Last Chance To See

In 1990, a book appeared in the shops called Last Chance To See. It was the account of the journeys made by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine in their pursue of some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Twenty years later, the same zoologist hooked up with Stephen Fry, a great friend of the late Douglas Adams, and together they revisited the same animals. This time not only a book was released, but a spectacular six-part BBC documentary series came along with it as well.

Dr. Carwardine is an extremely knowledgeable naturalist and conservationist, author of about 50 books. Stephen Fry, one of my favourite public figures, is an out of place man, he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing in the jungle. He’s a gadget freak, first thing he does in the middle of the Amazonian Basin is to check if there’s broadband available on one of his several iPhones. Awkward and unfit, he falls on his arm and breaks it in three in the very first episode. The comic value added by Stephen is a major factor in propelling the film and in setting the series apart from other nature programs.

At the outset, this unlikely duo tries to track down the Amazonian manatee, a peaceful aquatic mammal that looks like an oversized underwater bulldog, but can’t find any. What they find is the pink river dolphin or boto, which still thrives in reasonable numbers, as opposed to the Chinese river dolphin that has gone extinct since Douglas and Mark encountered it in the Yangtze. In the next episode they hop over to Africa to search out the Northern white rhino. Along the way, they meet chimps, wild elephants and gorillas, but eventually decide against entering the rhino’s territory stricken by civil war. In Madagascar, a pygmy chameleon, a mouse lemur and the indri are the main sensations, before finding the aye aye, one of the rarest primates, up in a coconut palm.

In Indonesia, they find themselves surrounded by Komodo dragons and releasing newly hatched sea turtles on the beach. In New Zealand, we learn that the black robin came back from the brink of extinction from as few as 5 individuals and only one breeding female. This success story inspired those responsible now for the rescue of the kakapo, which a couple of years ago dwindled to a mere 40 individuals. All were captured and translocated to a tiny island south of New Zealand, and due to an effective breeding program their numbers now climbed up to 123. One of the most memorable moments of the series was when a male kakapo tried to mate with Mark’s head, much to Stephen’s amusement:

The kakapo’s clumsiness was most endearingly described by Douglas Adams:

It is an exceptionally fat bird (a good-sized adult weighs roughly two or three kilograms) and its wings are just about good enough to waggle about a bit if it thinks it’s going to trip over. But flying is completely out of the question. Strangely, not only has it forgotten how to fly, it also seems to have forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Legend has it that a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.

The final episode is spent tracing the blue whale off Baja California in the Sea of Cortez, and while they’re at it, they collect and analyze sea lion poo, and measure a whale shark. The crew also observes the Humboldt squid, a fierce apex predator that’s gradually taking the place of sharks at the top of the food chain.

I haven’t read the book yet, but the series I thoroughly enjoyed. This is no ordinary entertainment, carried out by BBC’s decades-old professionalism conveying amazing wildlife shots and a profound message.

My Flesh and Blood

Susan Tom is no ordinary woman. Once upon a time she gives birth to two sons. Then she starts adopting some more. Her husband leaves at the fourth. She can’t seem to stop accumulating them. Only the capacity of the house sets a limit to the perpetual influx of children. Some of them have health problems. And that’s a gross understatement.

Joe has cystic fibrosis, a nasty disease in which the mucus in the body builds up, especially in the lungs, and leads to frequent inflammations and difficulty in breathing, and ultimately to an untimely death. He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to top it with, involving sudden anger outbreaks directed towards his younger sisters.

Anthony’s got what experts call recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a hideous terminal illness. It simply manifests in a gradual loss of the skin by peeling off. Anthony has no hands and feet to speak of. Oh, and he’s got cancer, too. Squamous cell carcinoma, to be exact.

Susie had the same until she dies.

Xenia was born without legs. She figure skates using her hands. Hannah – no legs whatsoever. Faith’s face and right arm burned down completely when she was an infant. She likes math though. Cloe is not able to bend her elbows and knees due to another rare congenital disorder (arthrogryposis). Katie was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and is not quite alright in the head. Libby’s spine is not closed properly (spina bifida). A medical dictionary could be filled with these kids.

The Tom family was the subject matter of the documentary My Flesh and Blood (2003) that chronicled a whole year in their lives. Out of thirteen children altogether, eleven are adopted, three have/had terminal disorders, and six have severe disabilities (five of which could not live without a wheelchair). There’s one apparently healthy, teenage daughter, Margaret (she had brain surgery in her infancy), around the house who helps Susan with the everyday chores and the kids. She suffers a nervous breakdown in the film.

What special ingredient does one have to possess in order to knowingly adopt a child whose imminent demise is inevitable? Even one such kid is plenty to tackle psychologically, for an everyday parent that is. But this woman is so genuinely and inherently good-hearted that she’s virtually unable to leave a disabled child upon sight. Mind you, it’s not an obsession with her, she’s a perfectly normal single mother. Still, ordinary parents may think she goes way over the top in her charity, but some sort of inner force must reside within her that makes her gather all these children with special needs. I don’t claim to know whatever that force may be, but one certainly needs to be in possession of tremendous mental and physical strength to be able to go through all this. I mean, she’s willing to lose children provided she’s managed to make them feel belong to a family, make them feel whole, make them feel loved. Such altruistic behaviour is inconcievable to most of us. Well, let’s just put it thus: she loves kids to a fault.

Susie dies prior to filming. Joe breaks his own ribs during a coughing fit and suffocates in the course of shooting. Anthony succumbs to skin cancer shortly after filming finished. Kids come and go, but one thing remains: Susan Tom is an extraordinary woman.

(You can donate to The Tom Family Education Trust; a 3-page interview with director Jonathan Karsh)

Child murders at Robin Hood Hills

NVG9744-03 I saw a documentary the other day. It’s called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It’s been lingering about in my head for two weeks now. Not many movies do that to me. The premise: three children are tortured, raped and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Three teenage boys (the West Memphis 3) are accused based on the confession made by one of them. The other two deny any involvement. All three are duly prosecuted and facing trial.

There is no evidence.

Or, to put it mildly, the evidence is circumstantial. They wear black. They listen to heavy metal music. They read about the Wicca religion. These things might be considered outlandish in certain communities, but do they actually predispose someone to brutal murder?

The crime scene is a woody area with a small creek running through it. Although the children were mutilated there is no blood. No fingerprints. Not any weapons or tools. DNA analysis is inconclusive. It’s as if the whole affair had been carried out by professional killers. Contrast this with three ignorant and obtuse boys who never saw a book other than the bible (actually, that’s not entirely true, one of them adopted Wicca). Never been out of town. They have been subject to religious indoctrination all their lives. They seek attention. During the trials it seemed to me as though they were enjoying the whole shebang, as well as, at the same time, being completely oblivious to what was going on around them or what was at stake. It’s evident, at least for me, that these guys were not able to perform the abomination of what they were accused. boys

The parents of the murdered, in a good Christian-like manner, are bloodthirsty. They want to see the alleged perpetrators go down in flames. The genuine hatred radiating off their faces is terrifying. The level of stupidity exhibited by these people is appalling to the average European viewer. You really need to watch it yourself to get a grasp of what I mean.

Two of them are sentenced to life without parole, one of them to death by lethal injection. They accept the sentence with utter indifference. No emotional breakdowns, nothing. They’re not aware of what just happened. They’re led away in bulletproof vests.

You can watch the trailer here. I sat through the whole two and a half hours of the film without stirring once.

Metallica_-_Master_of_Puppets Another aspect of the film that drew me in is the extensive use of Metallica’s music. I’ve never listened to Metallica before. I still can’t appreciate the thrashing parts, but when they slow it down, they sound great. Director Joe Berlinger made me want to listen to this album to the left. I later learned that it’s considered one of the greatest heavy metal albums ever. Well, I don’t know about that, but I really enjoyed Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and Orion.

Inside Nature’s Giants

A great new series was broadcast in the UK this summer: Inside Nature’s Giants. In each programme, veterinarians and biologists dissect a big animal to trace its evolutionary past. It contains numerous explicit scenes showing the giants’ internal anatomy. It is as enjoyable as any of BBC’s nature series, including those narrated by Attenborough.

The first series can now be viewed on YouTube. Here I embed the first 10 minutes of each four episode.