mean," or "tapirs can be trusted," or "tapirs can't be trusted," as it is to say flatly that all human beings are noble, or the opposite of that proposition. One finds almost as much variety in animal character as one does in human character.
A massive success, "Bring 'Em Back Alive" led to a series of films, starting with the 1932 documentary of the same name. The movie pioneered many of the nature documentary techniques we see today by hiding a camera behind blinds and letting animals come into the shot. The technique needed some refinement, as it often left Buck and his director in crew in danger and forced them to flee the scene. Among its many scenes, the film documents an epic struggle between a python and a crocodile (the snake wins after breaking the crocodile's back), and then a full-on battle between the same python and a tiger, which only ends when the snake becomes exhausted. At this point, Buck captures the snake and, yes, he brings it back alive.
Buck followed with more books and more movies. Although many shots in his films were staged, the danger in many cases was real, as you can see in this brief clip in which a python "escapes" from a box in Buck's camp. Most of the shots look crudely staged by today's standards, but when the python raises its head and bares its six-inch-long fangs at Buck, the threat is absolutely real:
Buck also spent years doing live shows, first for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and then for the 1939 World's Fair, where "Frank Buck's Jungleland" featured three trained elephants, 600 monkeys, a gaggle of rare birds and a trained orangutan.
Buck's celebrity continued for another decade and beyond. He wrote books and made films until 1949. He died in 1950 at the age of 66. His books remained in print and his movies aired on television for years. "Bring 'Em Back Alive" was adapted as a popular "Classics Illustrated" comic book in 1953 and then as a briefly-lived TV show starring Bruce Boxleitner in 1982.
Since then, Buck's star has faded. The techniques he used to capture animals would be frowned upon today — to say the least — as an essay on the Turner Classic Movies website about the film "Wild Cargo" points out: "... it's hard to watch as he snatches animal after animal from its natural habitat with the fervor of a Costco cardholder cramming his cart with bargains."
Despite the understandable criticism, Buck has an important legacy. For one thing, many people in the first half of the last century would never have seen a tiger, orangutan, Indian rhino, tapir or other exotic creature if not for his work. He was also an early advocate for the conservation of rare species. He stood out from many of his contemporaries, who often hunted and killed the animals they sought. And Buck's books and films remain a testament to a wild era that has now all but disappeared. Many of the species he encountered are now endangered, or no longer have the opportunity reach the size they did back in Buck's day. As a piece of history, Frank Buck's work remains vital, and we are lucky that he captured live images of many of these species in their native habitats before they disappeared.
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