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Rescuing Pets in the Hurricane Zone

Margaret McLaughlin, director of Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital's veterinary technicians in New York City, is part of an ASPCA rescue team that is finding and treating lost animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She talks about the plight of animals in the battered Gulf Coast states.

36:32

Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2005: Interview with Margaret McLaughlin; Interview with Mark Cotta Vaz;

Transcript

DATE September 14, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Margaret McLaughlin discusses the search and rescue
efforts for pets left behind by evacuees of Hurricane Katrina
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many people who evacuated their homes in New Orleans were forced to leave
behind their pets. For example, buses taking evacuees to Texas did not allow
animals aboard. And those who snuck their pets through had to give them up in
Houston before taking shelter at the Astrodome. Most shelters, hotels and
motels do not allow animals. The Humane Society estimates that 40,000 animals
were left behind. The ASPCA is part of a coalition of humane organizations
working together to rescue the animals who survived Katrina. So far,
approximately 5,000 animals have been rescued. The ASPCA sent animal relief
workers into the region on August 29th and started rescue missions on
September 5th. My guest, Margaret McLaughlin, volunteered to go to the region
on August 29th, working with the ASPCA. She started off doing triage work,
then went off on animal rescue boats. She's the director of vet technicians
at an ASPCA animal hospital in New York. She's also a certified search and
rescue diver. She returned home on Saturday. I spoke with her and asked what
the strategy was in dispatching rescuers to specific locations.

Ms. MARGARET McLAUGHLIN (Director of Vet Technicians): Lamar-Dixon was the
staging area where we were all staying. Every night, there would be a meeting
of all of the heads of the different organizations, and they would be--passed
out a list of addresses that the owners had called the (800) number for the
LASPCA. So we would take this list and go out every morning and work off a
grid system.

GROSS: So tell me one of the stories about going to an address to find pets.
Tell me a story about what it was like.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, one of the most memorable stories was--which a lot of
people know this story already. It's the story of Rudy the pig. His owners
called the (800) number and asked to have Rudy removed from the house. They
learned that it was the last day that they could surrender and evacuate
peacefully or they would be physically removed from their home by the police.
So out of desperation, they called the LASPCA number and asked to have Rudy
removed. So when we motored up to the house, the house was completely--there
was like a moat completely around the house of water, this filthy water. And
when we into the house, they were very happy to see us, and so was Rudy, who
was about 300 pounds. Rudy lived in the house. He had his own little bedroom
with little pig pictures and all kinds of pig stuff, yeah. It was really
amazing. He had his own little bed and the sheet on the bed had little pigs
on it.

GROSS: Oh, gee.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: So these were people that really, really, really loved their
pet pig.

GROSS: So what did you do with a 300-pound animal? Did he fit on your boat?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, yeah. We had a huge dog carrier that we had the top
off of. We brought that into the house. We had the pig stand on a blanket
and between six people, we lifted up the pig and placed him into the carrier
and then put the top on the carrier. And the most wonderful feeling was when
I told the owner that--'cause he was like, `Oh, I can't stay here anymore
because I know that I'll never see my pig again.' And I said, `That's not
true.' And he said, `Aren't you going to euthanize the pig?' And I said,
`No. We're taking your pig and we're going to keep him safe until you have
your stuff together and you can come pick him up again.' And when he heard
that we weren't going to euthanize his pet pig, he was just so happy and was
hugging us all. It was really, really wonderful.

GROSS: What are you going to do with the--where are you going to keep the
pig?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: The pig now is at Gonzales. Lamar-Dixon is an equestrian
center where there's--that's the main staging area for the New Orleans area.
It has several barns with probably 50 to 60 horse stalls in each of the barns.
So that's where all of the animals are being held. So Rudy, right now, lives
with another pig and a goat last I saw him.

GROSS: Well, you know, although most of your search was very directed because
you had addresses from pet owners, did you see a lot of, you know, like
animals who had, like, left their home and were wandering around...

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...you know, lost and afraid?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yes. We saw a lot of them. In this one neighborhood
that we went to, the St. Bernard Parish area, we would just motor down the
street and just whistle and at any given time, you could hear five or six
different dogs barking. And we would just, you know, capture them and collect
them and put them in carriers. And when our boat was full, we'd just bring
them back to our staging area, go back out again, get another boat full. One
of the addresses that we heard dogs barking from, we actually saved five
beagles. They had crawled up a tree that was knocked down by the hurricane,
and they were in the way top branches, probably only 10 feet off the ground
because the tree was laying down. And they were very, very scared and they
ran away and ran into their little--there were like little boxes for them. I
guess it was like a puppy mill type of place. Some of the beagles were dead,
but there were five that were alive, and we rescued them.

GROSS: When you were rescuing dogs that were lost or afraid, were they afraid
of you or did they see you as a potential rescuer? I mean, I think a lot of
animals, when they're afraid, they either hide or they fight.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. That was a problem. Most--the majority of the
dogs would be--and the cats were very, very frightened. You have to think
that most of the time they were hiding under beds or they were outside and
hiding under whatever they could hide under, and we would use ropes and
catchpoles and stuff to try to get them out from under whatever they were
hiding. And we had to take care not to get ourselves bit or injured.

GROSS: How did you do that? What precautions did you take?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, to get cats most of the time we would have an actual
carrier, a cat carrier and the majority of the time when you're capturing a
cat they'll go into a box. So the cats were pretty much easy. You could just
kind of scoot them in or scare them into a corner and kind of trap them and
then they would go in. But the dogs are another story. They will not
willingly go into a box. And then you would have to throw a leash on them or
entice them with food.

GROSS: Did you carry a lot of food for that purpose?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and you also have to be careful not to
feed them too much because they hadn't eaten in quite a few days and you need
to just give them very, very small meals at first. So when enticing them, you
know, we had to just give them tiny little pieces, just enough to get them
over to you where you could slip a leash around their necks.

GROSS: When the dogs were afraid of you, not realizing that you were there to
save them, did that hurt at all? I mean, here you are, you know, making many
sacrifices to save these pets and, of course, they don't know that and they're
not necessarily going to be, like, appreciative of your presence or friendly
to you.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yes, that's a little hard when you're wrestling and jumping
over things. I mean, sometimes we'd have to, like, jump on top of--you know,
when you got out of the boat you would have to jump on top of a car, from car
to car, to some--a porch or something like that to try to wrestle this, you
know, biting, vicious pit bull. You'd be like, `What am I doing here?' But
as soon as you got the leash on them and you gave them a little food, the
majority of them, they were appreciative. They were just scared and
protecting, you know, their last stand.

GROSS: Would you do certain things to try to calm them down, speak to them in
a certain way?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah, speak to them really softly. Give them little
names, the food, just very calmly move your hands, approach them, lower
yourself so that you're not towering over them.

GROSS: What was one of the riskier things that you did to rescue a dog?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: I climbed over two cars--well, one of them was a van--onto
the roof of another car and walked...

GROSS: And these were cars that were mostly submerged?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yes, so just the roofs were showing. And then I walked up
the back steps of a house where--they were metal steps that were kind of--not
very secured to the building--to the second floor, which it had an open roof.
And the water, at one point, had been probably a foot higher than it was
because there were three dogs trapped on that roof. So I walked up those
steps and I was able to entice two of them with food. They at first were
barking and growling and lunging at me. But once they realized that I was a
friend and I was trying to feed them and help them, they calmed down and I got
them into the carriers. And one of them actually jumped off the roof into the
water and started to swim around where one of the people working with me on my
team--he jumped in the water and started after the dog. And he got a leash on
the dog and the dog eventually paddled over to our boat where we pulled him up
into the boat.

GROSS: I'm wincing as I hear this...

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because I'm thinking about what's in the water...

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh.

GROSS: ...and I'm thinking of the dog jumping in it and of your colleague
jumping in it.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah, well, we had dry suits on. We were completely equipped
with dry suits. So the only thing--we never got our heads exposed to the
water, but our hands were exposed--our hands and our feet were exposed.

GROSS: Do you have any sores on them?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: No, no.

GROSS: Did you see, like, sores or infections on animals as a result of
having been in the water?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Surprisingly, the animals that I saw--I saw one dog that he
obviously had been standing in the water for quite a while and he had sores on
his feet. But horses--I saw quite a few horses at the Lamar-Dixon staging
area that had been standing in water, and they were pretty bad off with fungal
infections.

GROSS: Did you see any horses while you were, you know, boating around the
city looking for pets?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: No, no. Cats, dogs, a pig.

GROSS: How about rats and alligators?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: No alligators. We did see one water moccasin. We saw two
goldfish swimming, barely swimming on the surface.

GROSS: Any rats?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: One rat. A lot of--unfortunately a lot of dead cats and
puppies.

GROSS: Floating?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Not dogs, just puppies?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. I didn't see any dead dogs--I mean, in the water.
There were dead dogs in homes, but not in the water.

GROSS: Did the dead dogs that you find in homes die of starvation or of
drowning?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Drowning.

GROSS: Were you able to see signs of some of the things that pet owners had
done in hopes that it would help their pets survive the storm?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. Most of the cats that we rescued were doing
really, really well and had--probably had no idea what was going on outside.
Most of the owners had left plenty of food, plenty of water, many different
cat boxes even for single-cat homes. We often saw three and four cat boxes
and an abundance of food. That was probably--all the people that did that,
all their animals were really well off. You know, they were just scared and
lonely.

GROSS: My guest is Margaret McLaughlin. We'll talk more about her
experiences rescuing pets in New Orleans with the ASPCA after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Margaret McLaughlin. She spent several days volunteering
with the ASPCA in New Orleans going out on boats to search for and rescue
stranded pets.

A lot of the animals that you rescued, you knew their identity because their
owners had already told you the address and had asked you to rescue their
pets. But there were a lot of dogs that you rescued that you didn't know who
they were. How do you identify where they're from, who their owners are and
try to get in touch?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, what we would do--some of the animals had collars with
tags. So that was pretty easy. But if an animal was found in a back yard of
an address when we--we would make a paper collar for them and we would write
`Found in back yard of 2798 Whatever.' Those are the animals that are going
to be very difficult for the people to find again.

GROSS: If they're not claimed, what's going to happen to them? You know,
people always worry with the ASPCA that if an animal isn't claimed in a
certain amount of time that the animal will be put to death. Now that there
are so many animals that have been rescued from the ASPCA, what's going to
happen to those who aren't matched up with their owners?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, Houston SPCA has done a tremendous amount of work
fostering pets and setting up all kinds of databases. Petfinder and
Chameleon(ph) are setting up databases, pictures eventually, I think. What
will happen is these pets will probably--those that are not matched up with
their owners will probably be scattered throughout the country in different
types of databases and they will be found homes. I'm quite certain of that,
that every one of the pets will be found a home. A lot of people like to
adopt animals that come from something like Katrina. `Oh, my dog was a rescue
from Katrina.' People like to have something attached to their animals.

GROSS: Did you decide to adopt any yourself?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, there was a cute little puppy that I really wanted, but
my husband was like, `You can't bring home any more animals.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you find animals who were traveling in packs?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: I think the--there was some talk of animals roaming in packs,
but most of the dogs that we saw that were in a group, they were always in a
group--like they were in somebody's back yard or on someone's porch. They
seemed to be of the same family.

GROSS: Animals don't often like each other's company very much. You know,
dogs bark at each other and get into fights on the street. Cats are not
pleased when strange animals are in their presence. So what was it like to
bring all these animals together who were already spooked onto a boat?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, they were in their separate individual carriers. So
most of them were kind of scared being on the boat to begin with, so they
didn't really say anything. The cats pretty much just, you know, hid in the
back of the cages and the dogs were kind of scared being on the water. So
most of the time they were very quiet. Occasionally we would put two animals
together that we thought were a family like a mother and her puppies or two
older dogs that we thought were a family. And then occasionally you'd hear
some barking or a little bit of fighting going on. But other than that, most
of the time the animals were very quiet inside the boat.

GROSS: How many trips in and out did you make during a day?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Two to three.

GROSS: How many animals at one time could you carry?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Depending--like the day that we got the beagles, all five
beagles were in one carrier. So we could probably have 10 animals on a boat,
six to 10 animals.

GROSS: And did you travel in a little fleet of rescue boats?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yes. At any given time there were six--five to six boats,
three people per team. So that there was always one person with the boat and
two people could go out of the boat and find the animal.

GROSS: Did you have any close calls during your rescue operation?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. I was entering a house via the back porch and when I
got up to the very top step of the porch, the back steps--as I went to step
off the steps into the house, the steps totally gave away and started floating
and I was like floating and balancing and teeter-tottering. And I made a big,
giant stride and jumped into the house. It was like a cartoon.

GROSS: What did you find in the house?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: We rescued two cats out of that house.

GROSS: How'd you get back out if the stairs had floated away?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Jumped down and then at--it was about chest high, the water.

GROSS: So you jumped down into the water?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. We often--we were in our dry suits so...

GROSS: But your face wasn't covered?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: No, but the water was about chest high.

GROSS: I see.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: So, yeah, often we were walking in the water. And just
imagine, you know, walking into a back yard what you're walking over. You're
walking over, you know, fallen trees and shrubs and plants and barbecues and
picnic tables and you name it can be back there. So...

GROSS: Which you can't even see because it's in the water.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Exactly. So you have to very gingerly kind of shuffle your
feet and step, you know, all the time holding your balance.

GROSS: Margaret McLaughlin will talk more about her animal rescue work with
the ASPCA in New Orleans in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Margaret McLaughlin about
rescuing stranded pets in New Orleans. Also, the story of Merian C. Cooper,
filmmaker and adventurer who made "King Kong," collaborated with John Ford on
now-classic Westerns and helped team Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Margaret McLaughlin.
She's the director of vet technicians at an ASPCA animal hospital in New York.
McLaughlin volunteered to work with the ASPCA animal rescue team in New
Orleans. She worked on boats that went through the New Orleans neighborhoods,
searching for and rescuing stranded pets.

Did you see a lot of National Guard or police?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, they were everywhere. We normally entered the city at
about 9 AM, and we had to be out--there was a 5:30 curfew. We had to be out
of the city or on our way out of the city by 5:30. And at any given time,
there were truckloads of military people, whether they be in those amphibians
or a Black Hawk helicopter flying overhead or just sheriffs walking by.

GROSS: Did you have any special, you know, badges or markings on your clothes
to indicate to police or to the National Guard that you were from the ASPCA
and you had an official function?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: For the first few days, I wore my ASPCA badge, but it's just
a badge and it's small, you know, my picture ID. But we were dressed in dry
suits, which are very colorful. Some of them were blue and yellow. Some were
yellow and black. We had life vests on. We had helmets on, and we had a
boatload of animal carriers. So nobody ever questioned us. They knew, `Oh,
you're here for the animals,' or they would just approach us and tell us about
some other animals that they saw someplace else. They knew--everybody knew
who we were.

GROSS: Did you run into a lot of other rescue teams in the water?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Not animal rescues, because we were on grids, but we did run
into a few human rescues that--we would see them going by. Actually, my team
rescued one group of humans. The man had had a stroke four days earlier. Now
we were only supposed to rescue animals, but a Black Hawk helicopter swooped
above us and it was low enough that he was making the water rippling, and he
was making all kinds of signals to us, and all of us, being civilians, had no
idea what they wanted us to do. Finally, we understood that they wanted us to
go a block away from where we were, but there was no outlet. So we actually
had the Black Hawk helicopter take us, in kind of an around-about way, and
direct us to a house that had four people in the house, and the old--the
father--he was very old, probably in his 80s. He had had a stroke four days
earlier, so they told us that we needed to rescue these people and take them.

GROSS: And were you able to do it?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. We lifted up the elderly man and we put him in the
boat and I think it was two sons and his daughter and a couple of pieces of
their luggage. We put them in the boat and we walked alongside the boat back
to our staging area.

GROSS: Did you find any dead people in your search for pets?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: I did see a few bodies outside on the streets, not in the
houses.

GROSS: And what would do when you saw dead bodies? Were you supposed to
report them?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: No, no. We just continued on our way. It was kind of par
for the course. It wasn't--you know, we were told that we would see them.
The military was all over the place. I mean, a massive military presence
everywhere, and they were aware of it. We weren't on any streets that they
weren't on.

GROSS: Were you surprised at all by what your actual reaction was to seeing
dead bodies floating by?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. At first, it was kind of one of those things where you
don't--you can't stop staring, but you can't turn your head away, and then the
next time I saw, I was walking, pulling the boat. It was a very shallow area.
And I was walking on the street, and there was a body on my right and a
turned-over Port-A-Potty on the left, and I was thinking to myself, well, at
least now I know what the smell is that I'm smelling. And, you know,
it's--you know, it's kind of undescribable. You really have to be there to
understand how you think.

GROSS: Some people listening now might be thinking, you know, that--might be
thinking, is it appropriate to worry so much about pets and have a rescue
operation for pets when not all of the people were rescued and when there were
still dead human bodies floating by? Is that the kind of thing that you
thought about much? You know, is it appropriate to worry about animals when
there are still people in jeopardy?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: It's all kind of connected. Most of the people that we saw
that would not evacuate, they would not evacuate because they still had their
pets, and they would not leave their pets behind. So it's kind of--we go in
and get their pets and then they can be evacuated. So it's pretty much the
same, even though we're helping the animals, and our mission is to help the
animals; we're still helping the people.

GROSS: You know, people who survive a catastrophe can get counseling. You
can't really counsel animals and help them understand what's happened to them
and help them return to a more stable existence or explain to them that they
can never go home again. Have you spoken to other people who are doing pet
rescue about dealing with the animals' trauma after their rescue?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. Thank goodness that there are so many people that are
kind-hearted enough to volunteer their shelter help. All of these animals,
they need special attention. They need walks. They need quality walks. They
need quality time with people that are going to be there, just to sit with
them or pet them, encourage them, because we can't speak to them.

GROSS: How did you feel about risking your health to save other people's
pets?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: At first, I was a little nervous about touching the water,
but just the more I saw the pets coming out of the water and the houses and
they were covered with muck, the more I was like--you know, I didn't think
about it. I just wanted to help, and I wanted to do whatever I could for the
animals and for the people whose pets they were. But I would hope that
somebody would go into my house if necessary someday.

GROSS: At the risk of sounding kind of corny in times of a crisis, but
what's, like, the cutest image that stays in your mind?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: The cutest image is this adorable little black pit bull
puppy. She was so hard to capture, because she was so cute. We couldn't get
a leash around her. She was just this squiggly, wiggly thing that just--you
know, like, you see some dogs, you go to pet them, and immediately, they're on
their backs and giving you their stomach?

GROSS: Right, yeah.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Well, that's what she was doing. And every time we tried to
get the lead around her neck, she was just wiggly and licking you. And, you
know, you don't want this dog to lick you, because it's been in this mucky
water. So you're trying to keep your distance, but at the same time, this dog
is just, like, so thrilled that you're there. And she was very cute.

GROSS: Is this a dog you thought about adopting yourself?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I would have taken her in a second.

GROSS: But you didn't, 'cause your husband didn't want more animals?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Right. And most of these animals have homes. It's just a
matter of...

GROSS: Of course, right.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: ...getting the owners--matching the owners with the pets.

GROSS: So how do you feel now?

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: I'm very tired. I'm mentally and physically exhausted. I
arrived back in the city on Saturday night, and I pretty much slept all of
Sunday and all of Monday. And today's my first day back at work, but I'm very
tired. That's what I could say, but I'm very, very happy to be home.

GROSS: Well, Margaret, thank you for the work that you did, and thank for
talking with us about it.

Ms. McLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Margaret McLaughlin worked as a volunteer with the ASPCA animal rescue
mission in New Orleans. She's the director of vet techs at an ASPCA hospital
in New York.

Coming up, the filmmaker and adventurer who created King Kong. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mark Cotta Vaz discusses his book "Living Dangerously:
The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong"
TERRY GROSS, host:

King Kong will return to the screen in December--or...

King Kong...

King Kong will return to the screen in December in a remake directed by Peter
Jackson, who made the "Lord of the Rings" movies. We're going to hear about
the man who made the original "King Kong."

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Unidentified Man #1: Come on! I got him! He'll be out for hours. Send to
the ship for anchor chains and tools!

Unidentified Man #2: What are you going to do?

Unidentified Man #1: I'll build a raft to float him to the ship! Why, the
whole world will pay to see this!

Unidentified Man #2: No chains will ever hold that.

Unidentified Man #1: We'll give him more than chains. He's always been king
of his world, but we'll teach him fear. We're millionaires, boys! I'll share
it with all of you! Why, in a few months, it'll be up in lights on Broadway:
Kong, the eighth wonder of the world!

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: The character of Carl Denham, the adventurer, filmmaker and promoter
who brings King Kong to New York, bears some resemblance to the adventurer and
filmmaker who created the film. C. Merian Cooper was an adventurer and
documentary filmmaker who traveled through Africa and made documentaries in
Persia, which is now Iran, and Siam, which is now Thailand. That work led him
to the more mythical idea of King Kong.

Denham is a fascinating behind-the-scenes Hollywood figure. He was also the
production head of RKO, helped team Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, produced
several now-classic John Ford Westerns, including "The Searchers" and "She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and was instrumental in the development of Cinerama.
Cooper's story is told in a new biography called "Living Dangerously." I
spoke with the author, Mark Cotta Vaz.

Would you describe the original idea for "King Kong" that Cooper had?

Mr. MARK COTTA VAZ (Author, "Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C.
Cooper, Creator of King Kong"): Well, the original idea for "King Kong" sort
of evolved. The original idea was--it was almost like--if you could imagine
two movie explorers getting the--or movie expedition guys sitting around and
telling the ultimate tall tale, that's kind of how "King Kong" began.

Cooper was in New York in the late 1920s and early '30s, pursuing interests in
commercial aviation. So he had sort of left Hollywood, but he seemed
entranced with telling this story about this gorilla. And he had this friend
of his, W. Douglas Burden, and Burden had made this great expedition to the
Komodo Island, where the famous dragons of Komodo, so-called, exist, these
primordial-looking creatures. And Cooper always had this fantasy of doing a
movie where he would film a live gorilla seemingly in conflict with a live
Komodo dragon. But--so they wanted to do this dramatic, you know, lost-world
idea of a lost island and these creatures battling each other. But as the
idea evolved, it became much more romantic, and he started realizing, `I'm not
going to be able to do this with live animals.'

GROSS: So he decided against using, like, the real animals and ended up going
with stop-motion animation. He knew he didn't want a guy in an ape suit. Why
was he so sure that that would be the wrong thing?

Mr. VAZ: Well, because a guy in an ape suit looks phony. You can tell it's a
guy in an ape suit, and that's the way it was done. And Cooper was always
this bombastic showman, bigger and better. He wanted to bring the world
through his moving pictures spectacle. And he wanted to say, `How can I make
this dream, this'--what he would call this giant terror gorilla--`how can I
make something so romantic, so fantastic, so nightmarish come true?' And it
turned out that stop-motion animation was the best way to do that.

GROSS: Now the Empire State Building nearly didn't make it into "King Kong."
Why not?

Mr. VAZ: Yeah, the thing about "King Kong" is that it was--now Cooper claimed
he never saw the movie "The Lost World." But for those that remember the Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle story and the movies that were made that were inspired by
that book, there is this whole scenario of a beast from a lost world being
brought to civilization. In the case of "The Lost World" movie, it's London.
So there was actually this threat of illegal action, you know, because the
idea is if you bring King Kong to New York, well, that's very similar to the
whole scenario of "The Lost World," prehistoric beast coming to civilization.

So at one point, they weren't going to use the scene. And, you know, Cooper
actually said, `Well, maybe we could go ahead and drop it. We won't have as
good a picture, but we'll have a good enough picture.' He just felt that,
`Well, maybe we're just going to have to lose the whole New York sequence,'
and the whole movie of "King Kong" would have been set on Skull Island.

But what happened is they ended up essentially buying the rights to "The Lost
World," you know, the copyright right to it. So by owning it, they
essentially--and they also got the waiver, so they didn't have to credit "The
Lost World." Cooper always claimed "The Lost World" had nothing to do with
"King Kong," but for whatever reason, the legal guys basically squared it all
away, because if they hadn't, "King Kong" would have ended on Skull Island,
where it began.

GROSS: Now, you know, there's so much, like, bondage imagery in "King Kong."
Like, for example, in the first half of the movie, you know, Fay Wray is tied
up with one arm attached--with each arm attached to a separate pole, and she's
just, like, wriggling around, trying to get free from those poles, wearing,
you know, fairly skimpy clothing, while King Kong comes and, you know, admires
her and growls and so on. And, you know, that's just the beginning. And I
wonder if you think that Cooper knew what he was doing, if he was consciously
saying, `Ah, let's put in a little bit of bondage imagery in this. You know,
that'll...'

Mr. VAZ: Well, Cooper always claimed...

GROSS: `That'll work with the audience.'

Mr. VAZ: Well, Cooper always claimed there was no decadent, quote, unquote,
"rape connotation" to any of this. Actually, I came across this interesting
letter that the film historian and critic Richard Schickel had written to
Cooper's widow, Dorothy Jordan. And basically, Dorothy Jordan was objecting
to exactly the kind of question that you posed. And Richard Schickel was
basically--sent a very nice reply to her, basically saying, `I'm doing it the
honor of respecting it by asking these questions, because'--and Schickel felt
that one of the reasons why a work of popular art endures is because it has a
lot of unanswered questions, and people can read things into it.

Cooper always claimed that, you know, there was none of this bondage thing. I
mean, there's the whole business where Kong starts taking her clothes off and
smelling his fingers and--those were actually cut in the ensuing theatrical
re-releases. There's a number of bits of business in "King Kong" that were
deemed, you know, too provocative or whatever, and that was one of them.

So, you know, it's something that people will debate. I mean, there is this
one book that came out, that talked about the whole rape thing, you know, and
Kong's penis. And I just always had this amaz--you know, Merian Cooper and
Dorothy Jordan were pretty con--they were a great couple, and they were
worldly people, but they were pretty conservative, and, you know, he was a
good Southern gentleman. And just the idea of people talking like that, I
always have this image of Cooper just cringing, you know, 'cause I honestly
don't think that was his intent. I think it was more the idea of beauty being
totally vulnerable. It's maybe less a bondage thing as it was just exposing
her. He wanted to do a sacrificial ritual thing, and that's--you know, she's
put out there to be sacrificed.

GROSS: Cooper was such a showman. Was he involved in the actual advertising
of "King Kong" once the movie was ready to open?

Mr. VAZ: Cooper was--well, the RKO department had a whole advertising, you
know, department dedicated--in fact, it's very funny. There are all these,
like, in-house memos at the time, where they were talking about, `This is
going to be the greatest, you know, movie ever, and anyone that doesn't--fail
to live up to the expectations of the movie can consider themselves a
failure.' I mean, it was very much like the Carl Denham character in the
movie, saying, `They're going to have to think up a lot of new adjectives when
I get back.' I mean, it was this bombastic spectacle.

And Cooper, at that time--actually, what had happened was Cooper--Selznick
left RKO as head of production, and Cooper took his place, because the "King
Kong" production had been such a risk, and it was coming through--clearly, the
studio knew they had a hit on their hands, and so essentially, the board of
directors at RKO allowed Cooper to ascend to the height of Hollywood power and
influence. I mean, he became head of the whole studio, of production side.
And so I think he was very involved in just pushing all the buttons to make
sure that things were working.

But at that point, he was also starting to transition to become production
head in charge of all the movies the studio was going to release. And one of
his decisions was, `Let's do a sequel to "King Kong."' And he rushed that
into production. I mean, the sequel, "Son of Kong," came out the very same
year, 1933, as "Kong" did.

GROSS: Gee, I didn't realize it was so quick.

Mr. VAZ: It was--yeah, it was almost, like, blinding. It was, like, `Whoa.'
I mean, and that was a little bit more Cooper more the mogul. You know,
supposedly he told Selzni--or he told Schoedsack--Schoedsack would direct it.
He basically said, `Here's a couple hundred thousand dollars. Go out and make
this movie. Anything with "Kong" in the title will be a hit.' And, you know,
so it was a little bit more the mogul speaking, not from the heart. I mean
"Kong" is from the heart from him.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Cotta Vaz, the author of "Living Dangerously: The
Adventures of Merian C. Cooper." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Cotta Vaz, and his new
book "Living Dangerously" is a biography of Merian C. Cooper who created "King
Kong."

Cooper fought in World War I. He fought again in World War II and then became
a staunch anti-Communist. He supported Joe McCarthy. How did that affect the
movies he made after the war?

Mr. VAZ: Yeah, the whole--he was a virulent anti-Communist, and he really had
this--you know, I mean, going back to being in these Moscow prison camps. He
had been shot down when he was helping the Poles fight the invading
Bolsheviks, and he had been captured, and he endured, like, the hell of the
prison camps. And he had this great escape, and so he always claimed that he
knew firsthand and experienced the early Communist brainwashing capability and
psychological warfare. And he always took the Communists at their word that
they were bent on world domination.

And Cooper felt to counter that, he had to do a new type of American
propaganda. So he had formed a company before the war that was reactivated
after the war with John Ford, the great director, called Argosy Pictures. And
they--all the John Wayne movies they did, the "Cavalry" pictures that Cooper
is--doesn't get credit. You know, John Ford directed them, but Cooper
produced those. It's, like, the "Cavalry" trilogy and the...

GROSS: So the "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

Mr. VAZ: All those movies were meant to sort of, like, lift up the idea of
the American military corps and to kind of, you know, be an inspirational
message. But his crowning thing was Cinerama. He got involved with Lowell
Thomas in doing that great, you know, movie "This is Cinerama" and pioneering
this whole new medium of the big screen, which ended up opening up all the big
screens in America and in the world. We forget that the old movie screens
used to more like little box-shaped. The screens went wide after Cinerama,
you know.

But there's this great "America the Beautiful" scene in Cinerama where there's
a plane with a Cinerama camera that flew across the country, taking pictures
of this great land and, you know, it's done to the music of "The Star-Spangled
Banner," what--"America the Beautiful," rather. And Cooper just meant that as
his love poem to America, and he just wanted to extol the virtues of this
country.

GROSS: Now one thing we didn't mention, you know, as part of Cooper's storied
career, one of things he did was help put Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
together on screen. What was his role in that now-famous match?

Mr. VAZ: Well, Cooper basically paired them. Originally, Fred Astaire was
going to be in this movie "Flying Down to Rio" or "Flying to Rio" with Dorothy
Jordan, the woman he ended up marrying. Well, he always made this comment
that, `Well, once I married her, I essentially wasn't going to let her dance
with Fred Astaire.' I mean, this debonair, you know, dashing guy. You know,
essentially, when he married Dorothy Jordan, her movie career kind of ended.
Until the '50s, film buffs will probably recognize her as the woman that opens
up "The Searchers." She's the frontier wife that's waiting for John Wayne.
But essentially, she was going to be paired with Fred Astaire. And so when
they got married, Cooper said, `OK, well, I'm going to get someone else to
dance with Fred,' and then he--there's this woman, Ginger Rogers, and he
paired them.

He did a lot of stuff like that. He basically sent the memo to Selznick,
asking for a screen test for a certain Broadway actress named Katharine
Hepburn. He had a great eye for talent. And at RKO, particularly when he
became production head, he really wanted the studio to be focused on women
stars. He really felt that female stars were going to be very important in
the studio, and that--so I think he had an eye for people like Ginger Rogers,
and, `Let's put them in this romantic setting with this dashing and--dancer.'
And that was one of his--thinking, which is almost in congress, when you think
about it, this two-fisted adventurer war hero making movies designed to appeal
to, you know, women. And--but he was a multifaceted guy.

GROSS: Mark Cotta Vaz is the author of "Living Dangerously: The Adventures
of Merian C. Cooper."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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