Flamboyant green figure

By Ian Sutherland

Never buy a second-hand lion act. This valuable advice was given to me by a friend in Florida, a most unusual man of many parts.

John Hamlet was an early and persuasive environmentalist. He affected everyone he met, with his wide-ranging experiences, local knowledge and commonsense approach to the preservation of the environment.

He was born and partly raised in the Dakotas in the US.

He spent most of his time, as a child and teenager, with the local Indian village kids and was part Oglala Sioux himself. He spent days in the wild, laying the basis for his subsequent livelihood and interest in natural history and the environment.

He went to university in the West, Oklahoma I believe, ran a night club in Chicago, wrote songs, some of which I recognised, joined the US Fish and Game department and honed his skills.

He ran a bird park in Florida, devoted to birds of prey, with the boast that he had more hawks than Genghis Khan. He ran the animal department of the US polio vaccine project.

He wrote two books in the early 1970s, one on raptors, the other on Florida's loss of habitat, the protection of which was his lifetime goal. He also started a film company called Shoshone films which made a number of natural history films for the Chicago Museum in the early 1970s about environmental issues, including the first on the ugly effects of the oil business on Alaska.

Later in his life, he became a consulting naturalist for Florida's Sea World. He married a mermaid. He was approached to design a very expensive subdivision in an environmentally friendly way, and spent several months there, finding out what was there and what could be saved. This involved creating wide connecting belts of Florida bush, to allow the natural movements of the local flora and fauna. Each house was given a booklet about their property and the estate, what to expect and how to identify the birds, animals and plants there.

The lion act? Lion groups are extremely hierarchical, and the top lion is the supreme boss. None of the others would dream of doing anything, especially eating, without his (or her) permission.

Consequently, when a tamer puts his head in a low-ranking lion's mouth, that lion glances at the boss to get permission to chew on the tamer. The boss lion is never going to OK an underling eating before him, so the tamer is safe.

However, if the boss is being challenged, all bets are off. Sell up and get out.

The mermaid? Weeki Watchee Springs in Florida is a huge spring with crystal clear water. The entertainment company which owns it put on shows with lady swimmers dressed in detachable tails. John married one of them.

The bottom line is that you don't have to have known Marilyn Monroe (though he did - with photos and press clippings to prove it), or enjoy catching snakes with your bare hands to publicise environmental and conservation matters.

Be comforted. There are many people like John, although not so flamboyant, out there, quietly and persuasively voicing our concerns.

Ian Sutherland is a retired pathologist with a lifelong interest in natural history and concern for the environment.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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