Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Burgess Barnett (1888-1944) in Peru: A Magazine Account

The account I wrote of Dr Burgess Barnett (1888-1944) on 29 January 2014 created a a great deal of interest. Those who read it will recall that he spent over ten years up to 1932 working as a medical practitioner for Lobitos Oilfields Ltd, a British company in Peru.

I found the following article by him, describing one of his expeditions from Lobitos, in the March 1939 issue of Animal and Zoo Magazine. For ease of reading, I have used OCR software to extract the text.

The Fox who Rode on a Mule
by Dr Burgess Barnett
Curator of the Rangoon Zoo

The hero of this story is Santiago el Zorro, and, as he cannot read even his own language, I am fairly safe in not altering his name for publication. Santi the Fox, as we will call him, is a Cholo; that is to say he is a Spanish-Indian half-breed with his home between the Andes of North'Peru and the Pacific Ocean.
  When I knew him he earned his bread, with sufficient left over for a rather indeterminate family, as a labourer on an oil well. But the butter to sweeten the bread was come by-through his remarkable knowledge of the wild life around him.
  I used to go to him if I wanted some unusual animal to send to the London Zoo and, were it beast, bird or reptile, he could infallibly lead me to it. If another cholo were ill and had no faith in new-fangled hospital treatment, he would disappear for a day or so and return to sell him whatever remedy native lore prescribed as appropriate. It might be a rare cactus from over the mountains to be made into a lotion for erysipelas, or the bitter roots of a plant like our garden zinnias, to stew into a potion for malaria. More often it would be the " in'ards " of some animal, maybe a grey fox or a skunk, for no one knew better than Santi how to obtain unorthodox "medicines" from the pampa.
I have heard it said of him that Santi was an indifferent workman and a worse husband and father, but I can make excuses for him. His spiritual home, so to speak, was not in his little clap-board house with its earthen floor and packing case furniture. Here he was wont to sit of an evening gossiping and ultimately hiccoughing over home-brewed chicha. The part of him I admired reached its highest development out of doors, during week ends. Then, as soon as he knocked off work, he would take his rifle and his burro—his two most valued possessions—and ride all through the night to the Amotape Mountains, where the country is green. As often as not he would be treasuring only a single cartridge—the limit of his purse. The early hours of Monday morning would see him home again, dirty and bleary-eyed, but happy, with a brocket deer slung over the withers of his little steed.
One day, when a little bother with the police had deprived him of the wherewithal to buy even one cartridge, he came shamefacedly on to my veranda to beg one. Instead of complying, I suggested that I should "make it all right" with his employers and that we should wander off together for a full week in the wild. The old ruffian's weathered face crinkled into a beam of delight and in a few minutes it was arranged.
Santi on his little donkey, and I on a tall, raw-boned mule might have suggested Sancho Panza and Don Quixote as we rode off side by side on our adventure. First we followed a well-worn donkey track across the near-desert, which, a few years ago, had been subjected to heavy rains. The trail was marked by a lane of gaunt, dead algorrobo seedlings which had sprung up from the dung of passing donkeys when the ground had been moist.
In the valleys and gullies there is usually a little vegetation, a few scattered plants with thick, juicy leaves and woody stems, which seem to thrive on the dew which is their only-moisture. It is here that animal life really begins. Beetles with black, ribbed elytra, sand-coloured scorpions, goggle-eyed geckos and two or three other kinds of lizards are the most obvious inhabitants. And there are many others less easily discovered. Wherever there is an inch or so of space between the powdery sand and an overhanging boulder one finds the footprints of mice. The tiny spoor is never seen in the open, and I soon had proof that the mice have to keep to sheltered runs because of the multitude of foxes.
We set "catch-'em-alive" mouse traps in these situations and scarcely a trap was unsprung by morning; but the wood and wire of the traps were usually crunched to pieces by foxes and the mice eaten. In parenthesis, I can recommend a bait of rolled oats and cheese, fried to a stiff paste with bacon fat, with a pinch of salycilic acid to preserve it. It is irresistible to nearly every rodent.
Soon we discovered that there were two species of mice. One was the leaf-eared mouse, with relatively large, conch-like ears, which one imagines must be important to it for picking up the distant padding of foxes, Later, I sent one to the Zoo, the first to be seen there, and it lived in the Rodent House for many years. The other species proved to be new to science—a bigger animal, with the longest tail I ever remember seeing on any mouse. Now, I am afraid, it is lost again to science. The year after some skins and skulls reached the National Museum, a torrent rushed through the only gorge I knew the mice to occupy and swept it bare of every living thing.
By day culebras de sol—sand-coloured, fang-less snakes—are continuously taking toll, and even before sundown owls take up vantage points on hillocks, scanning the ground below for movement. One seriously poisonous snake is found there, as I discovered very nearly to my cost. Thrusting my arm up to the elbow into what I thought was a lizard's hole, I drew out a desert fer-de-lance, which was lying in it —happily head inwards!
Though the proof may not be sufficient for anyone else, that snake convinced me that snakes are not immune to their own venom. Hoping to get it home to the Zoo, I put it, quite uninjured, into a cotton bag which I placed in my saddle-bag. Barely an hour later, when we had made camp for the night, it was stone dead, with its long fangs buried in its own body. Since then, at the Zoo, there has been proof that king cobras can kill each other with their venom, but this is the only case I know of what looks like a reptilian suicide.
Beyond the coastal zone, we climbed to a tableland, a height of some 800 feet, where although the ground is just as dry, a different flora and fauna exist. It is a country of tree cactuses, of a red-barked shrub called palo santo, which yields a sweet, incense-like resin, and of a deciduous tree which feeds a remarkable processional caterpillar.
Santi was full of native beliefs concerning this tree, which he called guattaco. Should its flowers open before the leaf-buds burst, one prophecies that rare phenomenon which, tradition has it, occurs but once in thirty years— rain! When the blossoms colour the bare branches, the natives rush to cover the still thirsty soil with little pits, in each of which they sow a few seeds of maize or water-melons in the hopes of a catch-crop. Or they even plant cotton, and it is recorded that after one deluge they gathered a harvest of cotton for three successive years.
He told me, too, on no account to sleep under a guattaco tree. All the world knew, he said, that the leaves exuded "poisonous airs" which produce boils and blotches on the skin of unwary travellers. Soon afterwards I unwittingly discovered the origin of the belief. Nearly every leaf was acrawl with the processional caterpillars mentioned above. Roughly speaking, they were "woolly bears," and as I was stowing some of them into chip boxes, I realized that the "poisonous airs" were really "poisonous hairs." When a leaf was shaken myriads of little hairs floated away to settle on exposed parts of the skin, where they set up an intensely irritating rash.
We began to cross the tableland on a sweltering afternoon. A carrion hawk rose with a snake in its talons giving vent to a mournful call, "Wah-O, Wah-O.” Santi named it a guarguao. Presently we started a pair of stone curlews, which ran away ahead of us uttering their sharp, staccato cry of alarm, "Keh, keh, keh."
The two native names are pronounced, roughly, warra-wah-o and ivarra-keh-keh. He could not suggest their derivations, but I guessed at some long dead, pre-Inca language in which warra meant a bird, with onomatopoetic suffixes to specify the species.
Two other birds of the district are worth mentioning, for though I failed to get either of them home to the Zoo, they both exhibit habits  worth recording.
Firstly there is a flycatcher of which the male is bright scarlet and black, answering very nearly to the description Darwin gives of a flycatcher on the Galapagos Islands. The nest is built in situations similar to those chosen by chaffinches in England.
The other bird is not unlike a wren and it is known locally by the Spanish name for a nightingale. When I made to explore its nest, Santi called to me to take care not to be stung. He explained that the ruisehores frequently built their nests within a yard or so of new wasps' nests, which hang from the branches like inverted umbrellas. By the time the young birds are hatched, he said, the wasp grubs are of a size to feed them, so that the parents have a regular supply of insect food to hand. Although I cannot claim to have seen the wasp grubs being filched, it is certain that the birds' and wasps' nests are usually to be found close together.
Our week in the wilds finished beyond the tableland in the Amotape Mountains. And on the last day we had a misunderstanding. I mouched away on foot after breakfast, with a camera and a rifle and let Santi go off on his own after deer, arranging that we should meet again at sunset. The shadows of the cactus trees had spread long over the mountain slopes when I returned to within a mile of camp and I had nothing to show for a tiring day except a roll of exposed films.
Suddenly, as I topped a rise I came upon three deer, a fine buck with two does, in a perfect situation for a shot. Thinking, I am afraid, less of our dinner than of displaying my prowess to the experienced old hunter, I promptly dropped the buck. But quickly as an echo a second shot rang and a doe fell. Santi sorrowfully emerged from the bosque and hoisted his quarry on to his shoulders, unutterable reproach in his attitude.
"Too soon, senor," was all he said. He was driving them towards our camp before shooting them to save himself the labour of carrying them there.

I see that the Amotape mountains are now a National Park—the Amotape Hills National Park—set up to protect an area of dry equatorial forest.

In addition, in the October 1939 issue (the first after the start of World War II) of the same magazine, David Seth-Smith in the New from the Zoos section, reported:

Our old friend, Dr. Burgess Barnett, who was formerly curator of reptiles at the London Zoo, and is now in charge of the Rangoon Zoo, has sent us some Burmese tortoises.