Charles Siebert looks like a movie star, and based on the impersonations he did in our conversation, he probably could be one, but he’s chosen to be a writer, a novelist and non-fiction writer, as well as a journalist. He’s a prize-winner in all these areas. It’s unusual to find a man writing about empathy, and especially about the plight of animals and giving credence to their inner life in major newspapers and magazines. This is just one of the reasons I sought him out. His article in the New York Times magazine back in 2005, An Elephant Crack-up?, moved me to tears and left an indelible mark on my conscience, in fact, such a profound one, that I swerved off of the well-worn channel of solely being a professional musician into a hybrid zone which became NatureStage.
Siebert’s most recent article on elephants appeared in the September 2011 issue of the National Geographic. For a list of Siebert’s writings, please see the end of the interview.
Here are excerpts from our conversation in a Brooklyn cafe in early September 2011.
CS (speaking about a television series in production)…so, we were going to start with the Janice Carter story. Janice Carter being the one who took Lucy from Oklahoma after her parents were done raising her as a human. The first act of hubris was bookended by the second which was “oh, let’s let her be a wild chimp now” and poor unsuspecting suburban oklahoman Janice Carter agrees to help Lucy make the transition to the wild and goes with her to the Gambia and first Senegal. Well, you know the story, it’s all in Wachula Woods Accord
ML You’ll have to remind me ’cause I read it about a year ago and I’ve seen Project Nim six months ago and…
CS It ends up just as you might expect, totally tragically. Lucy has no experience. Some of the other chimps at least knew other chimps. By other chimps, I mean other chimps in this transition center. Lucy had only known human beings. The only chimps she had ever seen were in National Geographic…so it was impossible for her and she just refused. And Janice, who was supposed to stay for two weeks to help with the transition, two weeks became two months, which became two years, and lo and behold, she’s still there. She’s never come back. But at one point she lived for eight years on this island with Lucy in the middle of the gambia river. And through much of that time, had a cage built for her to live in so that Lucy would be forced to go out and be a chimp. Now how’s that for a total inversion of the whole dynamic? A human being living by herself in the wilderness in a cage to force a chimp to be a chimp?
ML That is the quintessential irony, and also how we find ourselves trying to find our own wildness.
CS Exactly. And Janice became more wild than Lucy. That’s the crazy thing. This suburban Oklahoman girl became like a wild child. I mean, she was climbing trees and eating ants trying to get Lucy to climb trees and eat ants. So anyway, the whole thing, to cut to the chase, just ended completely tragically because Lucy started to seem to be able to fend for herself and was learning to go off and eat…and Janice finally decided it was time to leave. So she leaves the island and would come back periodically, and every time she did come back Lucy would be on the shore of the island to meet her and this time she showed up and no Lucy and she had this really bad feeling. She went back to their old campsite and Lucy was found with no hands, no feet, just her skeleton. There’s been all sorts of speculation as to what happened, but one of the scenarios that the press has fallen in love with is that Lucy, always the first to approach humans, approached, unwittingly, poachers who just served her up. But no one knows what really happened, but obviously it could have gone no other way but tragically, given the circumstances. But the weird thing is, Janice stayed on and she’s been there for thirty-three years on end. We still talk and she’s very hard to get to know, as you might imagine. A woman who’s just retreated from civilization as we know it. But she’s very sweet, and I sort of won her good graces. She agreed to be part of this documentary that Christopher and I wanted to do, but long story short, when we heard that Marsh was working on Project Nim…
ML Speaking of which, I really think you should go to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Have you been to one of these?
ML If you can find a reason to come, my sense is that it’s an incredible opportunity to network with…you’d be a superstar
CS I don’t know about that. I’d just like to go to Jackson Hole. I’ve always wanted to. Sounds like it would make a good story, covering it
ML I’m sure
CS When I was writing essays for Harper’s Magazine years ago I did a series of cover essays for them and one was about t.v. nature shows and how we’ve always framed nature. It actually got me on a very funny radio show with Sir David Attenborough. So, he was coming from England, someone else from Australia, and me from Brooklyn. It made for the oddest conversation. He started out not liking me. I think he thought I was way cynical, but in the end, we ended up agreeing with each other on a lot of fronts. He was always one of my favorites ’cause, you know his famous transitions, where he’d be like in Patagonia and climbing some mountain and then going (british accent) there is of course, you know, only one other creature with exactly these characteristics and it is…” and boom, he falls through some trap door, and the next thing you know he’s somewhere like New Guinea and then it would be “the New Guinea lemur!”
I just love that he kept falling through those nature trap doors. Nature as opera…
ML I just think if you’re trying to make a movie, you should just go to the source because theoretically there will be lots of funders there and there will be photographers and videographers and cinematographers
CS there will be all kinds
ML plus, just as a writer as you said, you could be observing too
CS Yeah, one foot out the door. Yeah, even at Sundance, I was amazed ’cause I helped sort of present as a favor the movie One Lucky Elephant
ML Oh I haven’t seen that yet
CS Yeah, they contacted me because they had read some of my elephant stuff and they asked if I would come out to the LA film festival and lead a Q&A after that, and so I did that and that was quite fun. Then I did one here in New York at the film forum. I hadn’t seen those guys for months, and sure enough I go to Sundance and they’re the first people I run into and they were there to see Project Nim and also to screen One Lucky Elephant which even though it’s not perfect, is a very affecting movie, especially on that frontier of elephants in captivity and the quandaries it gives rise to
ML Is that about Flora?
CS Yeah, the circus elephant
ML who basically didn’t want to go to the sanctuary because she missed her owner. Did she eventually get used to it?
CS Yeah, she had some real issues. She became quite obstreperous after Continue reading