Monday, April 14, 2008

The Trouble With Lions - launch

Launch activities - 1

It all started with a trip to Edmonton on the 9th of April, where I finally met with the crew at the University of Alberta press. It was great to be able to put faces to names after over a year of email and letter exchanges, not to mention tens of thousands of manuscript words & masses of pictures. They had had a chance to take a look at my mug shot, but all I had was guess work, and a low res picture of the entire group, with names attached, but not from “left to right” or anything logical that I could figure out.

The gig was an event called Literary Cocktails, and two of us who have recently published with the press had a chance to tell stories and/or read from our work. Ken Hoeppner, of Calgary told us about the development of his biography of an important Alberta figure that he has chronicled in The Ordinary Genius: A Life of Arnold Platt.

The MC of the event was Ted Bishop of the U of A’s Department of English, and he introduced me by reading two very brief passages from my preface to The Trouble With Lions. He chose

The Trouble With Lions might also read The Trouble With Rhinos, or Marmosets, or possibly even the improbably named Dromedary Jumping Slug (threatened in Canada’s British Columbia), not to mention the names of a host of other species. Of course a title such as The Trouble with Jumping Slugs or Codfish might not catch the potential reader’s eye in quite the same way, and it would certainly not have excited a publisher.”
“…there are four chapters about my experiences with rhinos (perhaps appropriately enough, as one of my earliest medical cases required me to spend an hour evacuating a constipated rhino and then administering a four-gallon enema, with spectacular results).”
This picture appears at the start of chapter 14 on page 153 of my first book Wrestling With Rhinos

Ted ended up with the last two sentences from Jane Goodall’s foreword. “In writing The Trouble With Lions as in choosing a career as a veterinarian and teacher, Dr. Haigh made a decision to make a difference. His book will make you want to do the same”

Then I had a chance to tell some stories about my own efforts. I gave the room full of folks at the faculty club a brief background about my own history, and mentioned that as a kindergarten kid I had wanted to be a zoo keeper when all the other boys wanted to be train drivers. Then ambition morphed into a wish to be a farmer, thence from about the age of ten the only goal was veterinary medicine. Considering where I ended up I seem to have melded all three.

Trying to condense a 488-page book into a fifteen-minute time slot is a bit like cramming a field of wheat into a box of cereal. It contains kernels of the original, and some of the flavour, but lacks breadth and depth. I tried to go for the flavour.

First I introduced my thought that the title The Trouble With Lions is a metaphor for wildlife in general, and that lions are in trouble from human activity, as well as causing humans all kinds of trouble, not least as a predator of livestock, and from time to time people themselves.

I then talked briefly about the symbolic place of lions in human society before reading two brief stories quotes direct from the text that illustrate the extreme poles of human attitudes to wildlife. They were both about cape hunting dogs, a.k.a. wild dogs. In 1914 one R. Maugham wrote, "Let us consider for a moment that abomination - that blot upon the many interesting wild things - the murderous Wild Dog. It will be an excellent day for African game and its preservation when means can be devised for its complete extermination.” In 1997 Oxford University researcher wrote "To nominate one sight as the most beautiful I have seen might, in a world filled with natural marvels, might be considered disingenuous. Yet, of images jostling for supremacy in my memory, it is hard to better the bounding forms of African wild dogs, skiffing like golden pebbles across a sea of sunburnt grass at dusk.”

Then I talked of hippos. Their keystone role in the fisheries of Africa’s waterways, the wonderful old folktale of their long-held desire to be allowed by Ngai, the god who lives in the mountains, to live in the water, and finally, back to today’s reality, the causes and effect of poaching on their populations. The obvious cause is to get meat, masses of it. A less well-known one is the belief among the Banyaguru people who live on the borders of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National park, that a bride needs a feast of hippo meat on her wedding night.

A careful look at this picture will show that the hide has been cut with a sharp instrument, and that virtually no meat remains on the skeleton.

I ended up with a note of hope as I told the audience about the sea-change in attitudes to lion conservation among the Maasai who live on the Mbrikani Group Ranch at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. They have, after a long history of lion killing, turned to preservation, and Leelah Hazzah’s inspiring picture of a moran holding up a radio antenna as he tracks a collared lion is the last photo in the book.

The evening ended with a great get-together for curry, and wonder-of-wonders, a bottle of Tusker, my favourite among Kenya’s beers.

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