April & Paris
Caught in the web of nature.
By David Sedaris
While watching TV one recent evening, I stumbled upon a nature program devoted to the subject of making nature programs. The cameraman’s job was to catch a bird of paradise in full display, so he dug himself a hole, covered it with branches, and sat inside it for three weeks.
This was in New Guinea, where the people used to wear sexy loincloths but now stand around in T-shirts reading “I survived the 2002 IPC Corporate Challenge Weekend.”
A villager might wear a pair of gym shorts and then add a fanny pack or a sun visor with the name of a riverboat casino stitched onto the brim.
I suppose that these things came from a relief organization. Either that or a cruise ship went down and this was what had washed up onshore.
I’ll wager that quite a few sun visors found their way to Southeast Asia after the tsunami. One brutal news story after another, and it went on for weeks. The phone numbers of aid organizations would skitter across the bottom of the TV screen, and I recall thinking that if they wanted serious donations they ought to show a puppy.
People I know, people who had never before contributed to charity, emptied their pockets when a cocker spaniel was shown standing on a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina hit, eight months later. “What choice did I have?” they asked. “That poor little thing looked into the camera and penetrated my very soul.”
The eyes of the stranded grandmother, I noted, were not half as piercing. There she was, clinging to a chimney with her bra strap showing, and all anyone did was wonder if she had a dog. “I’d hate to think there’s a Scotty in her house, maybe trapped on the first floor. What’s the number of that canine-rescue agency?”
Saying that this was everyone’s reaction is, of course, an exaggeration. There were cat people, too, and those whose hearts went out to the abandoned reptiles. The sight of an iguana sailing down the street on top of a refrigerator sent a herpetologist friend over the edge. “She seems to be saying, ‘Where’s my master?’ ” he speculated. “ ‘Here it is, time for our daily cuddle and I’m stuck on the S.S. Whirlpool!!’ ”
I’ve often heard that anthropomorphizing an animal is the worst injustice you can do to it. That said, I’m as guilty of it as anyone. In childhood stories, the snail might grab her purse and dash out the door to put money in the meter. The rabbit cries when the blue jay makes fun of her buckteeth. The mouse loves his sister but not that way_. They’re just like us!_ we think.
Certain nature shows only add to this misconception, but that, to me, is why they’re so addictive. Take “Growing Up Camel,” a program my friend Ronnie and I watched one evening. It was set in a small, privately owned zoo somewhere in Massachusetts. The camel in question was named Patsy, and the narrator reminded us several times that she had been born on Super Bowl Sunday.
While still an infant (the football stadium probably not even cleared yet), she was taken from her mother. Now she was practically grown, and the narrator announced a reunion: “Today Patsy has reached what may be the biggest milestone in her life—moving back in with her mom.”
In the next segment, the two were reintroduced, and the grumpy old mother chased her daughter around the pen. When the opportunity arose, she bit Patsy on the backside, and pretty hard, it seemed to me. This was the camels not getting along and it wasn’t too terribly different from the way they acted when they did get along.
When the next break approached, the narrator hooked us with “When we continue, a heartbreaking event that will change Patsy’s life forever.”
I’d have put my money on an amputated leg, but it turned out to be nothing that dramatic. What happened was that the mother got bone cancer and died. The veterinarian took it hard, but Patsy didn’t seem to care one way or another, and why would she, really? All her mom ever did was browbeat her and steal her food, so wasn’t she better off on her own?
The zookeepers worried that if Patsy were left alone she would forget how to be a camel, and so they imported some company, a male named Josh and his girlfriend, Josie, who were shipped in from Texas. The final shot was of the three of them, standing in the sunshine and serenely ignoring one another. Ronnie cleared her throat and said, “So that’s what became of the little camel who was born on Super Bowl Sunday.” She turned on the light and looked me in the face. “Are you crying?”