I’ve been fortunate enough to visit animal preserves and sanctuaries on three different continents. They can be breathtakingly beautiful places, and certainly give one a perspective on a lot of things. At least they do me. And it is fascinating to see all sorts of animals that you can’t see anywhere else.
But animal preserves and sanctuaries have a dangerous side to them too. There are all sorts of political and economic issues around them, and that’s to say nothing of the animals themselves. So it’s no wonder that this setting comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you can think of lots more than I could.
Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger. In that capacity, she is sent to a variety of different US parks and preserves, and she knows first-hand how dangerous those places can be. For instance, in Track of the Cat, she’s been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There she discovers the body of a fellow ranger Sheila Drury one morning. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and there’s the local outcry about it that you’d expect. It doesn’t help matters that the locals have never liked the fact that mountain lions living within the boundaries of the national park are off limits to hunters. They resent what they see as the damage caused by the animals and the government’s unwillingness to protect their land. Pigeon isn’t so sure that the culprit was a lion though, and she certainly doesn’t want mountain lions to become the targets of hunters. So she begins to ask questions. In the process she discovers that the victim’s death had a very human cause…
Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, features in Vicki Delany’s Under Cold Stone. In that novel, Lucy ‘Lucky’ Smith and her partner Paul Keller (Trafalgar, British Columbia’s Chief Constable of Police) have decided to take a trip to Banff, in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Their plan is for some relaxing ‘just the two of us’ time. But that’s not how it works out. Keller’s estranged son Matt disappears. And since he’s experienced at camping and living in the outdoors, he could be anywhere and it would be very hard to find him. What’s more, he may very well be guilty of murder. Banff isn’t within the jurisdiction of Lucky’s daughter, Trafalgar Police Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. But she travels there to be of whatever support she can to her mother. Then Matt’s girlfriend begs her to clear his name, claiming that he’s innocent. So Molly begins to ask some questions. And you thought bears, cougars and wolverines were the biggest living threats in the park…
In Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (AKA Michael Stanley) A Carrion Death, Professor of Ecology Benani Sibisi has taken a trip to Dale’s Camp, on the verge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. He’s out in the field one day when he discovers the body of an unknown man. At first it looks as though the man was killed by wild animals; certainly hyenas have already paid the body a visit. Botswana CID Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene and supervises sending the remains for forensics testing, mostly to try to identify the victim. Results of that testing suggest that the man was murdered. Now it’s even more important to find out who he was and what he was doing at the Reserve. So Kubu and his team begin to look more closely into the case. They find a connection between the dead man and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), a powerful voice in the country’s economic and political arenas. That connection makes this case delicate, since the Botswana government has a major interest in making sure that the company remains a going concern. In the end, though, Kubu is able to find out who the dead man was and how his murder is related to events and interactions at BCMC.
Much of Michael Allan Mallory and Marilyn Victor’s Killer Instinct takes place at the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI), which in part functions as a preserve for wolves. Zookeeper Lavender ‘Snake’ Jones is invited to the MWI to film an episode of her television documentary series Zoofari. When she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous controversy. Her friend Gina Brown, a biologist associated with the MWI, is a passionate defender of wolves and their preservation. That pits Brown against several locals, led by Ivar Bjorkland, who want to see the wolves exterminated. In fact, they have a very public dispute about the matter when four wolves are illegally killed. Then, Bjorkland is found murdered. Jones is worried that her friend might have been involved in the killing, although she doesn’t want to think so. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now Jones has to help clear her friend’s name and stop the killer before there’s another death. Wolves are by no means the most dangerous species in this novel…
In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth about her missing brother Jacobus. He disappeared twenty-five years earlier in what everyone thought was a skirmish with poachers. But now Emma thinks he’s still alive. So she wants to trace his history from Kruger National Park, his last known whereabouts. She and Lemmer arrive in the area only to find out that this is much more than the case of a man who was killed by dangerous poachers. In the end, they find out that the truth about Jacobus le Roux is related to coverups, corruption and ugly realities about politics and environmentalism. Along the way, they visit more than one animal preserve, and it’s interesting to read the different perspectives and views on taking care of South Africa’s unique ecosytems while at the same time nurturing the economy.
New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest is the scene of some of the action in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe is hired by Inspector Frank McFay to trace the identity of a ‘John Doe’ whose body has been found in the forest. There isn’t much to go on at first, but with the help of pathologist Grant ‘Smithy’ Smith, Rowe slowly learns that the man was in his twenties when he died, and that he died sometime during the early1970s. Bit by bit, Rowe puts the pieces together and finds out who the man was. At the same time, she’s on another case of her own choosing. Her sister Niki was murdered a year ago. Now, the man who claims he was paid to kill Niki has himself been murdered in the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed the ‘hit man,’ she’ll find out who’s responsible for her sister’s murder. Although the wildlife in the forest doesn’t hold the key to Niki’s death, the forest does have its role to play in the events in the story.
And that’s thing about animal preserves and sanctuaries. They can seem like peaceful places, and their natural beauty is practically unmatched. But safe? Erm – possibly not. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap and Blue Lightning). Which stories with this context have stayed in your mind?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s At the Zoo.