When I was a boy, every Sunday evening after the dinner dishes had been washed and the kitchen tidied up, my parents and I would sit down in front of our wood cabinet console encased (first for our family) color television set and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Hosted by the eminently calm Marlin Perkins and the perpetually good-natured Jim Fowler, Wild Kingdom was sufficiently entertaining for my parents while at the same time being factual enough for their budding young science geek of a son. This is what made the program so successful – it offered accurate information about wildlife (and often the importance of the conservation thereof) in a way that allowed a wide-ranging audience to both learn from and be entertained by its presentation.
I mention all this as it was to Wild Kingdom that my mind kept returning as I was reading Dan Eatherley’s recently published book Bushmaster; Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper. Ditmars, largely self-educated, rose from being a young man with questionable career prospects and an unusual (according to his family, at least, who endured their home being increasingly filled with them) interest in snakes to becoming the first curator of reptiles (and mammals as well following the retirement of William Hornaday) at the newly built Bronx Zoo. He also dramatically improved the way animals are cared for and exhibited in zoos, advanced the preparation and dramatically expanded the availability and usage of antivenin, and pioneered the art of filming wildlife for both presentation in motion pictures and the then embryonic new medium of television. Throughout his professional life, he was a tireless public speaker and prolific author. When he died at the age of 65 in 1942, he was known far and wide as one of the world’s most accomplished herpetologists and as a well-respected and beloved public naturalist as well.
From all he accomplished – as a curator, a zoologist, and as a publicly celebrated naturalist, one would think he would be far better known today than he is. (Tell the truth, before you begin reading this essay, could you have identified him by name?) Alas, fame is fleeting. Only a generation or two is often required for even the most celebrated to be all but forgotten – even my own daughter replied with a “Who?” to my recent mentioning of Marlin Perkins.
Which is why it is such a great bit of good luck that Dan Eatherley took up an interest in Ditmars; and interest sufficiently strong to invest years in the research and writing of Bushmaster. The title, as is superbly appropriate, is the common name for what was then a single species, Lachesis muta, a particularly large and astonishingly venomous pit viper of Central and South America. The Bushmaster, one of the first truly dangerous snakes Ditmars added – briefly – to his early personal collection, became a source of fascination throughout his life; a fascination that led to a much publicized and publicly followed quest to capture, bring back, and keep one alive (curiously, and for reasons Eatherly very well explains, the trickiest part) in the Bronx Zoo.
So what was it about Ditmars that had me recalling memories of Marlin Perkins from my childhood? A few things really. Both were understated, calm, non-effusive, and well-spoken; the exact opposite of what has now become regrettably the norm for presenters of popular natural history programming. Both achieved great renown in their fields despite being outside the Academy – Perkins only briefly attended university before becoming laborer at the St. Louis Zoological Park and Ditmars’ doctorate was honorary (and a doctor of letters, not science). Both worked their way up to becoming curators of reptiles – and then even further – at their respective zoos. And most importantly, both were responsible for cultivating an interest in natural history in countless young men and women through the use of nothing more than their tireless willingness to share their own fascination with it whenever and wherever possible.
From what I have read, Perkins now has been honored a statue of his likeness in his hometown of Carthage, Missouri. To my knowledge, no such statue of Ditmars yet exists; however Eatherley’s Bushmaster is most certainly a similarly worth-while tribute. Widely read may it become and long may it stand to tell the story of this remarkable man.
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Imprint: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 320 pp.
Published: June 2015
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.