Everyone who enjoys wildlife programming on television owes a debt of gratitude to David Attenborough. Attenborough — zoologist by training, TV man by profession — pioneered the concept over 60 years.
In fact, he did more than just come up with the idea. He went out in the field, lived in the jungle for weeks at a time and wrestled everything from caimans to boa constrictors.
His new memoir, “Adventures of a Young Naturalist,” collects accounts of three of his first trips into the wilderness, stories that amaze and fascinate.
Attenborough joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1952. It was a primitive medium; its reach extended only to London and Birmingham. Almost all programming was live, including animal shows, which were like the old Joan Embery visits to Johnny Carson. The superintendent of the London Zoo brought an often exotic animal to the studio and viewers watched, anticipating that someone might get nipped.
The reception was so overwhelming when the network aired some wildlife footage — provided by a filmmaker publicizing a feature-length documentary then in the cinema — that Attenborough argued that the BBC should do more of this kind of programming.
Currently most zoo animals are bred in captivity and environmentalists are reluctant to remove species from their natural habitat. In the late 1950s, zoos were eager to stock their cages, especially with previously unknown animals.
So Attenborough convinced the network and the London zoo to cofinance jungle trips. He filmed animals in the wild that would then be transported back to London and shown live on TV for a series called “Zoo Quest.”
As a champion of the great indoors, I am staggered by what Attenborough endured on trips to British Guiana (now Guyana), Indonesia and Paraguay.
He slept in an open hut with vampire bats whizzing by. He climbed 30 feet into a tree to knock down a branch on which a 12-foot boa constrictor entwined itself. Successful, he jumped down and almost single-handedly wrestled it into a container. He traveled upriver unknowingly on a boat captained by a gun runner who tried to convince local tribesmen to help rob him.
In Paraguay, he used the local Guarani language to ask natives if they’d seen any wild tatus (armadillos). Asked what kind, he replies: “Black tatu, hairy tatu, orange tatu, giant tatu; all the different kinds of tatu that are found in Paraguay.”
Attenborough didn’t understand the laughter until someone explained that tatu also means “a sort of young lady.”
Folks tired of sharing airplane cabins with comfort animals will appreciate the journey home, where Attenborough was handed a parcel and told:
“Inside this there are a few spiders, scorpions and one or two snakes. … Try to keep them with you so they don’t catch cold.”
What shines through this enjoyable, well-written book is Attenborough’s thoughtful respect for the planet and his understanding of its fragility.
Curt Schleier is a New Jersey-based book critic.
Adventures of a Young Naturalist
By: David Attenborough.
Publisher: Quercus, 393 pages, $26.99.