The Passing of the Jumar

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

The Cat Is His Hat
One man's crusade to kill feral felines. And get rich in the process.

The Passing of the Jumar
While scaling the legendary 5.14a route "To Bolt or Not to Be" in Central Oregon's Smith Rock State Park last May, Beth Rodden experienced an uncanny convergence with the past. During the two weeks it took the 19-year-old to earn the distinction of being the youngest woman ever to complete the unrelentingly vertical ascent, her impressive rock work drew the eye of climbing's elder stateswoman Lynn Hill, best known for her 23-hour free-climb of the Nose at El Capitan in 1993. While observing the ascent, Hill, 38, was struck by the realization that Rodden was unknowingly selecting the same series of holds that Hill herself had used when she first climbed the route last year. Impressed, Hill invited the prodigy to join her on The North Face-sponsored first all-female ascent of Madagascar's 2,625-foot Tsaranoro Massif in June.
Stunt Double Dept.
"Every day we had this brutal descent to the river," moans Doug Savant. "It was raining, I got sick, it was miserable; and on the very first take, I fell out of the boat." You've got to admire Savant's candor, given that the actor who formerly played Matt Fielding on Melrose Place is fessing up to several of the embarrassing mishaps he suffered while portraying studly river guide Grant Carlson in First Daughter, the TV action flick that premieres on the 15th of this month on TBS. Despite Savant's real-life ineptitude on the water, the film succeeds in creating a reasonably convincing illusion of the star's ability to ace a mythic set of "unrunnable" rapids called "Hell's Half Mile" somewhere in deepest, darkest Colorado. Unfortunately, the impressive verisimilitude is undermined by an absurd story line in which Savant and Mariel Hemingway, who plays a sultry Secret Service agent, must paddle after a gang of dirtball militia-types who have kidnapped the president's daughter during a rafting trip. The film apparently marks something of a milestone for Savant, who calls it "the most treacherous" project he's ever completed. That's quite a statement, considering that he spent five years working opposite Heather Locklear. —GRANT DAVIS AND PAUL KVINTA

If there is more than one way to skin a cat, John Wamsley will eagerly employ them all to protect the red-necked pandemelon. "To save an endangered species," declares Australia's most controversial conservationist, "I'd sell my soul to the devil himself." His opponents suspect he may already have; others consider him a guru for his ability to synergize the seemingly incongruous fields of wildlife conservation.

The ornery, slow-talking former professor of computer science—who's been known to wear a hat made from the pelt of an eight-pound cat and to press recipes for "pussy-tail stew" on unsuspecting strangers—is the originator and obsessive leader of a growing movement in Australia to rid the island continent of a plague of nonnative species. The newcomers, some of which were introduced as pets or for husbandry, include house cats, foxes, and dogs (not the indigenous dingo). Having escaped to the wild, they have multiplied and transformed into feral natural-born killers. (Several years ago, army sharpshooters were called in to kill wild cats that had chased 2,000 rare letter-winged kites from their nests.) To date, feral newcomers have exterminated 23 indigenous species.

This has to end, Adelaide-based Wamsley decided as an impressionable 11-year-old. With the pacing and vigor of a slow-flowing stream, he tells the tragic story of watching his father clear 166 acres of virgin bush to make room for an orchard. "The native plants and animals were immediately killed as nonnative species arrived," he says. The image haunted him until 1985, when he gave up teaching and started Earth Sanctuaries Limited, an outfit devoted to creating wildlife preserves inhabited only by native species, as well as operating guided adventures into the newly reclaimed bush.

Returning land to its native condition is certainly a noble cause. But Wamsley's group does it with an entrepreneurial twist, a profit-oriented approach that may shock more traditional environmentalists. The business works like this: Investors buy stock in Earth Sanctuaries Limited, which is currently priced at $1.47 a share and will be traded on the Australian Stock Exchange sometime next year. The capital is used to buy up vast tracts of outback, which are cordoned off with electric fencing. Then the real work begins: Extra foxes and cats are brought in to kill all the rabbits. Park rangers dam up the streams and water sources, forcing the cats and foxes to leave the park in search of water—through gates designed to allow animals to leave but not to return—and native species, like the bandicoot, wombat, and pandemelon (a type of small wallaby), are reintroduced. Finally, the benefits are divvied up: Investors get the capital gains from a stock that, thanks to profitable admission fees and a growing pool of investors, has soared 8,000 percent since 1985. Wildlife lovers get pristine preserves that they can visit for a price. And Wamsley, who currently owns six million shares of Earth Sanctuaries stock, gets rich. "Yes, I would call myself wealthy," he says.

So far this creative, for-profit slant on conservation has raised $27 million and created six enclosures across southcentral Australia. The largest, Scotia Sanctuary in New South Wales, covers 250 square miles and took in $1.5 million last year from visitors who pay $60 each for a tourist package that includes meals, accommodations, and guided walks. By 2020, Wamsley hopes to have converted a total of 38,600 square miles of land—nearly 1 percent of the country's real estate—into dozens of these privately run parks.

Wamsley's accomplishments have come at a cost, of course. Cat lovers frequently make death threats, and vandals fling live foxes into his sanctuaries. Wamsley shrugs off his critics. "Australia has lost more species in the past 200 years than the rest of the world combined," he says, "and unless we make some decisions, we'll lose even more. This is a hard, dirty business." Ever leery of compromise, Wamsley has made one exception: Several years ago, he agreed to stop wearing the cat-pelt hat. But he will never stop making his famous pussy-tail stew.

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