Anthony Lewis Books

~ 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, privately owned Caribbean island.

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.

“How much longer, Scotty?” she asked her assistant. The two of them were seated in first class, on a flight from New York’s Kennedy Airport to San Juan, Puerto Rico. There they were to meet their patron, who would take them by yacht to his island, some 100 nautical miles away.

“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.

“I suspect this guy could actually buy Haiti if he had a need for it, which I doubt,” she said. “Your best behavior, okay? I don’t want to have to swim home, especially without a paycheck.”

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 the EMS guys were setting his partner’s body on the stretcher. His phone was still ringing as they carried him away.

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.

The boat 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 Caribbean, but it suited him just fine.

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 City University, worked eighty-hour weeks for most of my life and got lucky as hell. Then I worked even harder and got even luckier. I suppose I could have given all my money to charity and joined a monastery, but this seemed like a better idea at the time. If I change my mind, the monastery is still there.”

“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.”

“I’ve been 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 Madagascar exhibit in the old, 1903 Lion House that they refurbished. I did speak to the director about my sponsoring a Caribbean exhibit, but they’ve already got projects in the pipeline stretching out for ten years or more; and all of them are connected to their ongoing, long-term conservation projects, both home and abroad. They couldn’t squeeze me in if they wanted to.”

“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.”

“You’re making 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 about a Caribbean island here, not some undiscovered lost world on a mountain plateau in Mongolia. I’m sure you know what’s living there before you even get a look at it. You could probably do a more accurate inventory of the species on that island off the top of your head, sitting here right now, than I could after ten years of hiking around there. You know what’s going to work and not going to work; I’m sure more than one thesis has been written on the subject…”

“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.

“It’s about 850 acres, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. Maybe two and a half miles long by a half-mile wide. Elevation rises to about 1,200 yards above sea level. It’s mostly tropical forest, with a good number of limestone caves and a sizable mangrove swamp on one side where the mountain streams empty into the lowlands.”

“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

~ Aqua Vitae ~



 A smooth, leisurely four-hour cruise took Harrington and his guests through the many islands of the leeward Lesser Antilles, past St. Croix and about twenty-five miles from St. Maarten, to the impressive, thickly forested island that Harrington called his own.

As they moved closer, they were treated to a picture postcard vista—there was no hint of a sinister, mysterious fog-enshrouded Skull Island here. It was a bright, lush green, an emerald jewel beckoning on a clear, calm, aquamarine sea—only a frosty Margarita and a comfy beach chair were needed to complete the picture. Jackie spotted a pair a magnificent Blue Herons taking flight as the boat rumbled closer toward shore.

They approached from the west, providing them a good look at the sheer bluffs rising from the rock-and-boulder strewn shore that rimed most of the island on that side. The view was hazy at first, then cleared into sharp focus as they neared. Dense vegetation was crawling right up to and even spilling over the upper edge of the craggy rise. They were heading to a small but clearly defined bay at the northernmost tip of the island, with narrow crescent of coral beach and a single dock jutting out to meet them.

Bill throttled back the yacht and approached the dock, while Jackie, Scott and Harrington took in the scene. Harrington was right about the limited development, at least in principle. The main house was good-sized but not huge, perhaps 3,500 square feet. With the exception of one, small, single-room dwelling about seventy yards off to the left of the main house, the guest “cabins” were, in fact, 1,500 sq. ft. single story homes, terraced into the hillside, the first two of which were low enough to be considered beachfront property.

“Diane and Bill take the first cabin,” Harrington pointed out. “After being locked up with me on the boat, they like to get as much distance between them and me as possible.”

“He said he doesn’t like to hear the screaming at night,” Bill winked. “It makes him jealous.”

The towering wind turbine was far off to the left as they approached, facing northeast into the prevailing wind, about halfway up the slope. The walkways in between the buildings were finished in crushed stone, and areas around the homes and retaining walls were stunningly landscaped, virtually encrusted with tall, shimmering scarlet, lavender and white blooms, all swaying gently in the breeze.

“Except for a few fruit trees and vegetable and herb seeds for the garden, we didn’t bring in any non-indigenous plant life,” Harrington informed his guests as he helped carry their bags to the aft sun deck. “Everything you see there came from this island, including all the flowers. We brought in the big stones for the retaining walls of course, and that white, crushed stone for the walkways, but I had a landscape architect and his crew walking the island for a week, picking out specimens to replant up front here. It worked out really nice.”

“It’s beautifully done,” Jackie said. “I’m surprised you haven’t opened the place as a resort.”

“Half the islands out here are owned by wanna-be luxury resort developers. They’re a dime-a-dozen. I want to do just the opposite: I want to keep my little hideaway here all to my own, and open the island getaway back in the states. That’s why you’re here…”

“You think outside the box, I’ll give you that much,” Jackie said.

While Bill finished docking the large craft, the rest of them went below to gather their belongings and prepared to disembark.


Jackie and Scott each were given their choice of residence. They learned that a groundskeeper occupied the cozy single room cottage, which explained why the compound appeared so well kept.

“Wait until you get a load of this guy,” Diane cracked as she lugged two coolers of food ashore. “He belongs on a deserted island.”

“Francis is a bit of a loner,” Harrington explained, overhearing the remark. “He’s a former naval intelligence specialist who served two tours on an Aegis cruiser. Then he moved on to software development, used to work on code for high-definition DVDs, or something like that. Made a decent living, saved a lot of money, and then decided that that wasn’t what life was all about so he gave most of it away to charity and now he spends his time communing with nature and keeping the bats out of the attic. It works out for both of us.”

“You don’t pay him?” Scott asked.

“Believe me, I’ve tried. He accepts food and shelter from me, that’s it.” Harrington shrugged. “I had that tiny cottage built specially for him; I tried putting him in one of the regular guest cabins when he first got here but he wouldn’t hear of it. As far as the money goes, if he ever has a change of heart, I’ll take care of him; he knows that. I’ve already set up a 401K for him that he doesn’t know about; I put his paychecks in there for now. If he wants to give it to charity, that’s his business.”

Once everyone got squared away, Harrington announced that dinner would be up at his place at 7:00, so they all had some time to unwind, rest, or walk around a bit if they preferred.

“Do you guys have a compass?” Harrington asked his guests before leaving them alone.

“I’ve got one in my bag,” Jackie responded.

“Right here,” Scott said, pulling one out from under his shirt. He had it hanging from a chain around his neck.

“Must have been a Boy Scout,” Harrington cracked. “Anyway, if you get lost, we’re on the northwest tip of the island. If you’re drunk and lost and can’t read the compass, just head to the water and follow the shore around until you get home. The most you can walk is six miles.”


What they weren’t able to see from the water was the spacious deck and backyard Harrington had build for himself behind his residence. A densely forested slope rose quickly away from the well-planted and shady yard, which had been cut into the hillside. The overhanging canopy was aflutter with birds, so alive with trills, calls and squawks that they needed to be tuned out in order to have an uninterrupted conversation in a normal tone of voice. Diane had prepared a simple meal for everyone on the barbeque, and afterwards they gathered around the teak picnic table, had drinks and discussed Harrington’s idea for bringing a Caribbean resort stateside.

“You know how high-end hotels all have those fancy atriums?” Harrington asked. “You know, six-story waterfalls, potted trees, big fresh flowers everywhere, all very tranquil but a little too over-designed and civilized, at least for my taste. I want to take that idea to the next level. Not a hotel, but a very exclusive resort, with not more than say, three-dozen or so guest rooms. The dining facilities, the bar and nightclub and whatever will be on the outside perimeter of the building. And instead of the typical potted tree and waterfall tumbling over black-marble atrium, we’re going to have a Caribbean island landscape, complete with wildlife and plants right from this island. Depending on what the engineers say, I’d like to have it surrounded by water, with a white sand beach, and with a bridge that the guests could walk over to explore the island. It’ll be big, maybe three or four enclosed acres with a solarium roof, big enough so that the wildlife have plenty of room to move around and hide, the birds have room enough to fly to their heart’s content and guests can hike around and get lost if they want.”

“You want the guests to be able to walk around in the exhibit?” Jackie asked.

“That’s one hell of a petting zoo,” Scott added.

“Actually, that’s not far from what I had in mind,” Harrington admitted. “The animals here are very friendly.”

“Sure, they have no fear of humans,” Scott said.

“They’re very friendly,” Harrington repeated.

“Francis talks to them,” Diane said. “I think he’s named most of them.”

“I don’t even know how you’d begin to license all of that,” Jackie said.

“It’s a pain in the ass, I can assure you,” Harrington said. “But I’ve already got most of it covered. I’ve already secured a New York State License to Collect or Possess—that’s what you need to open a zoo, an Endangered or Threatened Species License, and a Dangerous Wildlife License, just to be sure all my bases are covered. I don’t think any specimens we’re interested in are endangered or particularly dangerous, although the iguanas can get pretty big, and the crocodiles and bats might get people nervous.”

“First of all,” Jackie started, “a great many, if not most of the wildlife here are likely considered at least threatened, just by virtue of the fact that they’re only found on these small, isolated islands. Most avian extinctions that we’re aware of today have been of species restricted to islands—one bad hurricane and you can eradicate an entire population. And as you alluded to before, even the smallest islands are now being developed, so every species living on them are facing habitat loss in general and additional competitive or predatory threats from non-indigenous species introduced to the islands by humans. And I don’t know much about the hospitality industry, but I’m guessing that mixing paying guests with crocodiles and bats is never a good idea.”

“Well, you’re the one who’ll have the final say as to which species we’ll populate the exhibit with, but it can’t be all turtles and songbirds. I want something that people will talk about.”

Jackie sipped her wine and listened to the birds for a moment. She didn’t want to start arguing with Harrington, not this early on in the visit. His idea was unique, maybe even conceivable if he was willing to scale it back to something reasonable. And he was right about one thing he had said earlier, though she didn’t want to admit it at the time: Caribbean wildlife and flora had indeed been very well studied and documented. Though the ecosystems of each series of islands could certainly be a little different, she wouldn’t need a long series of field trips to decide how to put together a balanced, sustainable exhibit; that path had already been well trod.

But this was the first time she’d heard him mention the size he had in mind. An enclosed four-acre, state-of-the-art exhibit attempting to approximate a single Caribbean ecosystem would be a first, at least as far was she knew. If done well, it could be something to be proud of, and would most certainly be a feather in her career cap. She just needed to dial back his vision a bit. She might even agree to let him have his crocodiles, as long as they were separated from the guests by a clear plastic partition. He was worried about getting people talking; well, they’d start talking the first time a hungry Caiman croc bit the leg off an overcurious four-year-old child, that’s for sure.

Harrington excused himself and went into the house for a moment. He returned with two sheets of paper, and handed one each to Jackie and Scott.

“That’s just a crude map that I sketched out myself,” he said. The island appeared kidney-shaped, with rough elevation lines drawn in. “You can see the beaches are on the windward side—the eastern side—and the mangrove swamp is on the southern end. Most of the streams funnel down the heights to that end of the island. There’re a couple of nice waterfalls and big ponds down there, at the medium elevations, and the wildlife tend to converge in that area. I’ve penciled in the trails that we use, but they’re really not that well-defined once you get out there. There aren’t many of us using them, and, as I’m sure you know, the forest grows in very quickly. If we leave them be for two weeks, you’d never know anybody had ever walked out there. But, like I said before, it’s not really that big, and it’s real hard to stay lost for very long on a small island.”

Jackie gave the map a quick study. “This’ll do fine. Am I correct in assuming that you’d be looking to model the waterfall and pond area for your exhibit?”

“Exactly. Obviously, we should be able to do quite a bit with three or four acres, but yes, I see a good-sized pond with a nice little waterfall as the hub of the exhibit. Even the shy animals have to come out of hiding once in a while to drink.”

Not with thirty people standing around waiting for them, she thought. “Alright, good. We’ll concentrate our initial observations at that end of the island and see what we can come up with. With all the room you have available, we might even be able to include a little mangrove swamp, though water control will be an issue. Those areas generally have brackish water, so we’d have to set up a separate system from the fresh water ponds and waterfalls. But it might be a way for you to have your crocs and keep them at a safe distance from the guests.”

“Good,” Harrington said, also not in the mood to pick up the argument. She’d see, soon enough.


She hit the sack early, wanting to start out as soon as the light allowed. Scott was waiting for her outside her door, at 5:30 A.M., as planned.

They traveled lightly, both with compact hydration packs with enough storage space for a couple of sandwiches, a pair of binoculars, a notebook, digital camera, first aid kit and the few other sundries that might come in handy. Scott carried his pride-and-joy, a broadcast quality, low-light capable, high-definition digital camcorder, in a heavily padded side bag. Each wore a sturdy pair of hiking books and carried a collapsible aluminum hiking pole to help navigate the occasionally challenging terrain.

The birds were in full throat as they headed off on the overgrown path Harrington had indicated on his map.

She’d already spotted a pair of Antillean Crested Hummingbirds at work on the blooms outside of her residence. They’d be a real crowd-pleaser at any exhibit, as would the colorful, frisky Yellow Finches feeding on the grasses at the forest’s edge. She knew that the place would be home to several dozen species of terns, plovers, sandpipers, kingfishers, egrets, herons and other sea and wading birds which could be safely included in Harrington’s intended collection. One question she sought to answer was whether the island supported any of the increasingly rare Caribbean Amazon parrot species, which would unquestionably be a welcome addition to the collection, as well as providing the opportunity to establish a stateside breeding population for the increasingly threatened creatures. Might as well do some good while he was keeping the cash register ringing.

The trail was rough but not treacherous; the temperature warm, but not uncomfortably humid. They proceeded leisurely, gradually climbing in elevation, stopping frequently to photograph an unusual flower or plant or to capture the detail in a particularly interesting rock face, in order to share it with the craftsman who would later model and build the artificial cliff sides, outcrops and grottoes for the exhibit.

They walked for maybe three-quarters of a mile before happening across the first significant fresh water source of the day. The spring was flowing out of a long, vertical crack in a limestone escarpment, and accumulating into a wading-pool sized pond before continuing its way downhill. The pond’s surface was almost completely covered with flowering aquatic vegetation, water lily type plants, with glossy green floating leaves and bright red, cup-shaped flowers. It wasn’t marked on Harrington’s map. Jackie and Scott paused to take a few pictures.

“Shush … up there,” Jackie pointed. A large, stocky green parrot, with a flash of purple on its neck and a reddish-brown short, square tail, was perched on a low-hanging branch just a few yards away.

“It’s an Amazon,” Scott said. “The question is what type. What should I go for first? The camcorder or the bird guide book?”


He slowly released the snaps on his camera case, removed the camera, powered it up and started filming the bird. It gave no indication of alarm. It barely looked interested.

“That’s unusual,” Jackie said. “They’re extremely skittish. That bird should have taken off while we were still thirty yards away. Maybe she’s sick.”

A second bird of the same species alighted on the ground by the pond, waddled over to the water and took a drink. It then flapped up next to its friend on the branch and perched, studying the human observers calmly.

“They can’t both be sick,” Scott said.

Jackie eased her way to behind Scott, where she reached into his backpack and removed his thick, soft cover bird guide. She quickly flipped through the pages until she found what she was looking for.

“That’s an Imperial Amazon Parrot, Amazona imperialis, native to the Dominican Republic.”

“They’re a ways from home,” Scott observed.

“That’s not terribly unusual for this part of the world. They or their relatives could have easily island hopped their way over here. They are endangered, estimates are that there are less than 200 individuals left, low reproductive rate, they live at elevations between 600 and 1,300 meters, with sighting as low as 150 meters—we’re probably a little above that right now—they nest in tree cavities and feed in the upper canopy.” She closed the book and stuffed it back into Scott’s pack.

“Are you still recording?”


She slowly approached the birds, which were perched only about two feet above her head. “Hello, little birdies. Are you feeling okay today? How come you’re not scared of me?”

She paused right in front of the pair. They showed no visible inclination to take flight.

“Harrington said the animals were friendly,” Scott reminded her from behind the camcorder.

“Or stupid,” she responded. “Not being afraid is the best way for prey animals to get themselves killed. These are normally very shy and cautious birds … their fight-or-flight reaction seems nonexistent.”

“That’s probably why they’re endangered,” Scott said. “As a survival strategy, offering yourself up as a hot meal isn’t evolution’s finest moment.”

Jackie warily raised her hand, conscious of the damage a large hookbill’s bite could do, until she was able to brush one of the bird’s feet with the back of her finger. The bird looked down curiously and moved its foot slightly, but otherwise was content to let her make contact. She reached higher and gently stoked its chest with a finger.

The bird nudged her finger with its beak, but didn’t bite.

“That is so odd,” she said, backing up to join Scott.

“The trappers won’t have any trouble capturing those specimens,” he said. “If all the animals are like these two, we won’t even need trappers. We can just hike through the forest with a couple of big nets and take what we want.”

“Something’s not right,” Jackie insisted. “Maybe they are sick.”

“Maybe there are no predators on the island.”

She shook her head. “Not possible. There are hawks on these islands, and boa constrictors. They’re not even camouflaged there, sitting out in the open like that, and worse, right by a watering hole. They might as well be ringing a dinner bell.”

“Weird. Seen enough?” He switched off the camera and tucked it back into its bag.

“Yeah, let’s go. They’ll probably be here waiting for us on the way back.”

They said goodbye to the birds and continued on along the path.

Aqua Vitae © Copyright 2012, Anthony F. Lewis
~ Aqua Vitae ~



The narrow trail gradually ramped up in elevation as it brought them further inland. They were moving in a southerly direction, and the air was starting to grow increasingly thick and steamy as they pulled further away from the cooling sea breezes, and as the surrounding forest increased in density.

The two travelers were in fine physical form, so the trail posed no particular challenge for then, past the fact that they wished they’d carried more water, a complaint common to all hikers who venture out on a hot, sticky day. But fresh water rivulets were growing in number and amplitude as they progressed, so dehydration wasn’t going to be a problem.

They rarely walked for five minutes without pausing to photograph or videotape a songbird, a tiny, colorful tree frog or a motionless anole sunning itself on a branch, none of which appeared to be bothered by the intrusion, universally reacting with disturbing fearlessness.

Jackie decided that the phenomena warranted careful documentation, so she started approaching and picking up the smaller specimens for the camera. Some didn’t cooperate—the nimble tree frogs wanted no part in the demonstration, which was just as well since the Poison Dart Frog was known to secrete poisons through its skin. As far as she knew, they were well outside of that species’ South American range, but they could easily have a yet undiscovered cousin here with a similarly self-protective bio-mechanism. She was able to pick up anoles easily, and even get disconcertingly close to several diminutive finches, which are always notoriously skittish.

“We shouldn’t even be seeing so many small reptiles,” she said as she picked up a seemingly lethargic, small snake. “This guy is sitting in the sun. He should be active and should have been gone as soon as he heard us crashing through the branches.”

“I did as much reading as I could about Lesser Antilles wildlife before the trip,” she continued, “and I didn’t come across anything reporting this sort of behavior. I mean, this is beyond a couple of sick parrots; it looks like it’s universal. And if we take Harrington’s characterization of “friendly animals” into account, it would mean that they’ve been this way since he’s been here, maybe six months or so.”

Jackie was inspecting the snake. “A young Puerto Rican Garden snake, looks fine, eyes are nice and clear, color looks good, and the weight seems normal, so it’s eating.” She released the critter onto a nearby branch. “I don’t know.”

“It makes it easier when the prey isn’t in any rush to get away,” Scott said.

“That’s for sure. No wonder he wants to put together an exotic petting zoo. I’m starting to think he can actually do it.”

“Shit, if the crocs are like this, he can saddle them up and charge for rides.”

“I’d be the first one on line.” She hitched up her backpack and adjusted one of the shoulder straps. “I hear splashing water; one of those big ponds must be up ahead. Let’s go…”

They plowed ahead through the underbrush that was aggressively encroaching on the trail, and found the pond some fifty yards away.

“Whoa.” Jackie stopped in her tracks, and Scott reached for his camcorder.

The pond was roughly fifteen feet across, and was being fed by an energetic waterfall cascading down from the adjacent rock face. There was a pair of herons wading in the water among the lily pads. A large iguana was sunning itself on a flat rock overhanging the water. The nearby trees were heavy with birds of all sorts, and, as she let her eyes slowly scan the scene, she could see scores of lizards and anoles scattered in the moldering plant material and stones surrounding the pool, and smaller ones resting on the thick leaves of the aquatic plants floating on the water’s surface. Not one showed any sign of alarm at the sudden presence of the two humans.

“Okay,” Scott said. “This is officially weird.”

“Let’s see how weird.” She approached the herons, one of which was within reach of the edge of the pond. She extended her arm and stroked the creature’s back. It quickly turned and nipped at her elbow with its long, pointy beak, and moved just a couple of steps away.

“Those birds should have been half-a-mile away by now,” she said, backing away and inspecting her arm. The bird hadn’t broken the skin. “It’s as if their fear response is there, just highly attenuated. She reached down and plucked a small frog from one of the floating leaves, and held it up to the camera. “Try that in your backyard.”

“It’s like they’re all stoned,” Scott observed, half-seriously.

“You may be right.” She bent down and released the frog into the water. It swam over to the nearest leaf and climbed aboard. “It may well be pharmacological. Something that the small prey species are eating, that’s working its way up the food chain as the larger critters consume them, like mercury in fish. That’s probably as good an operating hypothesis as we’re likely to find today.”

“Unless they’re all recently retired, trained circus animals.”

“As soon as we find the elephants we’ll switch over to your hypothesis.”

“Check it out! Up there…” Scott pointed to a spot in a tree close by the water.

It took Jackie a moment to discern the creature. “A hawk. Looks like a young Red-Tailed Hawk. Just hangin’ out at the buffet table.”

“Every living animal around this pond should have bugged out the second that bird alighted,” Scott said.

“That one should have.” Jackie pointed to the ground beneath the tree; a scattering of matted feathers and fluffy down was all that was left of the predatory bird’s last meal. She walked over to inspect the mess.

“The soft, downy feathers are still here. They would have blown away if they’d been here for long. And there’s a tiny piece of meat.” She squatted down and looked at it closely. “No bugs yet. This hawk fed a short while ago, like just before we got here.”

“And the rest of these guys just hung out and watched?”

“I’m open for alternative explanations. In fact I’m hoping for one. This is crazy…” She walked over to the iguana sunning itself just feet away from her; it was about four feet long, more than half of that tail. She lifted the animal up behind the front legs and held him at eye level. The creature squirmed a bit, hissed and clawed awkwardly at the air, demonstrating, however slovenly, its displeasure at being handled.

After a moment she replaced the irritated animal on its rock, where it proceeded to crawl back into the sun and make itself comfortable. “Correct reaction, bad reflexes. It should have disappeared into the underbrush as soon as it saw me moving in its direction. Otherwise it seems perfectly healthy and normal.”

“I just don’t see iguanas as a great draw for a petting zoo.”

She looked over to him. “Forget the petting zoo. You’ve got your doctoral thesis all wrapped up if you can figure out what’s going on here.”

“That’s occurred to me. I want to bring back samples of everything: those water plants, the pond water, these red flowers that are everywhere, and a few of those small lizards and snakes, whatever we can carry.”

“Probably some insects, too,” she suggested. “Every smaller species we’ve seen eats insects of one sort or another. Some little bug might have a chemical defense system that’s building up in their internal organs as the substance makes its way up the food chain and is screwing up their nervous systems. Could be a plant, too. It’s gonna take a while to sort out.”

“I could think of worse places to conduct years of study.”

“That’s for sure. Especially with Harrington’s living facilities. I did my doctoral research on Borneo, documenting the symbiotic relationship between the Black Hornbill and Gibbon, sleeping in a crappy little pup tent and going into town once every couple of weeks to take a shower, pick the leaches off of me and to eat something that I didn’t have to kill first. Remind me to sign on as your advisor. Do you want to move on to the next watering hole or hang around here for a while? I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens when that hawk gets hungry again.”

“Let’s move on. This place is gets weirder the deeper we go. This may just be the sideshow.”

“You’re right. The island is small enough so that we should be able to get a good, solid overview of the entire ecosystem before focusing in on the interesting details.” She reached over and stroked the nearest heron on the head. “See you later…”


The crude, overgrown trail took them close to the southern tip of the island before they reached the next pond. This one was being fed by a more substantial waterfall, and was in turn emptying into a good-sized stream that continued downhill. A similar collection of eerily placid wildlife and lush, colorful vegetation was populating the site.

“Watch out for that snake,” Jackie warned. She’d just missed bumping against it herself. The five-foot long boa was sunning itself on a branch crossing the path.

“Like he cares. It looks like he just fed.” There was a telltale bump about ten inches behind its head.

“From the looks of things, I doubt its prey cared either.” She stroked the reptile’s head down to the bump. It didn’t move.

“That’s a really nice snake; I wouldn’t mind taking him home with me. I don’t suppose there’s any legal way to do that?”

“Sure. You can do about ten years worth of federal paperwork, or just ask Harrington to fly us home on a private jet without stopping at Customs. He doesn’t strike me as being a real stickler for legal niceties.”

“You gotta admit,” Scott said, again reaching for his camcorder, “a layout like this would make a sweet exhibit in any zoological park.”

Jackie walked around the perimeter of the pond, which was perhaps twenty feet in diameter, to the waterfall, where she splashed some water on her face. “Oh! That feels good … it’s so cold.”

“If you go catatonic I’m not carrying you home.”

She cupped her hands under the falls and sampled a sip. “Might as well go for the gusto. Tastes great…” She went back for more, and drank until her thirst was slaked.

“We should really run that through a purifier first.”

“I know. Let’s do that, as long as we’re here. Might as well top off our hydration bladders.”

Scott removed his pack and rummaged through until he found the compact water-purifying hand pump. He removed an empty water bottle as well. He filled the bottle with water from the falls, and then proceeded to pump the water through the filter into the 100-ounce bladder that fit into his pack. He did the same for Jackie’s once his was filled. He dropped a couple of iodine tables in each as well, just for laughs.

“One less thing we have to worry about,” she said, slipping the cool, bulging bladder back into its pocket in her pack.

“I would think that Harrington would have said something if we shouldn’t drink the water.”

“I’m not worried about it. I’ve been collecting funky flora in my gut from all over the world for about fifteen years now. The bacteria have more to worry about than I do.”

Scott was studying Harrington’s map. “According to this, the mangrove swamp should be somewhere below us, right at the tip of the island. That’s where the crocs will be hanging out. Wanna check it out?”

“Did you get all this on tape?”

“Tape? I’m recording on an internal 80-gigabyte hard drive. Why don’t you go back and pet my snake again? I missed that.”

Jackie walked back over to the snake and stroked him for the camera. “Oh, what the hell…”

Using both hands, she unwrapped its loosely coiled hind end from the branch, lifted the creature, and placed it around her shoulders, keeping a firm grip behind its neck. Boa constrictors weren’t poisonous, of course, but weren’t above inflicting a painful, infectious bite if provoked.

She walked around a bit for the camera, and then plucked an anole from a lily pad and placed it on the snake’s rear quarters. The small chameleon stayed put.

Scott was pointing from behind the viewfinder. “Over there …  a Kingfisher.”

“You’re watching the snake, right?” she asked as she approached the bird. “Let me know if he starts coiling.”

“Let me know when you start having trouble breathing.”

She stuck her index finger firmly against the bird’s lower torso, pushing back a bit and forcing the bird to step onto her finger. “That’s a good girl. Do you like the snake? Of course you do. Come say hello…”

She placed the bird, which was the size of a large jay but with a longer, sturdier beak, right behind the reptile’s head, over her right shoulder. The bird perched serenely on the snake, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Perhaps attracted by the excitement, a pair of Amazon parrots, likely the same one they’d seen at the previous pond, alighted on a cliffside shelf and splashed around in the spray a bit. Jackie, trying to watch her step and maintain a modicum of caution for the wildlife she was lugging around in close proximity to her face, reached out to the closest parrot and snapped her fingers.

“Come over here girl, join the party. Come here, I can’t reach you…”

The bird eyed the snake curiously, looked at Jackie, then back at the snake. It actually opened its beak and jabbed a little at the kingfisher, which took a step, along the snake’s back, away from the larger bird.

“Come here, birdie, on my hand. Over here.”

The bird hopped onto her hand.

“I think that’s enough for now,” Jackie proclaimed. “Smile for the camera, everyone!”

Scott shot the walking menagerie from every possible angle, directing Jackie to walk into the better light, and positioning her so the spectacular waterfall was behind her, and moving back a bit to capture some of the pond and surrounding colorful flowers in the image.

He finally lowered the camera. “I think everyone will get the idea. Do you need some help?”


After stuffing the camcorder back into its bag, Scott started removing the animals from Jackie’s upper body, starting with the anole, then taking the parrot and releasing it to fly back to its partner, removing the kingfisher and placing it on a branch and finally helping to lift the snake from her shoulders.

“If I could have done that act on the Today Show my show-and-tell career might have lasted longer,” she said as she brushed off her shirt. After leaving the Bronx Zoo, she’d taken a shot at pursuing her dream of becoming a television personality, à la Steve Irwin, Jim Fowler or even Jacques Cousteau. It wasn’t just a childish, self-indulgent fantasy; fame was good for the animals. The impact of well-known naturalists such as Rachel Carson, John Muir, Jane Goodall, or Dian Fossey had resulted in incalculable benefits for the environment and for the endangered species championed by those individuals.

She went ahead and found herself an agent, and made a few appearances on the various network morning shows, wearing the expected dopey, stereotypical khaki safari gear, and displaying unusual animals and giving a 40-second educational rap in between commercials for cat food and adult diapers. She gave it up as having too little impact; too much rushed show-and-tell and fluff and not enough public education. Not to mention that it was a great deal of trouble and stress (for animals and people alike) for the lousy three or four minutes of airtime.

So until she could figure out a way to make her mark via a more dignified public platform, she had to settle for making a living the traditional way, an objective that Greg Harrington’s little project was making that much easier.

“Did the kingfisher crap on my back?” She turned around, trying to peer over her shoulder.

Scott checked. “No. I think the anole might have crapped on the snake, though.”

“I would have, just on principle. Let’s go down and check out the swamp.”


There was a trail leading downhill, which was even less defined and harder to follow than the one they’d been traveling. They progressed slowly, out of respect for both the slope and the damp, slippery ground underfoot, using their hiking poles to help secure their footing. Both the sound and smell of the sea grew more pronounced as they gradually emerged from the forest down into the estuarine swamp.

“This is far enough, I think,” Jackie said as they reached a spot with a decent overview of the area. “Let’s look around and get a feel for the place first.”

There were several species of tall water birds, mostly herons along with a few sandpipers that had flown over from the seashore to troll the brackish waters for a meal, more kingfishers watching from the trees, not the mention the numerous, festively colored songbirds darting around.

They allowed their eyes to drift over the scene, looking for any ripple or motion that would signal the presence of the island’s top dog, the Caiman crocodile. Normally, the composed presence of the water birds would rule against the close proximity of such a sizable, dominant predator, but the day’s observations had thus far rendered such conventional expectations moot.

Scott had the camcorder rolling, scanning the water’s surface, pausing at each mossy tangle of mangrove roots to allow the high-definition lens to capture anything his eye might be missing. He rested the camera on a blue heron, placidly stirring up the muck with its pointy, pick-like beak, looking for food.

A croc suddenly struck the bird, decisively clamping its jaws around the unfortunate creature’s lower torso. A startled scream, a guttural snarl, some violent splashing and the struggle was over almost before it started. The croc slowly drifted away with its prize into deeper water, leaving behind a smattering of blood and a few blue-gray feathers.

“Holy shit!” Scott exclaimed. “Did you see that?”

“No, I was busy doing my nails. Of course I saw it … did you film it?”

“Yeah, I got the whole thing. Look at the other heron…”

A second bird was standing no more than five feet from where the croc had struck. It had flapped its wings at the disturbance and hopped over a few steps, but made no effort to take to the skies.

“This is shaping up to be one strange petting zoo,” Jackie observed.

Aqua Vitae © Copyright 2012, Anthony F. Lewis