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Book Review: Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn

Tony hugging a lion.Summary:
Tony Fitzjohn never quite fit in in England or the middle class existence he was adopted into at a young age.  By his early 20s, he was roaming around Africa, and eventually found a job with George–the elderly Englishman famous for his belief in reintroducing lions into the wild whose efforts were chronicled in Born Free.  In his biography, Tony accounts the steps in his life that led up to his assistantship with George, the two decades he spent learning from him in Kenya, and the efforts he himself has made in Tanzania’s parks.

Review:
This autobiography (memoir?) is an example of how you can not particularly like a person but still admire and respect the work they do.  I know I would never in a million years get along with Tony.  He’s hard-headed, stubborn, a womanizer (prior to getting married in his 40s), matured very late in his life, and can be remarkably short-sighted in how his actions affect others.  And yet.

And yet he has an incredible passion for animals and the environment.  He’s faced down poachers, corrupt government employees, and charging rhinos with frankly, balls of iron.  All for the love of not just the big cats like lions and leopards, but rhinos and wild dogs as well.  I find it fascinating how his love of adventure gradually showed him that animals are not ours to use and abuse.  I wish I had had the time to copy the quote exactly from the book before I had to return it to the library, but essentially he says that we are meant to be stewards of the land that all the rest of the non-human animals need to survive and do what they’re meant to do.  He talks at length about how rhinos often don’t get as much attention because they don’t form a bond, really, with their caretakers the way orphaned big cats do, but that’s not who they are!  Rhinos are aggressive, love fighting each other.  They fight and they mate and that’s what they do and that’s beautiful because that’s who they are.  Letting animals be who they are and do what they do–that’s our real role as humans.

Of course, the animal rights message doesn’t really come out until the end of the memoir.  The beginning is Tony reflecting on his childhood and early years in Africa.  He traveled all over the continent a lot, never really sticking to one country until he met George and stayed put in Kenya for quite a while at the Kora reserve.  At times the writing when he’s recounting his life can be a bit dull.  He seems more focused on naming everyone he ever came across than in telling a story.  This holds true up until the trust sends him to AA and after that he meets his now-wife Lucy.  From then on it is as if a haze is lifted and his passion for everyone around him, the animals, and his family comes through.  I have no doubt that this is at least in part due to his no longer drinking.  It is clear that there are swaths of the prior years that he does not recall.  He even recounts one story that a friend told him when staging his intervention of him getting into a bar fight that he doesn’t even remember happening.  All this is to say, the first half or so of the book is fun bits of lions mixed in between rather dull sections of him just getting the information through to the reader that will be important later.

But the elements with the lions that hold us over in the meantime are absolutely worth it.  It is evident that through all of Tony’s flaws, he has a natural ability to work with big cats and an innate understanding and love of them.  He does not doubt their ability to feel emotions or communicate with people.

Sheba [lioness] had been so fond of her brother that when he died, she had led George to the spot, watched him bury Suleiman [her brother], and then sat on the grave for days, refusing to leave him alone. (page 112)

He also has an understanding of human society and mores and how they affect the animal world that comes through abundantly clearly:

By pushing up the price of oil, Sheikh Yamani and his cohorts had multiplied the Yemeni GDP sevenfold. A rhino-horn dagger is a symbol of manhood in Yemen, so an entire species was all but wiped out in order that a load of newly oil-rich Yemenis could have fancy dagger handles. (page 76)

When he writes of the poachers and big game hunters fighting with the environmentalists for control of the land, I was aghast at the methods both groups used.  They often would kill a big cat, cut off its head and paws, then skin it and leave it right in the environmentalists’ path.  This level of cold-heartedness and cruelty baffles me.  Although one could possibly argue that the poachers saw this atrocity as the only way out of poverty, there is zero excuse for the wealthy, white big game hunters who just callously view it as sport.

I suppose some people may see Tony’s and other western people’s work in Africa for the animals as neocolonialist.  I don’t see it that way at all.  Tony by nature of his upbringing had the wealthy connections needed to fund projects working with the animals.  When Kenya and Tanzania were caught up in civil wars and reestablishing their nations, even wealthy Africans would most likely donate that money toward people, not animals.  Plus, Tony’s work has provided stable employment to Tanzanians and Kenyans for over 20 years, as well as bringing in more tourism.  Tony himself points out that a lot of the big animals were gone due to colonial big game hunters, and he views his work as a sort of retribution for the colonial period.  I perhaps wouldn’t take it that far, but I do see his point.

One thing I will say, though, is I do view it very hypocritical that Tony sends his own children away to a wealthy boarding school in Kenya rather then sending them to the school located in the park in Tanzania that his trust set up and runs.  If it’s good enough for the Tanzanian kids, why isn’t it good enough for his own?  That stung of elitism to me.

Although the book can be slow-moving at times, the good bits make up for it.  Tony and his work for animal rights are inspirational.  His life shows how much one person can accomplish by taking it one step at a time.

I pulled myself together and thought about what George would do. Of course I knew already. George would put his head down and keep going, one step at a time. It was the way he approached everything. (page 184)

Overall, I recommend this memoir to nonfiction lovers with a passion for Africa, environmentalism, or animal rights.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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