~ Aqua Vitae ~
It was a bad idea.
She’d made it
clear to him from their first conversation: it was a bad idea;
find another hobby. But he said that he was moving forward, with
her or without her. She figured the project would be better off
with her input, hence her decision to go ahead and do business
with the guy. Besides, it was a paycheck, a damn good one, and
she’d worked in far less desirable locals than a far-flung,
She turned to gaze out of the aircraft window and watched the clouds passing beneath. Her face scrunched into a self-deprecating frown as she again contemplated the assignment she’d accepted. She’d never really understood the attraction that people had in wanting to keep exotic pets. The pop psychology explanations were manifold: ego, the American predilection for bigger-is-better, “falling in love” with the reasonably-priced baby chimp, tiger, black bear or lion cub, with little or no thought given to what the cute little thing would grow into in a few years, or even a well-intentioned but ill-placed desire to “bond with” such magnificent creatures. Few had the means or the time to provide the animals with proper veterinary care, living space, a proper diet or the necessary psychological and physical stimulation to keep the creature thriving, and it was always the animals that suffered for it.
There was a reason that zoos were staffed with a roster of veterinary specialists, full-time keepers, and field experts who spent many years studying an animal’s natural ecosystem, habits and behavioral repertoire before committing to exhibit the creatures. Just because you could afford to toss a couple of pounds of meat and vegetables over a chain-link cage every day didn’t mean it was right to keep a 300-pound bear in there.
At least this guy had the brains to call in a wildlife biologist as a consultant before going ahead with his idea. The brains, and the money…
Jackie Bannon was said wildlife biologist. She’d earned her Ph.D. while doing fieldwork for the Wildlife Conservation Society, the parent organization for the Bronx Zoo. After working with the zoo for twelve years, she went out on her own as a wildlife consultant, advising smaller zoos and wildlife parks on the ecology and requirements for keeping the particular specimen they might be interested in exhibiting. Her reports always went well beyond the diet and other biological and behavioral particulars of the target species, to include the typical flora in which they would hide, hunt, graze and sleep, and the other wildlife—the prey, predators, competitors and insects with which they coexisted in their natural setting. It was the type of expert work that larger, better-funded parks always handled in-house, and minor, local zoos always benefited from.
longer, Scotty?” she asked her assistant. The two of them were
seated in first class, on a flight from
“I don’t know,” Scott said, glancing at his watch. “Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes or so.” Scott Newman was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student who was working with Jackie for practicum credits.
“Too bad it was such a short flight,” she said. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve flown first class.” The client had paid for the tickets, of course.
“He could’ve fed a Haitian village for a year for what he shelled out for those tickets,” Scott said. He was still idealistic enough to be viscerally distrustful of wealthy folks.
Jackie knew where he was coming from—she’d been there once—but had been in the real world long enough to realize that stinking rich capitalists paid much more substantive consulting fees than did impoverished third-world villagers, or even than the corrupt governments that kept them impoverished. And flying first class was nice, as long as if wasn’t coming out of her pocket.
this guy could actually buy
Before long, the captain announced that they would be on the ground in ten minutes.
Despite his immense wealth, Greg Harrington was basically an okay guy. He left his two-person crew back on the boat and drove a rental car to the airport to pick up his guests himself. He got a kick out of standing in arrivals and holding up a card with Jackie’s name on it, like all the other chauffeurs. Life was one big vacation now, and he could afford to burn a little time doing nothing but making himself smile.
He had no problem spotting his party at the arrivals terminal At six-feet tall in her stocking feet, deeply tanned, dressed in sun-bleached khakis and sporting a thick mane of dark blond hair, Jackie was easy to pick out of the crowd. And the shorter, scruffy bohemian tagging alongside of her couldn’t be anything other than a graduate assistant.
Once he waved them down and introduced himself, Harrington insisted on taking Jackie’s bags. She ordinarily would have protested—she’d carried many times the weight of her bags over terrain a lot less hospitable than the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport parking lot—but thought it better to let her host play the gentleman if that’s what turned him on. He escorted them to the car.
The first time she’d heard of Greg Harrington had been when he’d called, out of the blue, several months ago. After trying to talk him out of his little project, she reluctantly agreed to take a closer look at his idea, resulting in this first “meeting” on his private island. She tried doing an online background search on him, but came up with little except for the fact that he was a partner in a Wall Street hedge fund.
In truth, Harrington was now semi-retired, at least from active management of the fund. He was still a partner in the firm, but had decided, at age 48, that it was time to drop out of the rat race. He’d made a small fortune as a bond trader, then a large one when he and two partners formed their own hedge fund, basically an impossibly complicated, unregulated mutual fund for the mega-wealthy.
His career had
already cost him two marriages, which yielded him three children
and two massive alimony and child support payments. The decision
to leave was made on a Monday morning six months ago, when one
of his partners, only three years his senior, dropped dead at
his desk of a massive heart attack. At that point, Harrington
was forty pounds overweight, prematurely gray, had high blood
pressure and ate crap. He knew he was looking at his future as
He’d lost thirty pounds, had his blood pressure under control and hadn’t eaten a meatball hero, an 1,800-calorie glazed cinnamon roll or slice of greasy pepperoni pizza since he left downtown Manhattan for the last time. His children were back in his life, and even his ex-wives were talking to him, for what that was worth. After buying the island and a comfortable boat, he now spent his time entertaining friends and business associates and thinking of ways to put his wealth to good use. He was surprised when Jackie Bannon, who had come so highly recommended, had initially rejected his idea so vociferously. She needed an up close and personal look at the concept, he’d decided.
Once onboard the yacht, Harrington introduced Jackie and Scott to Bill and Diane Draper, a married couple who helped out on the boat. Bill, thirty-eight years old, was a former Coast Guard chief petty officer, and helped with piloting the craft and routine maintenance work. Diane, three years younger than her husband, did the cooking, shopping and other odd jobs while they were underway. Bill helped carry the guest’s luggage on board.
itself was a Sea Ray 680 Sun Sport, a seventy-foot, 75,000-pound
motor yacht with twin 1,358-hp Caterpillar diesel engines and an
eighteen and a half foot beam. It carried a whopping 1,000
gallons of diesel, had two large staterooms, a guest room that
slept two, and a smaller but comfortable crew quarters that Bill
and Diane called home while underway. Harrington could have
afforded a bigger boat, but he occasionally liked piloting the
craft himself, and really didn’t want to have to employ the
larger crew that would have been necessary. The big Sea Ray was
fast, nimble, comfortable, and luxurious and was equipped with
state-of-the-art electronics that made navigation and
communications a snap, and featured plasma-screen TVs in every
stateroom and salon. It was small potatoes compared to the
100-plus-foot mega-yachts that Harrington occasionally ran
across while carousing the
Jackie was assigned the aft stateroom, a large room with a queen-sized bed and a private head, while Scott was given the smaller guest room. Once they’d been shown around, Bill used the bow thrusters to ease the craft away from the dock and got underway, while Harrington and his guests settled into the soft leather seats in the airy, upper salon.
Jackie accepted the glass of white wine offered by her host. “Please don’t take offense if you notice my mouth hanging open. We’re really not accustomed to this kind of treatment.”
“More like broken-down jeeps and leaky rowboats with ten-horsepower outboard motors,” Scott added. He accepted a beer from Harrington. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, it’s a
bit much,” Harrington admitted, sinking into a seat with a glass
of scotch. “Just for the record, I grew up in a middle-class
household, got my education on the cheap from
“No need to apologize on my account,” Jackie said. “I’d spend it if I had it.”
“Well that brings us around to the subject of the day, doesn’t it? I thought I was trying to spend my money the way you might spend it.”
“If you mean using it to support wildlife causes and to help study and protect endangered ecosystems, you’re right. But I wouldn’t start my own personal collection…”
“Because you’ve seen enough of them go bad,” Harrington interrupted.
“You’re right,” Jackie admitted.
“But you wouldn’t let your own personal collection go bad. You’d set it up properly, populate it thoughtfully, budget it adequately, and staff and run it properly. Most people don’t do that.”
“Right again. I suppose it would be more honest of me to say that if money were no object, yes, I’d probably have more pets than I’d normally have. But being a professional, I know how much work it is to run a sizable, diverse collection, and I’d rather leave it to the established organizations that have the full-time staff to handle the responsibility, and who aren’t going to lose interest when things turn out to be more complicated, time-consuming or expensive than originally anticipated. It’s what they do. Have you considered making a large donation to an exiting zoo? They’d all love to hear from you, that I can tell you for sure.”
going to the Bronx Zoo since I was in a stroller, and have been
a Chairman’s Circle Patron for years—I take my kids there at
least once a year, every year. They even invited me to the grand
opening for the
“We used to say that if we didn’t have muddy boots on the ground, we didn’t get involved in the collection,” Jackie confirmed. “That’s why a major exhibit can take a decade of planning … a lot of that time is spent in the field, studying the intricacies of the particular ecosystem, observing the target species for years, documenting their hunting or foraging behavior, their mating rituals, how they care for and raise their young, how their diet may change seasonally, what their natural range is, interspecies conflict, cooperation and competition, threats, everything. There’re a million details that have to be considered, and we try to consider all of them. Even a relatively confined ecosystem like your island could have five to ten thousand species of animals, insects, plants and trees. We know it’s not physically possible to duplicate it exactly, so which species do we select and throw together? Which mammals? Which reptiles? Which birds? Which plants and trees? How do you know that the intestinal bacteria helpful to one species isn’t deadly to another species that lives on the other side of the island? Even in a large, well thought-out exhibit, the addition of one wrong woodpecker, tiny shrew or lizard can screw up everything.”
my argument for bringing you along on the trip. I want to do it
right, or not do it at all. I’ve got the same money that the
Bronx Zoo might have to dedicate to the project; I just don’t
want to wait ten years. I mean, let’s be real—we’re talking
“I can guarantee you that at least one will be,” Scott jumped in. “And I appreciate the opportunity.”
“How large is the island?” Jackie asked.
850 acres, roughly the size of
“Wow,” Jackie said. “That’s a lot larger than I figured. I pictured it as a little crescent that was all white sand beaches with a few iguana and seagulls.”
“I have all three along the coast. The beaches are great; the iguanas are mellow, but seagulls can get annoying.”
“How much development have you done?”
“I have my house, and five guest cabins, all clustered together on the leeward side of the island. The buildings were almost totally pre-fabricated, and everything was brought in on barges. I did use some local lumber for trim and decorative applications, but only from trees that we had to cut down anyway to make room for the buildings. I’ve got a rainwater collection system set up on the big hill behind my house, but otherwise there are no roads or structures anywhere else on the island beyond what you’re going to see when we dock.”
“What do you do for power?” Scott asked.
“I’ve got a 250-kilowatt wind turbine that generally provides more than enough power for everything, and I have a 30-kilowatt, solar panel array on each building just in case. I have a small diesel generator for my house in case of a real disaster—you know, a hurricane or whatever. I tried to find a more reasonably sized wind system, even if I had to get one for each building, but the technology really isn’t there yet. The turbine is on a hillside on top of a 120-foot tower, so that kind of sucks. But it’s far enough away so the noise isn’t that noticeable, and you really only see it when you approach the island from the northeast.”
“That’s a real bird-killer,” Scott said.
“That was my concern,” Harrington admitted. “That’s why I took such a hard look at a smaller system. And I walk up there every once in a while to check … so far it hasn’t done any damage that I can see. I think that’s a problem mostly with large commercial wind farms, where the turbines are clustered together for miles and miles and the birds have nowhere to go but right into them. And the newer models have larger blades that rotate more slowly than the earlier designs—they’re a lot easier for the birds and bats to avoid.”
“Sounds like you’ve got yourself a nice little, self-sufficient paradise out there,” Jackie said.
“It really is,” Harrington agreed. “What do you say we get something to eat?”
Aqua Vitae © Copyright 2012, Anthony F. Lewis