This is the chapter, "Chuck Collins", from "Endangered Species, Book 1: Diary of an Eco-Warrior"
Lucy took me back to her flat to share some of her research materials. She was planning to put me on retainer for a few weeks and see what I could turn up.
The money wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, either. But, it was better than zero.
I said I needed to understand him in order to find him. She didn’t disappoint. She had been Collins’ producer for the past ten years and kept everything - showreels, programmes, clippings, interviews, transcripts - you name it. It was a one-woman fan club. She had discovered him - a diamond in the rough - when he she got his first commission with the BBC. They were inseparable ever since.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ she said, as we entered her immaculate flat. ‘I spend most of my time in LA and don’t have a cleaner.’
It was a showroom apartment. Not a crumb out of place. I tried to imagine her having Oz for a roommate. That made me laugh - until I noticed her watching me, as one might watch a vivisection.
Best keep my thoughts to myself for awhile. At least, until we got to know one another better.
She had a cat. It sidled up to me and rubbed its arching back against my leg in a friendly manner. Made me miss Francesca’s even more.
I reached down to give him a proper scratching but Lucy whisked him away.
‘Careful,’ she said. ‘My cat’s bipolar.’
She set him down before a small bowl and took out a blister pack of pills.
‘Best steer clear until he’s had his medication’.
She poked the pills down into some mystery meat from a cat food tin, until they were well-hidden.
His name was nemesis.
I don’t want to crow but I’m actually very good at tracking people down, especially the ones that don’t want to be found. It’s part of being a good investigative journalist.
True, I wasn’t much of a journalist but I had a knack for the investigative part. It suited my lazy disposition.
Rather than scouring the world, racking up fees, in endless pursuit - I liked to sit in cafes with a laptop and cellphone, conducting investigations and ‘Photoshopping’ my fees to justify my retainer.
But, tracking a tracker would prove challenging. If Collins wanted to drop off the radar, then he’d be tough to find. This meant I’d probably have to get off my butt and actually go somewhere.
This didn’t bother me, though. I needed a radical change. I wanted to get out of town and reinvent myself.
I’d go looking for clues. People can hide but they rarely change. They retain certain idiosyncrasies. They might have a penchant for porn, or a certain type of cigar - perhaps, use an inordinate amount of hand-sanitizer - that kind of thing.
And, there would be witnesses.
People leave behind “droppings”, like a bear in the woods.
Collins had a troubled childhood. He grew up in Zimbabwe but was of British origin. His parents had financial troubles, possibly political ones as well, because they left under the cover of darkness. Unfortunately, they forgot to take their son, who was out collecting beetles at the time (his zoological interests blossomed early). They also forgot to tell him where they’d gone, or send someone to collect him. He returned that fateful night to an empty house, which was promptly repossessed by the government, and exchanged for an orphanage – where he spent the next few years.
When he was asked about this incident in an interview, he said that his parents probably had a lot on their mind at the time. Hmmm. A strange form of denial. Surely, it would be hard to forget that you had a son? As far as I am aware, they never found each other ever again.
He was adopted by a local park ranger who needed help chasing poachers. He found an eager assistant in the young boy, who enjoyed taking pot shots at them with a sniper rifle. He may have enjoyed this a little too much, as he spent weeks on end tracking them in camouflage, or pretending to be the animal they were targeting - just waiting for the perfect moment - to shoot them in the ass.
That was his calling card. To this day, many of the poachers from the region cannot sit down comfortably. It is often misconstrued by their employers as a sign of pride when, in fact, it is a medical condition.
The ranger had adopted another surrogate son – a South African by the name of De Konig – who was only a couple of years older than Collins. There is very little information on him. He and Collins left the park at the same time, after their adopted father tragically perished in an elephant stampede.
Collins spoke of his time at the park as idyllic, but there is also an undercurrent of sadness. I got the impression that he was hiding something.
He began his career as a tracker in Africa, then travelled to Australia, and on to New Zealand. He was good at it, too, but often got into spats with his clients. It wasn’t unusual for someone with his skills to guide amateur hunters, but the work was distasteful to him. According to one police transcript, he actually gagged and trussed up a client as a pig and put them into one of their own wild boar hunts. Luckily, their fellow hunters realised this just before the kill. It was a close call and Collins was stripped of his credentials. But, he dealt with it in his usual way – by going somewhere else and starting over. He was amazingly resilient. Perhaps, that was on account of all his previous misfortune.
He did a stint for the BBC as a wildlife consultant and this is where he met Lucy. It was at this time that he got the bug to be in front of the camera. This proved to be short-lived, however, as his reporting style was somewhat inflammatory and politically incorrect - even by BBC standards. Some of the titles of the episodes from his children's wildlife programme are particularly revealing: “Happy Feet: The Secret Lives of Gay Penguins”, “Preying Mantis, Coitus Interruptus”, and “Hippo Poop”.
Also, there were unfavourable reports of him endangering the crew on account of being more interested in helping animals than people. Not long after, he reinvented himself again as a naturalist and hosted an amateur wildlife program on a local cable channel in America. This was eventually parlayed into a television series that very few people saw but, nonetheless, kept going. The series ran for several years, as Collins scoured the globe for animals and plants in peril. Wherever he went, Lucy was sure to go with him.
I saw pictures of her building camp fires, cooking meals, and generally mucking in wherever she could. She clearly loved the outdoors. Yet, she was incongruous to it. After months of living in the bush, she still looked like a supermodel who had been helicoptered in for a fashion shoot, while her crew looked like cadavers at the morgue.
Lucy handpicked her highlights, yet I must have watched over six hours of Collins in action. It was hard not to like the guy. In his early years, he came across as a babe lost in the woods – excited by everything he saw. There was something infectious and endearing, yet hapless, about him. He seemed genuinely shocked when the animals refused to cooperate. After all, he was there to help them.
He had a tremendous knack for getting in the soup. Each episode brought new confrontations and successive injuries. In one episode he upset a bee hive, which came to a sticky and painful end. Then, he was charged by a buffalo, accosted by a Koala, pecked by an upset Emu, decked by a panda, face-slapped by a Portugese Man-o-war, swarmed by red ants, assaulted by an angry beaver, crushed by a cow, heckled by dolphins, and body-checked by an angry moose. And, that was just the first season.
But, the guy definitely had charisma. When he spoke to camera, it felt as if he was speaking directly to you and no one else. He rallied you to his cause. Yet, as he matured, a hardness set in. He became scared - literally and figuratively. The hazards of the job were taking their toll. He became irascible. Only the most stalwart of his crew remained. In fact, a few boom operators even died on location.
In the end, there was an undercurrent of bitterness to him. I felt he was constantly seeking approval but became disillusioned by the silence at the other end. Even after skyrocketing to glory from the YouTube video, he seemed frustrated by the public. He wanted them to care as deeply as he did about what really mattered to him. But, ultimately, it was a one-way conversation.
If television was too small for Collins, then Animal Land gave him a new lease on life. It was big - really big. It was to be his capping glory. He had a renewed sense of purpose and an urgency about him, as he set to evangelising his greatest achievement. He became the beneficiary of an anonymous donor and no expenses were spared. It was to be the greatest show on earth.
Like many of his previous assignments, he took to it with a zeal that was commendable in its ardour, if not somewhat out of place with reality. Let’s face it, Animal Land was a tourist trap. You could sense the investors salivating at the merchandising opportunities. But, Collins, to his credit, seemed utterly oblivious to the crass commercialism of it all. In his mind, he was creating a utopia for both man and beast.
Children came in droves, delighted by the prancing llamas, the antelopes and the rhinoceros park. But, their squeals of delight could not mask the ill-fated premise. Wild animals are wild. Even more so when not behind bars. It was a teddy-bear picnic just waiting to happen. And the tourists weren’t there to commune with nature. They wanted to gawk at the animal circus - bask in their own superiority - and then buy corn-dogs and plush toys at the concession stand.
It was a tragedy from the start.
As I watched the last episode of his television program, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness. Collins didn’t deserve what had happened to him. I realised that now. Obviously, he felt the same way. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have disappeared from the limelight and abandoned the cause he held so dearly, no matter what the trials had been. The disaster at Animal Land had been so catastrophic that nobody could have expected otherwise.
I realised now that he was probably in some far-flung corner of the world licking his wounds – punishing himself for what he perceived to be his most momentous failure. And, now, Lucy raised the possibility that he wasn’t to blame.
Was this wishful thinking, or had higher powers had it in for Collins from the start? I knew what it was like to be the underdog, the guy who kept bashing his face against the wall, hoping that somebody would notice. He touched a nerve. At least I knew who it was that I was searching for.
Someone not unlike myself.
Lucy hadn’t returned from running her errand. Must have been over two hours ago. Should I be concerned?
More important, I needed to find a toilet. I had drunk five cups of coffee. My bladder was a watermelon.
I went to the hallway and saw two doors. I figured that the bathroom was the first one I came to but I saw that the other door at the end of the hall was open. Probably, her bedroom.
I couldn’t resist.
It’s not that I was perving. I was just curious, so I slipped inside.
Her room was tidy but her bed was unmade. It faced a small but tidy writing desk. All the items on it were neatly arranged: writing paper, pens, paper clips, envelopes… and a pack of Russian, gold-tipped cigarettes.
I sniffed the packet. Very heady - very exotic. There were only a couple missing. No ashtray, either. Not the sign of a compulsive smoker but one who partakes occasionally - a guilty indulgence.
My eye caught some movement. The door was opening, very, very slowly.
Crap! I froze. This wouldn’t look good. I had to fashion a good excuse -
It was the cat.
He stopped and stared at me with unblinking eyes.
Thank God for that.
Still, his saucer gaze was unsettling - and a bit hostile.
‘Hey there, Nemesis, buddy - how you doing?’
I stepped forward but he hissed. His back hairs shot up and he arched something frightful. I spoke to him in dulcet tones.
What happened next was a blur.
He launched himself at my face. I couldn’t see a damn thing but I could feel his sharp claws digging into my neck.
Then, he bit me.
I may have over-reacted a little. I grabbed his fury face and flung him across the room. He ricocheted off a lamp but landed on his feet. I hotfooted it out of there, but he leapt onto my back before I made it to the hallway.
Now, he was harder to reach.
I body-checked myself against the wall.
He squealed - not a pleasant sound - but wouldn’t let go.
I dropped to the ground and did a fireman’s roll. Every time my weight bore down on him, he squelched but wouldn’t stop clawing up a fury.
When I saw my own blood, I realised I had to take things up a notch.
I scrambled into the bathroom and plunged myself into the shower.
I blasted kitty and he didn’t like it one bit. He tried to escape but I held him there as punishment. Not very mature, I know, but I was running on adrenaline.
‘That’ll teach you to mess with me you friggin’ fur-ball from hell!’
Satisfied that he’d had enough, I pitched him out onto the bath mat.
He stood there like a drowned rat.
I could see the anger and hurt in his eyes. But, we had come to an understanding – for now.
He skulked away.
I caught my reflection in the mirror. Christ! I’d had a cheese-grater facial!
There was nothing to swab my fresh wounds with except beautiful, fluffy cream towels… or toilet paper.
I chose the latter.
I don’t put much store in fate, or bad luck for that matter. But, I hadn’t had a lucky break for months. Then, Lucy came along. I thought it was a sign of something good, but now I wasn’t so sure.
If I had trouble fighting off a house cat, how was I going to survive an expedition with Chuck Collins?
We weren’t hiking into Hyde Park. No, we’d be going places where no man had gone before.
Lucy showed up a short while later. She didn’t remark that her cat was wet - only that it had carefully eaten around its medicine, leaving the pills behind.
She saw my face, however, and put two-and-two together.
She sighed. There didn’t seem to be enough time for her to say what she really wanted.
‘We need to go to LA. How soon can you be ready?’
‘Right now,’ I said, yanking out my passport from my back pocket.
It was damp but legible.
‘I never travel anywhere without it.’
Lucy was impressed.
‘What about clothes and things?’
‘I’ll get what I need on the road. Besides, I prefer to travel light. Look - I’ve even taken a shower, so I’m good to go.’
I smiled, dislodging the torn pieces of toilet paper that I’d stuck to my facial wounds. They fluttered down to the cream carpet like petals from a red rose.
‘Fine. We’ll take Nemesis to the cat hotel and head to the airport.’
‘They have a hotel for cats?’
She was confused by my question.
‘Of course. He can’t stay here on his own.’
I looked at Nemesis, now purring sweetly in her arms. I’m sure if she left a window open, he could happily live off the pigeon population in our absence. He’d be just fine on his own.
In fact, he was probably the only one likely to be left alive at the end of it all.
But, I didn’t know that then.
Ignorance is bliss.