In my quest to reduce the sheer volume of stuff in my house, I periodically attack the lowest hanging of “fruit,” so to speak: I get rid of books, CDs, and DVDs. Not too long ago I was digging through a crowded bookshelf, deleting items, when I came upon a beloved old friend that I couldn’t possibly stick in the sell bag. It’s Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy guy.
Written about ten years before Adams’s untimely death in 2001 (at only 49!), it follows his globe-spanning adventures with naturalist/photographer/co-author Mark Carwardine, as they sought out legendary animals threatened with extinction. It’s a wonderful, bittersweet, uplifting, gut-bustingly hilarious account of how various endangered creatures were doing at that time. Adams and Carwardine checked in with the Komodo dragon, Chinese river dolphins, northern white rhinos, and the endearing but inept flightless kakapo parrot of New Zealand—among others. If you love animals and haven’t read it, get cracking.
Last Chance to See was a special book for me in terms of my career, too. In ’92 I was seriously underemployed and a gig writing PR copy for the PBS show Newton’s Apple came my way. But I needed to provide a sample of humorous writing. I was tearing my hair out (I still had some then) and I thought of my review of Last Chance that I wrote for the Minneapolis Tribune. My review was funny because the book was funny. Apparently the folks at Newton’s Apple were tickled by it, and it got me a nice annual project on a national TV show for five or six years.
Just in the last month, I discovered that Adams’s old friend Stephen Fry had teamed up with Carwardine a few years ago to revisit the animals from the original journey in a TV documentary. Sue and I watched the show and it was delightful. But things are apparently not so delightful for creatures like the river dolphin and the northern white rhino. They were nowhere to be found.
However, the kakapo is soldiering on, inhabiting an island stripped of all cats, dogs, rats, weasels, and other western imports that brought them close to extinction in the first place. (A kakapo’s defense strategy in the face of doom is to stand there with its beak open, doing nothing.) The scene where a tame kakapo attempts to “get it on” with the back of Carwardine’s head is alone worth the price of admission.