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Taking the Bait by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 3 mars 2021

If you are ever allowed to travel anywhere again, you might fancy visiting one of these fabulous places. A zoo and nature institute in Louisiana, a town in Pennsylvania, a country club, museum, and state park in Kentucky, a county in Iowa, a bridge in Mississippi, a roundabout in Massachusetts, a parkway and an avenue in New York, a bird sanctuary in Alabama, a wildlife refuge in North Dakota, a neighborhood in Minnesota, a gallery in Florida, a conservation center in Missouri, a recreation center in Texas, a ‘metro park’ (I don’t know what that is either) in Ohio, a mountain in Colorado, a high school in New Jersey, and an elementary school in Illinois.

The common thread that holds all of these wonderful places together is their dedication to that great American ornithologist, naturalist, and illustrator, John James Audubon.

But, of course, this is me you're reading, so you know I’m going to annoy every single one of those places with a little truth.

John James Audubon was actually French, born in Les Cayes, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. And his name wasn’t Audubon, it was Rabin. Jean-Jacques Rabin.

But before you dash off to change the name of the Audubon Business and Technology Center or the Audubon Terrace Historic District, or the John J. Audubon schooner which sits at the bottom of a deep bit of water somewhere, be happy he was at least a man of good honest breeding, and suited to adorn your treasured landmarks.

Except that, he was, of course, the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French pirate, and his Breton mistress Jeanne Rabine, a chambermaid, who died when he was only a few months old.

Anyway, don’t run off and rename the Audubon Society just yet, be warmed by the fact that Audubon's father was an upstanding and morally-guided man who loved his children.

Although, of course, he didn’t know how many he actually had. Could've been ten, maybe twenty; some by his housekeeper Catherine Bouffard, who he had more children with after his other mistress had passed to a place of comparative peace and quiet, and who subsequently raised Jean-Jacques, and some by a plethora of other servants whose names shall remain unwritten because I don’t know them.

But I’m not here to tell you about people whose birth country has been forgotten or misplaced, like Thomas Paine, the influential writer and political pamphleteer, whose Common Sense and Crisis papers spurred the American Revolution that created the country that Rabin was able to make his own, and who was, of course, born just around the corner (geographically-speaking) to where I reside, in the county of Norfolk, in England.

No, I’m here to tell you about a side of Jean-Jacques rarely known.

First though, I want you to relax, close your eyes, and think of mermaids. Well, one mermaid in particular, and she was so shockingly grotesque that you might want to open your eyes slowly.

Her name was The Fiji, or Feejee, or Fran mermaid, to be less-than precise. Our old friend, that bastion of exploitation and unconscionable degradation, Phineas Taylor Barnum, once said he beheld an “ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about three feet long,” with a gaping mouth and flailing arms, “giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” Once he’d said that about his mother, the mermaid stood no chance.

The mermaid was an absolute hit with gawkers, starers, and gapers, who just couldn’t take their eyes off of it. The ‘specimen’ that Barnum displayed across the globe in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was created from two constituent parts; the top half of a juvenile monkey, it’s mouth open to reveal sharp teeth, and the back half of a large fish, replete with fishy scales, animal hair, and pendulous breasts.

The mermaid was bought from Japanese sailors in 1822, who sold it to captain Samuel Barrett Edes, while desperately trying to maintain a straight face until he had disappeared completely over the horizon to a future of hokery and wealth.

While the mermaid was on its tour of fakery, Rabin was beginning his dishonest ornithological adventure, using a fake passport his father had managed to ‘buy’ to make sure his twitchy son avoided conscription to Napoleon Bonaparte’s army during the ever-shifting Napoleonic Wars.

Rabin’s real break came when he caught yellow fever from a mosquito, an incredibly rare occurrence in New York City, and was nursed back to health by a Quaker family who were sympathetic to the cause of infected Frenchmen. He also traveled to their country estate with them where, it is said, his fiery love of nature was ignited. There he began his bird journey, even creating his own nature museum - inspired by the astonishing collection curated by the brilliant Charles Wilson Peale, who has nothing at all dedicated to him except the east wing of my house - and which Rabin filled with bird’s eggs, dead raccoons, deceased opossums, dried fish, expired snakes, and other creatures that he stuffed and mounted with glee while humming La Marseillaise.

Let’s leave him taxiderming in Philadelphia for a moment, and reflect on a study carried out just this year, which sought to determine what draws us to certain animals, particularly useful for foundations and charities to highlight the lucky beast that will elicit the most donations.

The study, conducted by Sarah Papworth and Polly Curtin, and published in Conservation Letters, the journal of the Society of Conservation Biology, attempted to define what features an animal should have to be a favorite, by showing the audience a series of completely fake creations, crafted by an illustrator for the purpose, who used constituent parts to create hundreds of unreal animals. They were presented in pairs to the audience, in a kind of trade-off method, and used a powerful algorithm to pull out the most liked features.

It found that the most important trait was color.

Multicolored fake animals were “about 50% more popular than single-colored ones,” and, more specifically, blues and purples were liked the even more, said Papworth

While Papworth and Curtin were testing intentionally fake animals, Rabin was telling his own tall tales.

For example, he claimed that he had "ample proof .. that the brood of young Pewees [a 'North American tyrant flycatcher with a dark olive-grey plumage', apparently], raised in [a] cave, returned the following spring,” because he had the “pleasure of finding that two of them had the little ring on the leg", suggesting they were the same birds.

Unfortunately, Rabin, who was now Audubon, wasn’t even in the country when he said this happened, but was in his native France, examining snails up close.

But he was in the country when the French natural historian, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque travelled to Kentucky to visit Audubon specifically, and learn more about the ornithologist’s work. Though they spoke the same language, they did not appear to have enjoyed each other's company very much at all. In fact, Audubon was so irritated by Rafinesque that he determined to ‘help’ his countryman record some very specific and rare North American fish species.

As specific, it turns out, as the fur-bearing trout that have evolved to keep warm in the freezing waters of northern North America and Iceland and, very specifically, the Arkansas River, where the fish were helped in their quest for warmth by the addition into the river of four jugs of hair tonic.

While some fish do sometimes develop a cotton mold that manifests as tufts of fungus on their scales, this is pure fakery, though it didn’t stop the Montana Wildlife magazine reporting the fish as real in 1929, adding that when the fish is caught "the change of temperature from this water to atmosphere is so great that the fish explodes upon being taken from the water, and fur and skin come off in one perfect piece, making it available for commercial purposes, and leaving the body of the fish for refrigerator purposes or eating, as desired."

And, just as rare as the specimen of the Gellisoni Fabricata, caught by the

Norwegian scientist Dr. Thorkel Gellison who reeled in the fish - the largest ever caught - using “ordinary Mason & Dixon line, with a leader of Associated Press wire," off the coast of Hawaii, and reported in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on April 1, 1939.

So, rather as the Fiji mermaid was offered to the masses by Barnum, and Papworth and Curtin gave their audience a set of fantastical beasts to consider, and the newsreels proffered the furry trout and the Gellisoni Fabricata, so Audubon sent Rafinesque back to France with detailed descriptions of several brilliantly-named fish species, including the Flatnose Doublefin, the Bigmouth Sturgeon, the Buffalo Carp Sucker, and my own special favorite, the Bulletproof Devil-Jack Diamond Fish.

All completely fake, but documented diligently by Rafinesque in his notes.

But don’t go rushing to change the name of your beloved landmark just because Audubon told a fib or two, we’ve all done that before. Leave your roundabouts and metro parks alone, be proud of your cul-de-sacs and recycling centers.

Just don’t bother going fishing for the Bulletproof Devil-Jack Diamond.

photo by Skitterphoto

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