Sunday, September 9, 2012

Saving the Whooper

author Kathleen Kaska
Let me introduce you to a multi-talented writer, Kathleen Kaska. Kathleen writes fiction, nonfiction, travel articles, and stage plays, and has just completed her most challenging endeavor. The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story, a true tale set in the 1940s and 50s, is about Audubon ornithologist Robert Porter Allen whose mission was to journey into the Canadian wilderness to save the last flock of whooping cranes before encroaching logging and mining operations wiped out their nesting site, sending them into extinction.
            She also writes the Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series and the Classic Triviography Mystery Series (LL-Publications) and is a frequent contributor to Texas Highways magazine.
  Today I've asked her to talk about her newest book, a nonfiction story about the man who saved the whooping crane.  It is an amazing story of a dedicated man.

In Search of the Last Flock

            Prolonged serendipity, beginning almost twenty years ago, led to my book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story (University Press of Florida). I won’t bore you with all the details, except that my passion for whooping cranes began the first time I laid eyes on those majestic birds. It was at their winter home, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. A boat tour had taken me through the Intracoastal Waterway and into the refuge for a closer view of these giant white birds, which stand five-feet tall and have a seven-foot wingspan. I could have sat there all day, watching the cranes’ methodical movements as they probed for blue crabs in the shallows. Listening to the tour guide’s narration and learning that in the early 1940s the population had plummeted to only fifteen, I was moved by the story of the cranes’ slow comeback—and the National Audubon Society ornithologist who helped saved them from extinction. I left the refuge that day knowing I wanted to make a difference in wildlife conservation. Being a teacher and a writer gave me two starting avenues.
            At that time, the life science curriculum at Lake Travis Middle School near Austin, where I was teaching, included a unit on environmental science, so I wrote a few lessons using the whooping crane as the focal point. A National Geographic video in the school library turned up. It told story of Audubon’s ornithologist, Robert Porter Allen. After showing it to my classes, I was surprised at how it grabbed those seventh graders’ attention (was no easy task). I knew that if those youngsters were intrigued by the story, others would be, too.
            Two of my articles about the whooping cranes and Robert Porter Allen were then published in Texas Highways magazine. Researching those articles made me realize there was much more to this amazing story. I dug deeper and the publication of my book resulted.
            What intrigued me most about Bob Allen was his ability to change the minds of his staunchest opponents. After moving to the refuge in 1947 to begin his research, he found out what he was up against. Practically no one in Aransas County, Texas would appreciate a newcomer preaching protection at all costs for what they thought were useless birds. So Allen took a different approach and played the role of a novice needing local help and advice about the whooping crane. They eagerly told him all they knew.
            What follows is an excerpt from the book, which tells one story of Allen’s influence over the old-timers who lived near the refuge back in the 1940s. He was beginning his second year of work, and he and his young son, Bobby, had visited a local hangout in Austwell, the nearest town. 
   The next morning, Allen and Bobby dropped by the town’s gathering place, Cap Daniel’s, a general store, beer joint, and garage. Covering the walls and shelves were Cap Daniel’s odd collection of firearms and war relics. Also hanging in a prominent position on the wall was a Judge Roy Bean ‘Law West of the Pecos’ poster. Allen remembered his friend and refuge manager, Jim Stevenson, telling how the locals gathered around Cap Daniel’s coal-burning stove and complained about the government’s proclamation of Blackjack Peninsula as a whooping crane reserve. He often overheard comments such as, “If you can’t shoot them [whooping cranes], what blankety-blank good are they?” or “They tell me they [whooping cranes] ain’t bad eating but there’s no open season on them.” Allen was surprised to see that the attitude surrounding saving the whooping cranes was changing. A new sign on Cap Daniel’s front door announced the establishment as the Whooping Crane Information Center.
         Cap Daniel remembered Allen and was happy to see the ornithologist. A few days later, he asked Allen to do him a favor. “Mr. Allen, I wonder if you couldn’t get ahold of some whoopin’ crane pitchers I could put up on my wall. People ask me about ‘em every day an’ I oughta have a pitcher or two.” When Allen brought in a large drawing of a pair of cranes, Cap Daniel removed the Judge Roy Bean poster and proudly replaced it with the whooping crane picture. He rolled up the Bean poster and presented it to Allen as a gift.
         While interviewing Allen’s daughter, Alice, I was pleased to learn that the poster is one of her most cherished items in the collection of her father’s memorabilia.