Monday, February 1, 2016

Lions, rhinos, and... moose? Oh my!

I am excited. I get excited sometimes, like when there's a new book coming out by Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin or when I learn about a new bookstore or when I order cat-themed apparel or, like today, when I get to share with you all a really cool person I've just met. This guy, let me tell you---Dr. Jerry Haigh: wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, storyteller, author, professor, photographer; I mean, really.
Dr. Jerry Haigh treating a white rhino; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Jerry and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago and I'll relate our discussion in a bit. First, a bit of background is required. Dr. Haigh is a self-described "Kenya-born, Glasgow-schooled veterinarian living in Canada's providence of Saskatchewan." After graduating from Glasgow, Jerry spent his first ten years of professional life working in Kenya, then in the mid 1970s, moved to Canada where he held a post at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Jerry retired in 2009, but continues to be active in wildlife conservation, storytelling, and writing. His first collection of stories about his past, Wrestling with Rhinos, was published in 2002 and followed by The Trouble with Lions and Of Moose and Men. Jerry is currently finishing his fifth book.

Here's a fantastic summary of Jerry's work on YouTube. A must-watch on storytelling. And another sample of Jerry in action on the stage.

I immediately asked Jerry about his oral storytelling. This is an art I know little about and it holds a sort of campfire and smoke-like reverence to me. I asked which Jerry prefers, since he's a master at both: writing or storytelling?
Dr. Jerry Haigh checking a lion in Namibia; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
"One of the nice things about oral storytelling is that is doesn't have to be the same every time," Jerry says. "You can pick a folk story or a real-life story -- I don't do it the same every time. You react to the audience; you see how the audience is responding. Preschoolers won't get the same story as adults. For example, if you have a picture of your arm up the rear end of a rhino, you get gasps and laughs, especially from kids. Kids always giggle at stories about bums and poop so you make damn sure you tell them it's processed grass you're getting out. The word poop offends nobody and works across all age groups, be it in real life or not. With my career in the background I can switch from biology to 'A long time ago, in a time before time.' I have used three folk stories about poop, one for rhino, another for dikdik and a third for hippos. That's the beauty of folklore."

Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
In comparison to writing, Jerry laments the challenges of typing when one's mind is going one speed and the fingers go another. "Writing is fun," he says. "But of my old students told me the one thing he remembers most about my lectures was my storytelling. That's a nice compliment in a way."

At this point in our conversation, we somehow got completely sidelined talking about the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, a Canadian football team. (Did you know that in Canadian football, they only go to three downs instead of four? Did you also know that I know nothing about either American or Canadian football?) I think it's safe to say if you ever get a chance to fall into conversation with Jerry, DO SO, because you will find yourself learning things that you didn't even know you wanted to learn about.

Leaving that tangent and getting back on track, Jerry said his favorite topic to write about is rhino conversation. "The first proper wildlife patients that I had were rhino," he says. "When I was working in Kenya, there were 6000 rhino in the country and I was helping translocate them out of farmland and into national parks. Now there are less than 600. It's a horror story."
Working rhino, 1974; Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Other than expertise in rhinos, Jerry has also had an historic impact on the deer industry: he was the first to do artificial insemination (AI) in deer. "For many, many years I was one of the small number of people who knew anything about deer," Jerry explains. After he perfected his AI technique, off he went to New Zealand. "We took North American elk to New Zealand, the first trip of its kind since 1908 when President Roosevelt donated a small number of elk to New Zealand." Jerry's textbook, Farming Wapiti and Red Deer, was first published in 1993.

You might notice, as I did, that in Jerry's book The Trouble with Lions, there is a forward by Jane Goodall. I had to ask about that. "She's an amazing woman," Jerry says. "Fantastic storyteller. I've seen her on stage for an hour without a single note in front of her. Phenomenal. She preaches a story of hope. And I suppose we have to have hope in the face of what's going on with wildlife. And we're not just talking about African wildlife--it's a global problem."

Many of the stories that Jerry tells orally and writes about in his books, blog, and in magazines come from his expansive experience. Since I can barely recall what I had for breakfast on most days, I asked Jerry if he has volumes of journals that he relies on as his memory-keepers. Other than his medical journals containing his difficult cases back when he worked in Kenya, his answer is: no. "I've got a very good memory for that sort of stuff," he says. "And when needed, I speak to other people to see what they remember, so I have enough stuff to cobble things together." And by cobbling, I'm going to editorialize here and say that he means recounting details such that you can see the feathers on a bird, smell the rhino dung, and swear you hear the roar of the lions coming up behind you. Because if you take a look at his books and listen to his storytelling, that's the sort of experience you'll get.
Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh

Until next month, dear readers!