The Men Who Brought Them Back Alive

Great White Hunters

Before Frank Buck, the other well-known animal collector in the Malay Archipelago was Charles Mayer (1862-1927), operating out of his base in Orchard Road, Singapore, during the turn of the century. Born and bred in New York, Mayer was first inducted into the industry through his association with circuses, learning the ropes of animal trapping from a Mr Gaylord, P. T. Barnum’s agent, on voyages to Siam, Java and the Malay Peninsula.[1]

Frank Buck

Opp. p. 182 in Wild Cargo

After several jobs including ‘cowpunching’ at a ranch, bell-boy at a Virginia Hotel, and office boy to vaudeville magnates John Murdock and Martin Beck, Texan-born Frank Buck (1884 – 1950) began his career in animal trapping in the region in 1912-1913, when the established animal dealers Hagenbecks were forced to cease operations due to the British blockade of German businesses. By the mid-1920s, Buck had become a well-known supplier of Asian animals to zoos and circuses throughout America.

Bringing more than animals back

An introduction to Edward Anthony, a humorist based in New York, led to a tenuous collaboration between writer and animal dealer (or according to Anthony, ‘born storyteller’) which produced two best-selling publications, Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1930) and Wild Cargo (1932). Though Buck had, and continued to, write articles detailing traits of specific animals or anecdotes of harrowing experiences he had capturing animals for periodicals, the books launched Buck into celebrity status, starting him on lecture tours around the world.

Spurred by the success of wild animal ‘documentaries’ such as Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), Buck began to explore possibilities of breaking into the film market. After bumping into some brickwalls which led Buck to comment that it was harder to see the moguls than maharajas, Buck finally found a willing partner in the Van Beuren Corporation, a subsidiary of RKO which typically produced short subjects. Following Buck on a 9-month trip to Malaya, Sumatra, India and Ceylon, the production team shot over 125,000 feet of film, which was cut back to 7,000 feet to produce the Bring ‘Em Back Alive. It was a departure from what Van Beuren Corporation had intended — a feature film that Buck had envisioned since watching Chang, instead of the 13 short features in the initial contract he signed with RKO.[2]

Buck continued to capitalise on his fame with radio shows, more books (Fang and Claw, On Jungle Trails, All In A Lifetime, Tim Thompson in the Jungle, and Jungle Animals) and films [Wild Cargo (1934), Fang and Claw (1935), Jungle Menace (1937), Jungle Cavalcade (1941), Tiger Fangs (1943)]. He also set up ‘Frank Buck’s Jungleland’ in the 1939 World’s Fair, replete with animals and attap houses from Malaya, built by Malays who would also stay on to sell satays.

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Malay Village at World Fair, The Straits Times, 18 December 1938, p. 17.

What Mayer and Buck brought back to America were more than animals, but stories of how they captured these animals. Buck himself notes how he would get letters from young boys and one girl, asking to join him on his next expedition. As much as they made a living from selling a rare primate or birds with ornate plumage, the harrowing tales he spinned around the capture of a man-eating tiger was equally profitable.

More than Great White Men

What is often forgotten is that they relied very much on local networks, other men who brought animals back alive from the jungles for sale. Native informants and assistants such as Ali were frequently mentioned by these American animal dealers. What is less known is that American dealers often bought animals from local dealers in town centres and rarely entered the jungles.[3]

02

Ali and Buck’s loyal Malay assistants
Opp. p. 12 in Bring ‘Em Back Alive

Not all of this trade was above-board and there was robust debate in the pages of local newspapers and legislative council about the state of the wildlife trade, especially in light of Dutch legislation to restrict trade in protected species and the growing animal welfare movement in the 1930s. In 1933, Tan Cheng Lock, Unofficial Member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council and the Executive Council, condemned the wildlife trade in Singapore as a “‘slave trade” in these poor denizens of the forest’ and urged the Government to ‘end the cruel commercial exploitation of wild life in this country.’[4]

Despite an abortive attempt at improving the state of wildlife trade in Singapore by organizing a committee to investigate into the conditions of the trade in 1933, letters commenting on the ‘scandalous state of affairs’, the ‘evil smelling birdshops of Singapore’, the ‘filthy emporiums’ of ‘squalor and sordidness’, and ‘appalling conditions’ of the wildlife trade continued to be published in the later half of 1934.[5] In 1939 the Singapore Municipal Commissioner still described the conditions of the wildlife trade as a ‘disgrace to Singapore’.

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‘Disgrace to Singapore’, The Straits Times, 28 January 1939, p. 12

Clearly, there were more players in this animal trade than well-known characters like Buck and Mayer, and ones who left few archival traces except for often overtly racist commentaries on their cruelty to animals.[6]

Beba-SIT

Rare archival trace regarding the Rochore Road animal dealers
J. Forbes to Municipal Office, 24th October 1930, SIT902/30, HDB1023, NAS.

Join us for the screening of Bring ‘Em Back Alive, at the NUS Museum, on 13 March (Wednesday), 7pm, to consume part of what these men brought back alive!


[1] Charles Mayer, Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1922), pp. 3-23

[2] For more about Frank Buck, see Chapter 3 of Joanne Carol Joys, ‘The Wild Things’ (PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2011). Available here  [Last accessed 10 March 2013].

[3] Thanks to Dr Daniel Bender at University of Toronto for sharing this aspect of his research, based on his access to personal diaries kept by some of Buck’s rivals, on the connections between American zoos, Singapore animal traders, and American popular culture, at a seminar entitled Animals of Empire: Singapore, American Zoos, and the Wildlife Trade, 1900-1940 at NUS earlier this year

[4] Proceedings of Straits Settlements Legislative Council, 6 Mar 1933, CO275/133, p. B27-28, B43.

[5]A blot on the landscape’, ST, 22 August 1934, p. 5; ‘Cruelty to animals’, ST, 14 Sep 1934, p. 10; ‘Bring ‘em back alive’, ST, 6 Sep 1934, p. 6; ‘Bring ‘em back alive’, ST, 18 Aug 1934, p. 13; ‘More blots on the landscape’, ST, 31 Aug 1934: 18.

[6] For more on the attempts to regulate wild-life trade and the civilisational discourses that accompanied the characterization of these local animal dealers, see Fiona Tan, ‘Beastly Business: Regulating the Wildlife Trade in 1930s Singapore’ (B.A. diss. NUS History Department, 2012)

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