A small, but engaging, subvocational group is made up of young, would-be field zoologists. There are some in most university communities, but they are not conventional, grinding-toward-degree-and-tenure types. They live more or less as poets are said to have lived in 19th-century garrets, and like poets they have large, grand dreams. Invariably the dream of these zoological irregulars is to go off alone -- or with no more than a mate -- and stay a long time in a wild place to conduct an independent field study of baboons, mongooses, lemmings or some other beast. The ambition and getting the wherewithal to satisfy it dominates their lives and they can be ferocious about seeking grants and patrons, or putting the bite on friends and relatives.
Mark and Delia Owens seem to be good examples of this class, and their book "Cry of the Kalahari," an account of the seven years spent in the wilderness and with the wildlife of the southern African desert, is a fine example of the animal-adventure genre. Having met in a protozoology class at the University of Georgia, the couple discovered that, perhaps excepting each other, what they wanted most in the world was to go to Africa, study and live intimately with wild animals. Subsequently they dropped out of graduate school, taught, worked in stone quarries, did the odd job, auctioned off their domestic possessions and flew to Botswana.
There they put together a mea ger field kit, the most essential and expensive item being an old and overused Land Rover. In this they went to the end of the last true road, then trundled off into the Kalahari, which for very good environmental reasons is all but empty of people. By and by, among other interesting creatures, they encountered some brown hyenas. The species took their fancy and since it has been little studied, they decided to make it the object of a long-term research project, of the sort that, if it were sponsored by an established wildlife organization, would have a budget well up in the six-figure range. However, by the time they settled in, the Owenses had less than $3,000 in their kitty.
Initially they survived by being frugal -- subsisting largely on severely rationed water and corn meal gruel -- to a degree that might shock even residents of a low-rent ashram. Also they played a kind of Russian roulette in regard their logistical arrangements. Their camp -- some brush and scraps of tarp -- was 70 arid, trackless miles from a dependable water source and farther than that from the nearest trading post where food, gas and other absolutely essential supplies were available for those who could afford them -- and the Owenses were constantly worried that they could not. That the survival of the couple, who had very little mechanical aptitude and precious few spare parts, depended, literally, on a decrepit truck will strike those who have been in comparable situations as being far scarier than dealing with lions and leopards.
Skimping and improvising, the Owenses commenced doing some good animal work. Among many other interesting things about hyenas -- so often portrayed as timid scavengers -- they learned that in the Kalahari these animals were among the dominant predators, running off both leopards and cheetahs from kills. There were a lot of lions in the area, and therefore many notes (as well as good photos) about lions in the book. One involves an incident, observed and impressively reported by Delia, in which one male was killed during a remarkable gladitorial confrontation between three mature animals.
Both Owenses contributed first-person chapters to "Cry of the Kalahari." On the surface this seems like a sensible way of reporting the very mutual adventure. However, since Delia is a much more skillful writer, there is a temptation to skip over his chapters to get to hers. She has the knack of using sharply observed, specific incidents to advance the narrative and give readers a sense of sharing rather than being told about her experiences and feelings. Mark -- with a style favored by academics who feel obliged to write "popular" -- tends to describe, with lots of adjectives, what he has thought about what happened. Perhaps after this shakedown expedition the couple will divide the literary chores of subsequent ones more in keeping with their natural gifts. Mark is apparently a talented writer of grant proposals since from the middle of the howling desert he was able to find funding that made their last years in Africa somewhat easier than the first ones. Telling how the money Mark raises is spent might be left to Delia.
However they work it, I hope the Owenses get back to the field and give another report on their activities. "Cry of the Kalahari" is one of the best testimonials to the perseverance, idealism and general spunk of passionate animal students.