Memories of a Startled Hippo, a Bald-headed Pygmy, and a Rhino Foot Ashtray

In the forty years since Mark purchased that rhino’s foot (and was allowed to carry it through customs) the rhinoceros has been placed on the endangered species list.  It’s a magnificent animal that, like the alligator, reminds us of what wildlife must have existed when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  Mark’s status has changed too—his political consciousness, always active, eventually got the best of him. Seeing the decline of moral values in his home country he decided to rid himself of all his material goods and go climb mountains in the Andes and in Nepal.

Before he left he brought over a box of stuff he wanted me to have. There were books I didn’t need, beads my children could make into necklaces, and those three awful items—the backscratcher, the shell, and the “ashtray”—that I hoped never to see again.

“Why are you giving me these?” I asked.

“Because I promised them to you.”

“This is one promise I would prefer you not to keep.”

“Well, they’re yours now. Do with them what you want.”

My wife said, “Throw them away.”  But I couldn’t. Then these animals would have truly died for nothing. Instead, I contacted the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and asked where I might send them, so they could be on display, because people should see these things, and perhaps then make a donation to help keep these animals from becoming souvenirs…or, even worse, extinct.

The IFAW told me that they would not have a use for the items, even for educational purposes and suggested that they be destroyed. But I didn’t want to do that, so I found a web site ( that had a directory of animal welfare organizations, where I located one not far from where I live, the Wilderness Conservancy. Their website told me that they had five antipoaching aircraft that operated in Zimbabwe and South Africa and that they relocated endangered wildlife from one national park to another. They also worked with school children and furnished equipment to game scouts who worked to save animals from poachers.  I got in touch with the man in charge, Dr. Robert Cleaves, and told him what I had and that the IFAW suggested I destroy the items.

“That would be counterproductive,” Bob Cleaves said. “I speak to school children all the time, and I bring with me items like rhino horns to show them what is happening to these animals. I could use what you have, because these things make an impression on children. I’d be glad to take them.”

So that’s where the rhino foot ashtray, alligator backscratcher, and turtle shell now reside: at the Bel Air home of Dr. Robert Cleaves, the septuagenarian president of the Wilderness Conservancy.  I’m glad to be rid of these disgusting souvenirs, though I’ll never be able to erase them from my memory, any more than the bald headed pygmy woman and the startled hippo that decided not to eat me.  But maybe some good will come of my old friend’s purchases. Perhaps those children who see the rhino foot will not only be appalled by such brutality to such a distinguished animal but will also be turned off smoking as well. And if they need their backs scratched, they can find relief from their mother or father’s fingers.

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