Saturday, 27 December 2014

Badgers in Literature: Philip Pullman's *His Dark Materials*

Though not a major presence in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the two appearances by badgers in the trilogy’s first book, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in North America), are nevertheless significant to the tale, as they relate to the essential bond between young Lyra Belacqua and her shapeshifting soul-dæmon, Pantalaimon.  The first takes place when Lyra tries to meet with the disgraced bear king, Iorek Byrnison, to persuade him to join her in a rescue mission; though generally high-spirited and even reckless, she is too frightened of the massive beast to follow through with her plan.  To urge her forward, and relying on their deep physical and spiritual bond, Pantalaimon transforms into a stout Meles:
She felt angry and miserable.  His badger claws dug into the earth and he walked forward.  It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love.  And she knew it was the same for him.  Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.

She overcomes her fear and rushes to embrace Pan, who has brought her close enough to begin the delicate negotiations with the mighty bear, but certain that ‘she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror’.[i]  This reflection is a prescient one, for it foreshadows the other badger appearance in the novel, when Lyra and Pan fight against a group of ‘Gobblers’ who threaten to cut Pan away from her in a horrific surgical procedure meant to strip children of the free will represented by their dæmons: ‘But they had dæmons too, of course.  It wasn’t two against three, it was two against six.  A badger, an owl, and a baboon were all just as intent to pin Pantalaimon down, and Lyra was crying to them: “Why?  Why are you doing this?  Help us!  You shouldn’t be helping them!”’[ii]  Here, too, badgerish determination succeeds, though in a sinister reflection of the earlier scene the badger of a full-grown man is used to subject Lyra to the fear of arbitrary power, rather than the earlier freedom she’d experienced when her own beloved Pan became a badger.

[i] Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 143-144.

[ii] Pullman, His Dark Materials, p. 205.

Book trailer for *Badger*!

The official book trailer for Badger, forthcoming in the new year from Reaktion Books, featuring "seven things you didn't know you need to know about badgers"!

Thanks to David and Beni Loti for their excellent work in putting this trailer together.

(Readers on mobile devices may not be able to view the video. If it doesn't come up for you, go here.)

Friday, 12 December 2014

Badgers on screen: Marty Stouffer's Wild America

If you were raised in the US in the 1980s and had any access to PBS, the rising symphonic score would likely be instantly recognizable, along with the climactic crash of two bighorn sheep rams butting heads as the music reaches its crescendo. I was a regular viewer, though until recently I hadn't seen an episode since I was a pre-teen. Marty Stouffer's Wild America was, for twelve seasons, one of the most popular shows on PBS, and remains quite watchable even in this age of cable TV channels focused on wildlife, with understated narration, breathtaking cinematography, and engaging and unsentimental storytelling that often focused on the life-and-death conflicts between predators and prey. (In the early 1990s Stouffer faced a number of animal welfare charges and accusations of wide-ranging staging of ostensibly "natural" scenes that somewhat dimmed his popularity, although he has consistently denied those charges. I remember at the time being profoundly disappointed in the staging claims, though after seeing so many nature documentaries clearly focusing on captive animals in recreated "wild" scenarios in the years since it seems to be pretty standard practice.)

Not long ago I recalled Wild America and wondered if there were any badger-related episodes. In fact, there are at least two. In season 8, a two-part episode, "Weasels: Sleek and Savage," gave a bit of attention to a winter-fattened badger, but it was season 11 that featured an entire episode about North American badgers, regrettably titled "Belligerent as a Badger." You can download episodes online--but only from the U.S., so I had to go the old-fashioned route and ordered the Collector's Edition DVDs of seasons 7-12. 

As I remembered, the cinematography is top-notch, with some great close-up shots of badgers in action. The filming takes place primarily in the winter, so the badgers are quite roly-poly, though no less compelling. One impressive scene is of a badger who manages to drive a bobcat away from its freshly-killed pheasant. This follows with the coincidental arrival of yet another badger, and a fight between the two over the stolen bird, with the original raider ending up the victor. (Certainly much of this scene seems highly staged, but it's still impressive to see these carnivores interact.) My favourite part of the half-hour show, however, is a charming moment in the spring between a nursing mother and her kits in their burrow, and the gentleness between the three that belies the ferocious reputation so often attributed to these much-maligned animals. I would have appreciated less pandering to "mean badger" stereotypes--and, to be fair, Stouffer's narration makes clear that badgers are generally aggressive only when threatened, though this gets lost in the constant description of their fierceness--but on the whole the episode is well worth watching.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Whatever became of Josiah, the White House badger?

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt set off on a campaign tour by train across the western United States, stopping in various communities along the way. In the small Kansas town of Sharon Springs, he attended church service and made the acquaintance of a little girl who, according to Roosevelt, asked him if he'd like a badger kit her brother Josiah had caught. A celebrated collector (as well as notorious killer) of wild and exotic animals, Roosevelt said yes, and a few hours later the girl returned with the kit, which Roosevelt named Josiah (Josh for short) in honour of the kit's captor. (Contrary to more exaggerated reports, the girl didn't toss Josiah onto the train or at the President--it was a very low-key exchange that included a tour of the President's luxurious train car, a gift of flowers and medals, and amiable conversation. [n.1])

Below is the only known photo of Roosevelt with the kit, presumably taken the very day of the meeting.

Josiah was looked after by Roosevelt's messenger and assistant, William B. Dulany, who fed him milk and potatoes. Although in a letter to his children (dated 10 May 1903) Roosevelt expressed some concern that the kit would die, Dulany's careful attendance was successful, and Josiah was a healthy addition to the household upon the President's return in June. Josiah joined an extensive Presidential menagerie in the White House and the family's Sagamore Hill residence (the "Summer White House") that included a wide range of dogs, snakes, a black bear, guinea pigs, a blue macaw, a barn owl, and even a hyena. 

The rambunctious badger was popular among the children, and quickly became a personal favourite of young Archibald Roosevelt, who defended Josiah's rough play by noting that "he bites legs sometimes but he never bites faces" (n. 2). Roosevelt himself wrote that Josiah's "temper was short but [his] nature was fundamentally friendly" (n. 3).

Josiah was a wilful but seemingly good-natured animal who was treated with general kindness by the Roosevelt family, playing tag with the children, being carried around by Archie, and cavorting with the family dogs. Yet as Josiah grew larger, his freedom became more problematic; according to Douglas Brinkley, the badger "constantly gnawed into any leg within reach of its teeth, occasionally drawing blood" and nipping at the ankles of family guests. He also dug holes in the White House lawn (n. 4). Eventually the President decided to send him to the Bronx Zoo (home of a number of former Roosevelt animal acquisitions), likely sometime in 1904 or 1905. Roosevelt promised the heartbroken Archie that he could visit Josiah, but it seems that Archie's visits were few.

And at that point Josiah seems to disappear from the record--at least under that name.

So, whatever happened to Josiah? For some time visitors to the Roosevelt residence-cum-National Historic Site of Sagamore Hill in New York State found a taxidermied badger under a table in his study, but that wasn't Josiah--it was another badger altogether, nameless but representing the long-departed household mustelid. 

I've been unable to track down information about Josiah after his arrival to the Zoo. How long did he live? Was he well cared for, or did he, like so many animals in zoos of the period, suffer from the often quite brutal conditions of captivity and exhibition? About a year ago I visited New York and went to the American Museum of Natural History to look at its stuffed North American badger exhibit, thinking perhaps that Roosevelt's long affiliation with the Museum might have meant that Josiah ended up there after his life in the Bronx Zoo. It, too, is a different badger with entirely different markings, so no luck there. And to date I haven't been able to access any official records that might indicate his eventual fate.

There are three likely scenarios. Josiah might not actually have lived very long after the move; certainly his celebrated status as the "White House badger" didn't receive much media attention, so it's possible he died or was moved sometime after 1905. He may have lived a long time in relative obscurity as one of the more mundane exotics at the zoo. But there's another intriguing and, to my mind, more likely possibility. The only Bronx Zoo badger mentioned in newspaper reports between 1908 and 1910 was "Pete," referred to by a very judgmental reporter in the New York Times as "one of the ugliest specimens" because of his "manner, which gives strangers this impression of villainy. Pete is a pessimist. He is constantly growling and showing his teeth. He does not look one squarely in the eye. He holds his head low and glares up through half-closed lids" (n. 5). (These are all, incidentally, standard badger behaviours, especially when keeping potential threats at bay.) Yet Pete, for all his "ugliness," was also interesting enough to New York Times reporters for his Bronx Zoo adventures to feature at least three times in the newspaper. These usually involved him getting into some sort of conflict with another animal, sometimes with comic results but at least once resulting in death (when he was accused of "murdering" a resident dog). There is never any mention of other badgers in the Zoo, either at the time or in the recent past.

What is particularly interesting in these accounts is that Pete's behaviour is very much in keeping with that of Josiah. In his 1905 book Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, Roosevelt described Josiah as "hiss[ing] like a teakettle" when Archie carried him (n. 6);  Pete, as stated above, "is constantly growling and showing his teeth"--behaviours that would have either accompanied "hissing" or been mistaken for it. (Again, standard North American badger responses to stress or discomfort.) Both Josiah and Pete were given free reign of the habitations they shared with humans and were clearly considered well behaved enough to not menace other humans in any serious way. Pete was "the favorite pet of Raymond L. Dittmars, curator of the reptile house, and of two keepers, Kane and Londsberg, of the small mammal house," and was "allowed the privilege of the Zoo, and only at night is he held prisoner in his cage. All the keepers receive almost daily visits from Pete. He is a general favorite of all who know him" (n. 7). Pete's curiosity often got him into trouble with other animals, but he was from all reports quite comfortable with human beings, though he was also more than willing to let them know his boundaries. In these ways, reports about Josiah and Pete are identical.

Zoo curator Dittmars acknowledged that Pete wasn't born in the zoo, but said that he arrived when just a few weeks old. If true, this would obviously invalidate my developing thesis. But given the life expectancy of North American badgers of 12-14 years, and barring unexpected injury, illness, or accident befalling a notoriously robust animal, it seems likely that Josiah (b. 1903) would still be very much alive five years later in 1908. There's no record in Roosevelt's correspondence with Archie of news that Josiah died, which would surely have merited some sort of comment had it occurred. And I'm not convinced that we should take Dittmars's claims about Pete's origins at face value, for how likely is it that a single urban zoo in the eastern U.S. would have more than one a semi-tame badger from the American West of roughly the same age who survived at that early and vulnerable stage long enough to make it to New York City (barring a personal attendant like Josiah had), was at remarkable and similar ease among humans, and was given nearly absolute freedom of the grounds (having demonstrated an ability to look after himself and not get into too much trouble)? Surely if there had been more than one such badger the reporters would have mentioned it. None did. Pete is always singular--Pete the Badger--and is never mentioned in relation to others in the Zoo.

This hypothesis is largely conjectural, but I think it makes sense given the various threads of connection. (I'd be delighted if a reader has more information or even a photo of Pete the Badger for comparison, as I'd happily revise this post to accommodate the new information; my main interest is just in knowing what happened to Josiah, rather than being invested any particular scenario.) As it is, I think it's likely that Josiah and Pete are the same curious and ornery animal, that "Pete" was a name given by some of the Zoo staff who worked with him (a more down-to-earth name that that given by the upper-class Roosevelt), and that Josiah/Pete was able to explore his new surroundings for a number of years, well cared for and perhaps a bit indulged by his human caregivers. His final days, too, are unclear, but that's research (and a post) for another time.

But either way, there's also something indescribably sad about Josiah's story. An unweaned badger kit taken from the prairies to spend the rest of his days in captivity. We don't know the circumstances of his capture: perhaps his mother was killed (as badger pelts were a lucrative fur item at the turn of the twentieth century), or perhaps he was just captured in an opportunistic burrow raid by the Kansas boy Josiah. He may not have lived long in the wild; then again, he might have lived out his full life expectancy under wide prairie skies. But certainly this independent-minded creature found a far more circumscribed life as the plaything of Eastern aristocrats than he would have had in his natural habitat, and that, I think, merits some careful reflection about the damaging impacts of our culture's self-indulgent and juvenile fascination with turning other-than-human beings into furry toys.

n. 1: Theodore Roosevelt, "Golden Days of the West," LIFE Magazine, 10 December 1951 (p. 153).
n. 2: Sylvia Morris, Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady (p. 268).
n. 3: Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (p. 356).
n. 4: Douglas Brinkley, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (p. 557).
n. 5: "Pete, the Badger, Stirs Up a Panic," New York Times, 15 June 1908.
n. 6: Theodore Roosevelt, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter (p. 354).
n. 7: "Pete, the Badger," see n. 5 above.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Little-known badger fact 1: Lord Byron's ill-fated badger

The controversial and often notorious George Gordon, Lord Byron, had a pet Eurasian badger during his time living with his married lover Teresa and her husband in Ravenna, Italy (1819-20). The badger was one of numerous exotic (and often disabled) animals Byron collected, including monkeys, a fox, peacocks, and an eagle, but all died after Byron's departure. (Doris Langley Moore, Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered (1974): p. 318)