Appealing to the Heart through the Facts: A hard-headed veterinarian’s account
Dec 28 2008
By Sharon Hamilton
Although The Trouble with Lions, in the author’s own words, could be entitled The Trouble with Rhinos or with Marmosets, or with a touch of comedic, possibly the improbably named the trouble with the Dromedary Jumping Slug, Jerry Haigh choses the head of the animal kingdom and a universal symbol in the lion to represent the dangers facing wildlife in Africa (xvii). At four hundred and sixty two pages, The Trouble with Lions is a relative tome, including Appendices, Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading and an Index. Both entertaining and informative in its detailed, hands-on depictions of the problems facing livestock and African wild life species from the author’s point of view as a travelling veterinarian, The Trouble with Lions makes for a fascinating read. While each chapter recounts an adventure or series of adventures, I found myself so caught up in the author’s exciting itinerary that before I knew it I had completed the whole book with an improved sense of the situation facing wildlife in Africa.
Although Haigh’s approach is often scholarly, his tone is urbane, frequently humorous and observant of ironies. Always careful to balance all sides of an argument as such chapter headings, Lions as Trouble, and Lions in Trouble, attest Haigh does not hesitate to be contentious. During a discussion of hyaenas, he debunks a travel writer’s description of the larger females as hermaphrodite (either quoting or misquoting a Kruger National Park ranger) though he concedes that the females are more difficult to sex type than in other species. (238). Again, in the ironically-entitled chapter “Born Free” Lions on T.V., Haigh implies his distaste for the media hype and reveals Joy Adamsons shortcomings as a naturalist when she feeds the cheetah, Pippa, raw goat meat without “the bones, sinew and bit and pieces”
which causes the animal to have weak bones and break its leg (eventually having to be put down) (78). Ever fair-minded, however, Haigh concedes that the Elsa Fund which Adamson set in place has benefitted African wild-life preservation groups and even funded his own veterinary practices in that country.
As well as providing a wealth of information on species ranging from the safari ant to the elephant, Haigh’s first-person narration from a veterinarian’s and teachers point of view makes the writing concrete and accessible with frequent comedic touches, for instance, when Haigh attempts to anesthetize a lion on one of several occasions:
When I tried to give him an injection directly into his vein he objected with vigorous tail twitches and some leg movements. I needed no second warning and dove through the open door of the nearby Land Rover as the lion displayed his displeasure by getting up and moving off about fifteen metres. (32)
Again, when Haigh attempts a pregnancy test on a female that might be sent to a national park for breeding, he comments in these tongue-in-cheek terms:
One trouble with lions is that while you are conducting a pregnancy test, you need always to be aware of what you learn from the lion’s front end. It is there that the first signs of awakening from anaesthesia occur. (224)
While the first sentence set us up for what might be considered new information, the subsequent sentence dropped us back into the actual scene in which very real dangers face the veterinarian treating a live though anesthetized lion.
Ever a master of understatement, Haigh is not only perceptive about the animals he treats but has a good eye for sketching details that delineate human character, whether he describes casual encounters or comments on those with whom he travels. When the author meet with Dr Christine Dranzoa of the University of Uganda, he paints her personality with warmth and admiration. He describes how Dranzoa managed to rise above her impoverished background to obtain the highest veterinary degree, meanwhile taking care of the orphans left by two of her siblings (one afflicted with Aids the other killed in war) and admitting other less fortunate family members into her household. With the same enthusiasm (or lack of ie. Joy Adamsons abrasive personality and treatment of her servants 78 ), Haigh describes all the key figures on his journeys in various degrees, and is even careful to drop details that give us a sense of the personalities of the vet students who accompany him to Africa.
As a book that is intended to warn the public about the dangers facing African wildlife, The Trouble with Lions presents several arguments to explain the decline of many species. Among African tribes who prize their herds and consider their livestock as equivalent to money and an investment that predators such as lions endanger, Haigh believes that education may be the key and offers the opinion that a movie has greater potential (since much of the population is illiterate) than any wildlife preservation program to persuade these people. A new philosophy must be adopted among these natives of Africa so that the wild animals are no longer considered a bane or a resource for easy exploitation (as homeopathic medicine or for totem superstitious reasons) but rather a source of national pride and an investment of another nature in the future.
At the same time Haigh presents these problems in interesting detail, he provides epiphanic moments with emotional force such as when he comes across a sign that reads, ‘Kameelfontein/ Leeouffontein’ translating as ‘giraffes’ (mis-nomenclature amusingly explained) and ‘lions’ where there are no longer any giraffes or lions in sight (310). Again, a rock engraved with a warning for the motorist to stop the car and to view the kob frolic on the grassy plain ahead proves itself a monument to that species’ near-demise: disturbingly, there is not a kob in sight, which the author explains might be due not only to the practice of hunting for bushmeat but also to the popularity of kob-skin cloaks used for dancing among the Acholi peoples in the north (353, 352).
By turns informative and humorous, hard-headed and idealistic, The Trouble with Lions is a beautiful book with a wealth of photographs that illustrate the author’s narrative, sometimes with sly humour (witness the photo of a Michele Hofmeyr feeding the giraffe oddly, 210) or even with an eye to the beautiful in the ugly (66) and always with a committment to presenting a balance of truths without obvious polemics.