Extinction Club: A Tale of Deer, Lost Books and a Rather Fine Canary Yellow Sweater

Overview

For one thousand years, the Milu — an exotic species of deer with the neck of a camel, horns of a stag, feet of a cow, and tail of a donkey — existed only in the Chinese emperor’s private park in Beijing. But in the nineteenth century, a Basque missionary risked his life to obtain a specimen, then embalmed it and sent it to Paris.

The preserved remains caused quite a stir, and soon every major nation in Europe possessed a Milu. But most died quickly, and due to war — most ...

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Overview

For one thousand years, the Milu — an exotic species of deer with the neck of a camel, horns of a stag, feet of a cow, and tail of a donkey — existed only in the Chinese emperor’s private park in Beijing. But in the nineteenth century, a Basque missionary risked his life to obtain a specimen, then embalmed it and sent it to Paris.

The preserved remains caused quite a stir, and soon every major nation in Europe possessed a Milu. But most died quickly, and due to war — most notably the Boxer Rebellion — they became extinct in their native habitat as well. Yet the eleventh duke of Bedford was devoted to preserving the Milu. Under his care at Woburn Abbey, a herd flourished, and nearly a century later, in 1986, part of the British herd was returned to China.

In his fascinating tale, Robert Twigger poignantly recounts the story of this strange and rare animal while providing a riveting meditation on evolution, truth-telling, extinction, myth-making, and survival.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Quirky, bordering on the surreal, The Extinction Club weaves fragments of personal angst, meditations on the state of the world, and the agonies of writing into the remarkable story of an odd-looking endangered deer, the Milu, once coveted by the emperors of China.
Publishers Weekly
Part intellectual travelogue, part historical study, part biological monograph, part writer's memoir, magazine writer Twigger's charmingly eccentric book about the rare Milu deer is difficult to classify. The Milu, which could have been designed by committee, has a camel's neck, a donkey's tail, cow-like hooves and stag's horns. For a millennium, this unusual species was the private stock of Chinese emperors. Then in the 19th century, a Basque missionary priest, PEre David, became fascinated by the creature and spread word of it in Europe. Unfortunately, the Milu did not thrive in the game preserves of the European aristocrats who imported it and also went extinct in its native China during the chaos of the Boxer Rebellion. The one stroke of luck for the poor creature was the 11th Duke of Bedford, who carefully nurtured the deer in Bedfordshire, England. Nowadays, thanks to his conservation efforts, the deer is so abundant that well-heeled hunters can travel to wild game reserves, especially in Texas, and hunt the Milu for a fee. In the course of this story, Twigger takes the reader on a freewheeling journey through his own life and winningly reflects on marriage, Darwin, Egypt, mythopoetica, evolution and extinction. This is a lighthearted and truly unusual romp through natural history. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Kooky, clever thoughts on extinction, with an emphasis on the species known as the Pere David deer. By a.d.<\H> 800, the milu, or Pere David deer, lived nowhere except in the forbidden game park of the Emperor of China. The creature seemed a worthy topic, journalist Twigger (Angry White Pajamas, not reviewed) and his agent agreed, so the author set out to investigate, and what he wound up with is a mélange: his figuring out, often in dark humor, how to proceed; his research on the Pere David (he gets snubbed by the world’s expert); background work on the man Pere David and how he spirited a herd of the deer from China to France, how the herd found a home at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey, and how the fallout from the Boxer Rebellion turned China’s Pere Davids into spit roasts. Twigger gives the Pere Davids their due: fanciful creatures “with the tail of a donkey, the head of a deer, the neck of a camel . . . and the hooves of a cow . . .” He even travels to China to see them (though Bedfordshire had healthier specimens), but then extinction fast becomes his more beguiling topic: he touches on nuclear war, a book that gets mis-shelved in a library, the warped notions of the Extinction Club, the good/bad/ugly of survivorhood, even the words writers dread when the publisher’s warehouse calls: “You’re pulped, mate.” Short chapters here can have the quality of beautiful postage stamps, miniatures of subjects, despite their sometimes only tangential relevance to the subject of extinction, let alone of milu—the Bodleian Library, for example, or Deep Time, or a timeless summer afternoon (“the kind . . . that is done nowhere better than Oxford”). A snappy contemplation of extinction andbeating the odds, and how ordinary folk can do the extraordinary if they know when to make the effort.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060535964
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/8/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Twigger, the author of Angry White Pyjamas and Big Snake, was born in 1964 and educated at Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize. In 1991 he went to Japan, studied traditional martial arts, and completed the course for the Tokyo riot police. In 1996 Twigger trained as a bullfighter in Spain, went looking for bona fide zombies in Haiti, and reported for the Daily Telegraph on chain gangs in Arizona. In 1997 he spent four months in Indonesia, attempting to capture the longest snake in the world. After many setbacks and adventures, his team succeeded in capturing a python twenty-six feet long — almost certainly a world record for a snake currently in captivity. In addition to writing books, he is a regular contributor to Esquire, Maxim, the Daily Telegraph, and the Financial Times. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Major

John Major III's disabled foot flopped this way and that as he got into the front seat of the Chrysler four-wheel drive vehicle. I had to admit that for a millionaire he was careless of his appearance. His shoes were cheap slip-ons. To get around he used a hospital-issue green canvas wheelchair. When I remarked on his name, as every Englishman must, he didn't show much more reaction than a wheezy grin as he reached for another Kent menthol cigarette. Inexplicably, he had ripped the filters off some, as if he was smoking Kents under sufferance. He was ill, but he was rich, and being rich is most important if you want to be a Big Game Hunter.

All of us were now in the Chrysler, heading out to the Kill Zone. That's what I called it to myself. The others, Tom the guide and John Major III, called it "the stalk."

We were driving fast down a dusty road in Texas in the cold December dawn to kill a deer. But this was no ordinary deer. John Major III didn't mind telling me that it was costing him five thousand dollars to shoot a young buck he wouldn't normally look twice at. The deer we were after was a Pere David, an animal so rare, or endangered if you prefer, that it is extinct in the wild, and has been for the last one thousand years. The Chinese call it Milu.

The plan was to drive slowly up to a dump of trees near to the place where the Pere Davids gathered in the early morning. John Major would then take his shot from his seated position in the front of the Chrysler, his gun poking through the open window and resting on the outsize wing mirror.

Tom the guide, who wore Realtree Advantage camo gear andyellow-tinted dark glasses, had told me earlier that some shooters preferred the car shot to a more realistic sneaking-up shot. "They're here for the rack, don't matter how they get it," opined Tom. The rack was the head of antlers on the deer.

Tom also took people lion-hunting on the Texas ranch. "Got to keep the deer away from the lions, though," he said with a smile. He told me how the lions spent most of their time in a small compound before being shot in a slightly larger compound.

The advantage of shooting Pere Davids was that there was no "natural" precedent to influence the "romance" of the kill. Every Pere David killed since guns were invented has been shot in a game park of some sort.

John Major's gun was a new acquisition, a .308 B.S. Johnson Special with a new-fangled plastic stock, fold-up bipod, and "several other interesting features." He told me that he had many guns, and believed gun-collecting was almost as great a pleasure as acquiring trophy heads.

"But what about the actual killing?" I asked.

"The moment of death? That's neither pleasure nor displeasure," he said. "It's going to sound strange, I guess, but I think of it as a lovin' duty."

Tom eased off the dirt road and onto the worn-down grass of the range. The trees we were heading for were actually a clump of high bushes with straight, bare branches. Tom put the vehicle into the lowest gear and we trickled over the range with a bumpy rumble.

John Major III looked keenly out of the window at the standing and grazing forms just beyond the dump of bushes. There were five or six, all males, not one older than two years. "Spikers," as Tom called them, their antlers just single prongs, with no branching spikes or "points."

"That one," said Tom after looking through his glasses. Zeiss 7X50s, just like the ones used by the hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls. John Major III had Zeisses too, but a more compact version, newer. Tom took a lot of care in showing which deer John Major was to shoot. It was slightly away from the herd, head down and grazing. It seemed to me to have a large patch of mange on its side, but I thought it prudent to keep my voice down as I was, after all, only a limey, and an unarmed one at that.

John Major III took several hand-loaded cartridges and fed them into the breech using the bolt to suck them in. He always hand-loaded his ammo because "at five grand a pop I don't want factory ammo going off wild."

The vehicle was silent now, engine off, parked in half shade behind the tall bushes. The breeze was cool when John Major wound the window right down. The gun barrel sneaked onto the wing mirror strut. John Major put his fat cheek to the stock and squinted down the telescopic sights, his trigger finger already curled into position. At the last minute he pushed his ear protectors down into position. Tom did too. Mine had been down for a while -- I'd been caught out before by a .308 cartridge in a confined space and it had been deafening. I looked out at the deerlong tail, thick neck, two points of antlers -- certainly it did not seem to sense death. Then I looked at the trigger finger, seeing if I could see it move. John Major's wheezing was the loudest thing in the car until BANG.

BANG. There is no gun, no guide, no "me," certainly not one that's been to Texas to shoot exotic deer. Sorry, Klaudia, I know I told you I'd been there and done that, but it just wasn't true. There's no John Major III -- thougb I was beginning to like him. There's no Chrysler 4 WD (do they make such a vehicle?), and there is no deer, emphatically no dead deer. It's all made up. Lies. Farrago of. Tissue of. Lies. Damned lies. Not Not Not true, Never was.

Now comes the tricky part. Why? Why do it? Why lie?

More to the point, why couldn't I keep going? Why stop after three pages?

The Extinction Club. Copyright © by Robert Twigger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Major

John Major III's disabled foot flopped this way and that as he got into the front seat of the Chrysler four-wheel drive vehicle. I had to admit that for a millionaire he was careless of his appearance. His shoes were cheap slip-ons. To get around he used a hospital-issue green canvas wheelchair. When I remarked on his name, as every Englishman must, he didn't show much more reaction than a wheezy grin as he reached for another Kent menthol cigarette. Inexplicably, he had ripped the filters off some, as if he was smoking Kents under sufferance. He was ill, but he was rich, and being rich is most important if you want to be a Big Game Hunter.

All of us were now in the Chrysler, heading out to the Kill Zone. That's what I called it to myself. The others, Tom the guide and John Major III, called it "the stalk."

We were driving fast down a dusty road in Texas in the cold December dawn to kill a deer. But this was no ordinary deer. John Major III didn't mind telling me that it was costing him five thousand dollars to shoot a young buck he wouldn't normally look twice at. The deer we were after was a Pere David, an animal so rare, or endangered if you prefer, that it is extinct in the wild, and has been for the last one thousand years. The Chinese call it Milu.

The plan was to drive slowly up to a dump of trees near to the place where the Pere Davids gathered in the early morning. John Major would then take his shot from his seated position in the front of the Chrysler, his gun poking through the open window and resting on the outsize wing mirror.

Tom the guide, who wore Realtree Advantage camo gearand yellow-tinted dark glasses, had told me earlier that some shooters preferred the car shot to a more realistic sneaking-up shot. "They're here for the rack, don't matter how they get it," opined Tom. The rack was the head of antlers on the deer.

Tom also took people lion-hunting on the Texas ranch. "Got to keep the deer away from the lions, though," he said with a smile. He told me how the lions spent most of their time in a small compound before being shot in a slightly larger compound.

The advantage of shooting Pere Davids was that there was no "natural" precedent to influence the "romance" of the kill. Every Pere David killed since guns were invented has been shot in a game park of some sort.

John Major's gun was a new acquisition, a .308 B.S. Johnson Special with a new-fangled plastic stock, fold-up bipod, and "several other interesting features." He told me that he had many guns, and believed gun-collecting was almost as great a pleasure as acquiring trophy heads.

"But what about the actual killing?" I asked.

"The moment of death? That's neither pleasure nor displeasure," he said. "It's going to sound strange, I guess, but I think of it as a lovin' duty."

Tom eased off the dirt road and onto the worn-down grass of the range. The trees we were heading for were actually a clump of high bushes with straight, bare branches. Tom put the vehicle into the lowest gear and we trickled over the range with a bumpy rumble.

John Major III looked keenly out of the window at the standing and grazing forms just beyond the dump of bushes. There were five or six, all males, not one older than two years. "Spikers," as Tom called them, their antlers just single prongs, with no branching spikes or "points."

"That one," said Tom after looking through his glasses. Zeiss 7X50s, just like the ones used by the hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls. John Major III had Zeisses too, but a more compact version, newer. Tom took a lot of care in showing which deer John Major was to shoot. It was slightly away from the herd, head down and grazing. It seemed to me to have a large patch of mange on its side, but I thought it prudent to keep my voice down as I was, after all, only a limey, and an unarmed one at that.

John Major III took several hand-loaded cartridges and fed them into the breech using the bolt to suck them in. He always hand-loaded his ammo because "at five grand a pop I don't want factory ammo going off wild."

The vehicle was silent now, engine off, parked in half shade behind the tall bushes. The breeze was cool when John Major wound the window right down. The gun barrel sneaked onto the wing mirror strut. John Major put his fat cheek to the stock and squinted down the telescopic sights, his trigger finger already curled into position. At the last minute he pushed his ear protectors down into position. Tom did too. Mine had been down for a while -- I'd been caught out before by a .308 cartridge in a confined space and it had been deafening. I looked out at the deerlong tail, thick neck, two points of antlers -- certainly it did not seem to sense death. Then I looked at the trigger finger, seeing if I could see it move. John Major's wheezing was the loudest thing in the car until BANG.

BANG. There is no gun, no guide, no "me," certainly not one that's been to Texas to shoot exotic deer. Sorry, Klaudia, I know I told you I'd been there and done that, but it just wasn't true. There's no John Major III -- thougb I was beginning to like him. There's no Chrysler 4 WD (do they make such a vehicle?), and there is no deer, emphatically no dead deer. It's all made up. Lies. Farrago of. Tissue of. Lies. Damned lies. Not Not Not true, Never was.

Now comes the tricky part. Why? Why do it? Why lie?

More to the point, why couldn't I keep going? Why stop after three pages?

The Extinction Club. Copyright © by Robert Twigger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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