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“Well it is eating an iguana, ” Ron replied with a smile, and I managed to laugh at myself
while watching our paint-marked lizard head down the serpent's gullet. Another day as
I paddled a canoe with Cathy Toft, a Princeton grad student studying frogs, we photo-
graphed a Baird's tapir in a shoreline “Eo-scene” that later inspired me to think of living
creatures as icons for their extinct relatives. That tapir, nicknamed Alice, often entered
the lab clearing for handouts, so one night, suddenly curious about what she felt like, I
snuck up from behind. Alice's ample derrière brought to mind a warm, stubble-covered
watermelon, and later I fell asleep marveling at her ancient alien strangeness.
Burghardt's other Ph.D. students, an eclectic bunch whose intellectual breadth and
future paths were as diverse as their research, also taught me a lot. Bev Dugan used
hillside vantage points to untangle social conventions among iguanas; she would later
combine experimental perspectives with exceptional people skills in a successful man-
agement career. Hugh Drummond, among the first to study snake foraging in the field,
subsequently turned his attention to siblicide in sea birds when he returned to Mex-
ico. Doris Gove stayed on in Knoxville, where she parlayed research on northern water-
snakes into children's topics on local natural history; Elizabeth Shull applied the eth-
ological principles she'd learned studying mockingbirds to veterinary medicine. Paul
Weldon has most closely emulated Gordon with a career in chemical ecology, while Hal
Herzog, who initially investigated maternal behavior in alligators, and then cockfighting
as a cultural phenomenon, has recently published SomeWeLove,SomeWeHate,Some
We Eat, 31 a brilliantly insightful topic on human-animal relationships.
Our friendships unfolded in many a beer-soaked, horizon-expanding conversation.
Bev insisted I read David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, 32 which laid bare
the Vietnam conflict as political folly and shook me badly. 33 Then, provoked by a quote
that ended Wilson's Sociobiology, I plowed through the writings of Albert Camus. For
years I'd been vaguely aware of an emotional load—Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks
was inexplicably disturbing, and fumbling to express my resentment of the war to anoth-
er student, I surprised us both by choking up—but the French writer's insights on ali-
enation cracked open the gloomier sheds of my psyche and struck a match. Mortality, I
began to see, was still cloistered for most people I knew, death acknowledged in somber
rituals that carried little of the sights or sounds of tragedy; yet as a youth I'd touched
a woman's most intimate places, barehanded in those days before AIDS, to deliver her
baby. I'd seen splattered skulls and shrieking survivors, watched a grief-stricken moth-
er shaking so hard I feared she'd eviscerate, and learned firsthand how twisted minds
could turn lust and love into murderous rage.
By 1977 I'd packed a ton of discovery into two graduate degrees and been in
Knoxville longer than anywhere else in my life. Snakes were my organisms of choice,
evolution and ecology my conceptual foci. Education and conservation beckoned as
well, and my emotional lid, long screwed down, had ever so slightly loosened. In the
spring I had a disastrous interview at Cornell. That fall I took a position teaching anim-
al behavior at the University of Pennsylvania's College of Veterinary Medicine, but its
emphasis on domestic species clashed with my goals, so the following summer I moved
on to Berkeley. For the next couple of decades I would roam hot dry places and explore
hot wet ones, preoccupied with studying nature, yet learning more about myself in the
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