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The Brothers Wild
John wrote of sitting quietly in a blind and looking deep into the eyes of a mother peregrine falcon: "Those eyes revealed her nature, and in them I could see her life. I could see love of freedom, of wild unconfined spaces. I could see the spirit of adventure, the desire for thrills, an appetite for daring." He could also have been writing about his own life.
Their world opened up because of the birds. Driving an old Chevy through Wyoming in pursuit of hawks the summer after graduating from Western High School, they fell in love with the American West and vowed to return someday for good. They longed for the spectacular and rugged landscape, the incredible wildlife. And their taciturn natures and distaste for formality were at home there.
But back East and throughout the country, they were also exposed to some tough realities. Not everyone saw what they saw in the animals they loved. Several times, the twins ran into hunters or farmers who delighted in killing birds of prey -- beating the young to death, setting steel traps, shooting them. The Craigheads worked hard to combat the prevailing wisdom that hawks were depriving humans of game, but they knew what they were up against. When they discovered that one of their own kestrels, who had come to trust humans, had been killed by a boy with a BB gun, Frank wrote: "I hope he never realized what killed him; I hope he kept his faith and love in humans to the end."
BY THE TIME BOTH BROTHERS GRADUATED FROM PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY WITH MATCHING SCIENCE DEGREES IN 1939, they were already corresponding with R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, who requested that they call him Bapa, which they were told meant "Little One." Bapa was the youngest of three royal brothers in the small princely Indian state of Bhavnagar, on the Gulf of Khambhat. His eldest brother was the maharaja, and Bapa led a privileged life focused mainly on falconry, hunting and swimming, later writing books about Indian wildlife.
Bapa had read the Craigheads' 1937 article in National Geographic and had written to them, one falconry-addicted youth contacting two others. The letters were followed up in September of 1939 with a two-week visit from the prince, whose family boasted an ancestry that could be traced back to Kublai Khan. Hosting such a royal visitor was unnerving for this very modest American household: The twins were forced to wear their best suit jackets in the sweltering Washington heat to meet him at the airport; their anxious mother splurged on hiring a maid to serve dinner; and, the Craigheads reported, "Dad even wore his coat to the table, a thing we had never seen before." All anxiety soon vanished. For Bapa, the twins later noted in National Geographic, "was in any language a regular guy!" He swilled Coca-Cola and milkshakes. He swam and canoed. He danced to jazz music with American girls and fielded fly balls at pickup baseball games.
In 1940, the twins went to visit the prince in India for several months. Bapa had gotten married by that time, so instead of staying at his palace, the Craigheads were given a suite of four rooms at the state guesthouse (along with a personal driver and "touring car"). Bapa's home, a sleek, modern structure with an in-ground swimming pool and several tiered diving platforms, was nearby. The twins were presented with their own peregrine falcons, which they kept at the hotel, and every day they went out with Bapa and his expert staff to fly the birds.
The twins did their best to fit in, they wrote in their National Geographic article and a book also called Life With an Indian Prince. As a gift, Bapa had traditional Indian outfits made up for them, complete with turbans. They ate exotic food, which Frank reported "burned the devil out of my guts." They drank more than they were accustomed to -- though they had tried to "condition" themselves for a party by drinking "lemon gins" in the previous weeks. And, at a royal wedding, in which 100 elephants -- some pulling silver carriages -- took part in the processional, they were propositioned by "dancing girls." The women, who were hired to do more than just sing and dance to entertain the men, serenaded the twins: "I love you. Just pinch me and you'll know the greatest happiness. Come and sleep with me tonight." (National Geographic chose to leave the last sentiment out of its pages.) The twins weren't interested, but the lusty maharajas were. Looking back on it, John told me, "We were pretty late in finding out about girls."
But these quintessential Americans lost their bearings a bit in the faraway land. Bapa and his brothers were enthusiastic hunters, and the conservation-minded Craighead boys jumped in with both barrels. After one day of hunting, John wrote that providing meat for the men, reducing the numbers of abundant animals and learning about exotic creatures, "helped me rationalize the killing . . . in the excitement of it all, I forgot all sentimental ideas I had against needlessly taking life and shot for the mark with keen enjoyment."
They aimed their guns at a dizzying list of victims, including quail, jackal, "jungle cat," civet, imperial eagle, tawny eagle, the endangered great Indian bustard, cobra, wild boar, cranes, the now-endangered chinkara (a shy, buff-colored gazelle), dogs, goral and Nilgai (a big, thick-necked antelope). They never got the chance to hunt a tiger, but they did watch beaters drive an Asiatic lion (rare even by that point, critically endangered today) toward the princes, who blasted the animal from rattan perches set up on a platform. The Craigheads always defended the sometimes wanton hunting practices of the royal brothers, but they had some trouble accepting the lion kill. In their journal, they graphically describe the scene as the magnificent animal is skinned. They note, it "seemed a great shame that such a perfect animal should be the victim of a young prince who had no real interest in a lion, dead or alive." By the end of their trip, they seemed to have had enough. One journal entry states, "I don't care to shoot animals merely for the sport of shooting, even for control purposes."
BACK AT HOME, THE CRAIGHEADS EARNED THEIR MASTER'S DEGREES in ecology and wildlife management from the University of Michigan. They both were married to athletic and adventurous women-- Frank to Esther Stevens, from Illinois, and John to Margaret Smith, from Wyoming, whose father was a Park Service ranger in the Grand Tetons. And the couples bought 14 acres of land near Moose, Wyo., just where the twins always said they would settle, building identical cabins next to each other. At the start of the war, the brothers were off to Chapel Hill, N.C., where the U.S. Navy had commissioned them as lieutenants so they could set up a survival training program, as they had for the ROTC on the Michigan campus. They wrote the manual How to Survive on Land and Sea. After the war, they continued their survival training work for the Navy in the Marshall Islands, the Philippines and Japan.
The brothers got their PhDs in vertebrate ecology from Michigan in 1950. And their dissertation was published as "Hawks, Owls, and Wildlife: Ecology of Raptor Predation," which, the Wildlife Conservation Society's carnivore conservation biologist John Weaver says, "set a standard for the study of raptors." John Craighead took a position as professor of zoology and forestry with the University of Montana and as leader of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit. Frank worked in the 1950s for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada and then the Forest Service in Washington.
For the first time in their lives, they were working and living far apart, and except for summers in Moose, it would last for nearly a decade. But John, who was immersed in Western wildlife issues and intrigued by the mysteries of grizzlies, started considering a long-term study. Both brothers saw it as a way to work together again -- a shared, but largely unspoken desire.