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March 23, 1999, Tuesday
Science Desk

Filmmakers Study a Man Who Studied the Apes


One cannot help imagining the younger members of the Coolidge family whining, of a boring rainy afternoon, ''Oh, no, Uncle Hal! Not the expedition movies again!''

But that antiquated footage that Harold Jefferson Coolidge so liked to show -- those long lines of porters heading into the African bush, those splayed remains of dissected monkeys, those tippy canoes heading down the Mekong -- is quite a piquant piece of history now, sort of a gorilla skeleton in the closet of the global conservation movement.



When the films were made in the 1920's and 30's, their hero, Hal Coolidge, was a young naturalist of the Great White Hunter school. A Boston Brahmin and descendant of Thomas Jefferson, he developed what struck his peers as a peculiar penchant for exotic apes and embarked on a series of expeditions that, in old-school style, involved not only observing but killing a fair number of them for further study.

Soon enough, though, Mr. Coolidge evolved into a major force behind preserving the kind of rare species he had once shot. He went on to help found and lead the World Wildlife Fund and a precursor of the World Conservation Union, and helped advance knowledge about various species.

He worked particularly on the gorilla and the pygmy chimpanzee, better known as the bonobo, one of man's closest relatives.

But the expedition films, which are being crafted into a 57-minute documentary titled ''The Coolidge Chronicles'' by Interlock Media Inc., a nonprofit filmmaking company in Cambridge that focuses on the environment and human rights, captured him before that transformation, on the journeys that helped prompt the change in his thinking.

And those exotic times and places give the footage its spice now: Mr. Coolidge, with his rifle and benevolent paternalism toward locals and his eagerness to bag specimens, looks as primitive today as the half-clothed ''natives'' of far-off climes looked to him more than a half-century ago.

''The birth of the conservation movement is fascinating but it's not politically correct,'' said Jonathan Schwartz, the project's director.

Early in Mr. Coolidge's career, science seemed ''a race to see how many species you could collect in the field,'' Mr. Schwartz said, whereas primatologists today ''classify their species by finding a piece of fingernail or hair on a tree and running back to the lab for DNA analysis.''

Still, he added, ''They don't necessarily fault the Coolidges and Rockefellers who led these expeditions, because they base so much of their work today on the taxonomy of these early explorers.''

Mr. Coolidge participated in three major expeditions: the Harvard Medical Expedition of 1927, which took him through Liberia and the Belgian Congo and during which he bagged a large gorilla for a Harvard museum; the Kelley-Roosevelt Expedition to Asia in 1928 and 1929, which explored part of the Mekong River and its tributaries, and on which he was joined by Theodore Roosevelt Jr.; and the Asian Primatology Expedition of 1937, which Mr. Coolidge led through northwest Tonkin and northern Laos, and which greatly advanced the understanding of gibbons.

The filmmakers noted that Donna Haraway, a science historian, described Mr. Coolidge's second Asian expedition in her book ''Primate Visions'' as ''one of the last 19th-century-style colonial collecting ventures and the first of the new primate behavior field trips conducted in the frame of the incipient international conservation politics.''

Mr. Coolidge's journals document quite a bit of intra-expedition tension, Mr. Schwartz said, between those who wanted to study creatures alive and those who wanted them dead.

Daniel Feeley, the project's research coordinator, said that on the Asian Primatology Expedition, a field biologist and an animal behaviorist ended up clashing over gibbons they were studying because the field biologists wanted, naturally, to study them in the field, while the behaviorist wanted eventually to study them dead.

''That's where the irony is because of the times,'' Mr. Feeley said. ''Behaviorists would study a group of gibbons for two to three weeks and then have them shot for taxonomic purposes. So Coolidge's career was really at a transitional point.''

Indeed, the 1930's were a time of mounting soul-searching among scientists who ''collected'' rare specimens in the wild. In a 1984 interview with Earthwatch, Mr. Coolidge recalled that ''in the 1930's, scientists in England interested in saving threatened species were nicknamed 'the Society of Repentant Butchers' because they were big African game hunters.''

The clearest evidence of Mr. Coolidge's turning point is a letter he wrote to a colleague in 1939, noting that it did not seem necessary to ''procure so many specimens'' (read: kill so many monkeys) in order to classify a race of primates.

Such documents turned up in collections from Harvard, the State University of New York and family members as Mr. Schwartz and the Interlock staff engaged in what seemed like a great attic-cleaning for an impressive and eccentric uncle with a house adorned by elephants tusks and stuffed game.

Among the more attic-like materials of the collection are expedition satchels containing timeworn tools Mr. Coolidge used, like the calipers for measuring monkey skulls and his scrawled journal pages, with lines like, ''while this is a well-known route, one really feels that he is in the interior where very few whites have ever been.''

The film includes segments as diverse as National Geographic-like shots of partly clad African women, views of lesions on Africans' legs and many campsite shots, including an eerie, smoky series of scenes in Indochina during a nearby forest fire. And there are many monkeys throughout -- monkeys calling like banshees to each other in the wild and monkeys dead and dissected.

The frequent scenes of swarming porters also demonstrate what tremendous logistical feats such expeditions were, involving dozens of people and tons of material transported without the help of motorized vehicles over hundreds of miles.

The filmmakers had about 14 hours of historical film from Mr. Coolidge's expeditions, much of it saved just in time from deterioration, along with nearly 1,000 photos and volumes of journals and documents. The filmmakers expect to complete most of their work and begin public screenings by late spring, and plan for ''The Coolidge Chronicles'' to air not only on American and European television but in the countries where the expeditions took place.

Mr. Coolidge died in 1985 at age 81. He had by then become a senior statesman in the global conservation movement, and left his mark in a variety of ways, from the younger generations of Coolidges he inspired to the center for environmental leadership he founded here in Cambridge.

But ultimately, viewers of his chronicles are likely to come away with one main impression: that back in the old Tarzan days, before everyone knew that being a Great White Hunter was wrong, it sure was a whole lot of fun.

Correction: March 25, 1999, Thursday

A picture caption in Science Times on Tuesday with an article about the expeditions of the naturalist Harold Jefferson Coolidge misidentified the pair of animals hanging from Mr. Coolidge's arms. The animals were gibbons, not macaques.