Frank Howard Buck (March 17, 1884 – March 25, 1950) was an American hunter, animal collector, and author, as well as a film actor, director, and producer. Beginning in the 1910s he made many expeditions into Asia for the purpose of hunting and collecting exotic animals, removing them from their natural habitat, and bringing over 100,000 live specimens back to the United States and elsewhere for zoos and circuses, earning a great deal of money, and garnering a reputation as an adventurer. He co-authored seven books chronicling or based on his expeditions, beginning with 1930’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive, which became a bestseller. Between 1932 and 1943 he starred in seven adventure films based on his exploits, most of which featured staged “fights to the death” with various wild beasts. He was also briefly a director of the San Diego Zoo, displayed wild animals at the 1933–34 Century of Progress exhibition and 1939 New York World’s Fair, toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and co-authored an autobiography, 1941’s All in a Lifetime. The Frank Buck Zoo in Buck’s hometown of Gainesville, Texas is named after him.
Buck was born in Gainesville, Texas in 1884 and grew up in Dallas. He excelled at geography, at the cost of “utter failure on all the other subjects of that limited Dallas curriculum”, and quit school after completing the seventh grade. During childhood he began collecting birds and small animals, tried farming, and sold songs to vaudeville singers before getting a job as a cowpuncher, (a term for cowboy used mostly in Texas and surrounding states). Accompanying a cattle car to the Chicago stockyards, he refused to return to Texas.
In Chicago, while working as captain of bellhops at the Virginia Hotel, Buck met hotel resident Lillian West (pen name Amy Leslie). West was a former actress and operetta singer. At the time that Buck met her, she was one of the very few female drama critics in the country, and the only one working in Chicago, where she wrote for the Chicago Daily News. In his autobiography, Buck described her as “a small woman, plump, with keenly intelligent eyes, the most beautifully white teeth I have ever seen, and a red, laughing mouth”, adding that she was “always good-natured.” Although their relationship was highly unusual at the time, she being 46 years old to his youthful 17 (a 29-year difference), they married in 1901.
In 1911 Buck won $3,500 in a poker game and decided to go abroad for the first time, traveling to Brazil without his wife. Bringing back exotic birds to New York, he was surprised by the profits he was able to obtain from their sale. He then traveled to Singapore, beginning a string of animal collecting expeditions to various parts of Asia. Leading treks into the jungles, Buck learned to build traps and snares to safely catch animals so he could sell them to zoos and circuses worldwide. After an expedition, he would usually accompany his catches on board ship, helping to ensure they survived the transport to the United States. Buck and West divorced in 1913, and the following year he married Nina C. Boardman, a Chicago stenographer who accompanied him on jungle expeditions.
Director of the San Diego Zoo
In 1923 Buck was hired as the first full-time director of the San Diego Zoo, but his tenure there was brief and tumultuous. The Zoo was still in its early years, having begun as an assortment of animal displays remaining from the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition held in Balboa Park. It had been granted a permanent site in 1921 (an area of about 140 acres in the park’s northwestern quadrant) and most of its initial exhibits had been built over the following year, with a “grand opening” of the new grounds held on January 1, 1923. The Zoo was founded by the Zoological Society of San Diego and managed by its board of directors, with founding board member Frank Stephens having served as the part-time managing director without pay since its beginning. Most of the planning and development was being overseen by Society founder and president Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth, who was the driving force behind the Zoo’s creation. A strong-willed, hands-on president, Wegeforth walked the Zoo grounds daily and had a singular vision for its future, with little room for opposing viewpoints. Philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who had made several significant donations to the Zoo, suggested that it needed a full-time director and volunteered to pay such a person’s salary for three years if Wegeforth could find someone suitable for the job. Wegeforth visited Dr. William Temple Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, hoping Hornaday would recommend someone, but received a cold response. He was surprised, then, to receive a call from Buck saying he had been referred by Hornaday as a possible candidate for the position.
Buck was headed to India at the time, and struck an agreement with the Zoological Society’s board for him to collect some animals for the Zoo and then come to San Diego to become its director. It was strongly hoped that his acquisitions would include elephants, an animal the Society, and particularly Wegeforth, had been attempting to add to the Zoo’s collection for some time. Buck found two female Asian elephants in Calcutta named “Empress” and “Queenie” that were trained to work, and bought them for the Zoo. When the elephants arrived in San Diego after a long journey by boat and freight train, Wegeforth and superintendent Harry Edwards rode them through the city streets to the Zoo. Buck himself soon arrived with the rest of the promised Asian animals, including two orangutans, a leopard cub, two gray langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, two lion-tailed macaques, two sarus cranes, four demoiselle cranes, assorted geese, and a 23-foot reticulated python named “Diablo” that became famous when it would not eat and had to be regularly force-fed by a team of men using a feeding tube attached to a meat grinder, a spectacle that attracted thousands of onlookers and became a paid event until the snake’s death in 1928.
Buck began his directorship of the San Diego Zoo on June 13, 1923, signed to a three-year contract at an annual salary of $4,000 (equivalent to about $55,500 in 2015). He was enthusiastic at first, telling reporters “We have the best zoo west of Chicago, and we are going to make it even bigger and better.” However, Buck, a self-made, solitary, rugged, and independent-minded individual, soon clashed with the board of directors, particularly Wegeforth. Members of the board complained that Buck was unwilling to consult with them on everyday policy and frequently defied their directives; he constructed new cassowary cages of his own design in direct defiance of their orders, they said, and had bragged to board member William Raymenton about “putting one over on the board by constructing the cage without their knowledge”, boasting that he would continue to build whatever cages he considered proper “with or without the consent of the board.” He had also been instructed to build an enclosure for a zebu that had been allowed to wander the Zoo grounds, but apparently ignored the directive. According to Wegeforth, Buck made business deals with other zoos and animal collectors that were mismanaged or undocumented, and ordered expensive custom nameplates for the Zoo’s animals and exhibits which had to be returned when it was found that Buck had misspelled half of the names. Prior to receiving Empress and Queenie, Wegeforth had struck a deal with John Ringling to acquire elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; when Ringling telegraphed that the circus was returning to San Diego and he was bringing the promised elephants, Wegeforth recorded that “without consulting me, [Buck] wired back declining the elephants and asking for other animals instead! I was dumbfounded when I learned about this on the circus’ arrival—hardly adequate thanks for Mr. Ringling’s trouble in transporting them across the continent for us. Of course, they did not carry a side line of animals around with them like spare tires but they did give us a tiger, a zebra, and a camel.”
The final straw involved an incident with Empress and Queenie: Buck believed that their hides appeared dry and cracked and would benefit from “oiling”, an old practice in zoos and circuses in which elephants were covered in neatsfoot oil to soften and condition their skin, the oil being washed off after a few days. Wegeforth, a physician, took a strong interest in veterinary medicine and personally monitored the health of the animals, and had learned that oiling could cause pneumonia or Bright’s disease in elephants. He therefore ordered Buck never to oil Empress and Queenie. Buck oiled them anyway, and according to Wegeforth “they became very piteous-looking creatures, their trunks grew flaccid and seemed about a foot longer than usual, and their abdomens almost touched the ground. I was afraid they were doomed. We mixed Epsom salts with bran and, by using alfalfa meal, at last caused their bowels to move and relieved them of much of the edema. Some time passed before they were able to use their trunks but eventually they were as well as ever.” Returning from a trip to San Francisco a few months later, Wegeforth found that Buck had oiled the elephants a second time. They recovered again, but Buck was immediately fired and left San Diego after only three months as director of the Zoo, the board of directors charging that he “couldn’t be trusted”.
Buck promptly sued the board of directors for breach of contract, saying he had given up his lucrative animal collecting business to work in San Diego and had suffered damage to his reputation. He sought $12,500 in salary which he would have received in his three-year contract, as well as $10,000 in damages (a total equivalent to about $312,285 in 2015). He also sued Wegeforth personally, and when the matter went to court in February 1924 Buck accused Wegeforth of interfering with “practically everything” related to his job, and of conspiring with the board to “belittle and disparage” his efforts as director. Wegeforth accused Buck of incompetence and testified that “the whole character of the man was insubordination.” Buck also claimed that Wegeforth had killed a sick tiger by dosing the animal with calomel, and that the doctor’s experiments in force-feeding snakes with a sausage stuffer had resulted in the deaths of 150 of the reptiles. Wegeforth had in fact administered calomel tablets to a tiger suffering an intestinal ailment in August 1923, and in his memoirs described experimenting with methods of force-feeding Diablo the python before coming up with the idea to tube-feed the snake using a sausage stuffer. Board member Thomas Faulconer and other witnesses, however, suggested that the sick tiger had died after a suspicious blow to the head, and flatly denied the snake-killing accusation. Wegeforth claimed that Buck himself had mistreated the reptiles, saying that he had “stuffed down, by the most inhuman way of feeding, snake meat down the throat of a boa constrictor instead of using a more modern method of stomach tube or feeding the meat through a tube.” On February 20, 1924, superior court judge Charles Andrews ruled against Buck and ordered him to pay court costs of $24 (equivalent to about $333 in 2015).
In his 1941 autobiography All in a Lifetime, Buck did not mention his clashes with the Zoological Society board, his firing, or the subsequent lawsuit. He did, however, claim that “while acting as temporary director of the San Diego Zoo”, he had invented a method of force-feeding snakes, the means “by which captive pythons are mainly fed today.” He made one subsequent contribution to the Zoo, though indirectly: Having returned to his animal-collecting career, in 1925 he brought a shipment of animals to San Diego including a salmon-crested cockatoo named “King Tut” from the Maluku Islands. The bird was sold to a La Mesa, California couple who shared it with the Zoo. King Tut went on to appear in several films, television shows, and theater productions, and was the “official greeter” of the Zoo for decades, sitting on a perch inside the entrance to squawk at guests Following King Tut’s death in 1990, a bronze statue of the cockatoo was placed in the location of its longtime perch and remains there today, its plaque indicating that the bird “was brought from Indonesia in 1925 by Frank Buck”.
Writing, acting, and celebrity
Buck and Boardman divorced in 1927; when she later married a California packing company official, she told reporters “As long as I live, I don’t want to see any animals wilder or bigger than a kitten.” Buck subsequently married Muriel Reilly in 1928, and the two had a daughter, Barbara. By the end of the 1920s Buck was the world’s leading supplier of wild animals. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 left him penniless, but friends lent him $6,000 and he was soon doing profitable work again.
When Chicago radio and newsreel personality Floyd Gibbons suggested that Buck write about his animal collecting adventures, he collaborated with journalist Edward Anthony to co-author Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1930), which became a bestseller and earned him the nickname Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck. He arranged for a film crew to accompany him on his next collecting expedition to Asia in order to create a film of the same title, which was released in 1932 and starred Buck as himself. He was also the main feature of Bring ‘Em Back Alive, an NBC radio program promoting the film which aired October 30–December 18, 1932 and July 16–November 16, 1934. The follow-up book, Wild Cargo (1932), again co-authored with Anthony, also became a bestseller and was adapted into a 1934 film of the same title in which Buck once again portrayed himself and also served as producer. During this time he was represented by George T. Bye, a New York literary agent.
Buck furnished a wild animal exhibit, Frank Buck’s Jungle Camp, for Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition in 1933. More than two million people visited Buck’s reproduction of the camp he and his native assistants lived in while collecting animals in British Malaya. After the fair closed, he relocated the camp to a compound he created in Amityville, New York. Buck’s third book, Fang and Claw (1935), was co-authored with Ferrin Fraser; for the film adaptation, Buck directed and once again starred. Tim Thompson in the Jungle (1935), also co-authored with Fraser, was a work of fiction but was based on Buck’s experiences.
While these books and films made Buck world-famous, he later remarked that he was prouder of his 1936 elementary school reader, On Jungle Trails, saying “Wherever I go, children mention this book to me and tell me how much they learned about animals and the jungle from it.” Buck next starred as Jack Hardy in 1937’s Jungle Menace (1937), a 15-part serial film that was the only picture in which he did not play himself. That same year he and Reilly bought their first home, at 5035 Louise Avenue in Encino, California, next door to the home of actor Charles Winninger. Prior to and during the making of Jungle Menace, Buck was represented by Hollywood literary agent H.N. Swanson.
During 1938, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their main attraction, and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was “a scientist, not an actor”. Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that it would compromise his principles, saying “Don’t get me wrong. I’m with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don’t want some union delegate telling me when to get on and off an elephant.” Eventually the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla without registering as an actor.
The following year, Buck brought his jungle camp to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “Frank Buck’s Jungleland” displayed rare birds, reptiles, and wild animals, along with a five-year-old trained orangutan named Jiggs. In addition, Buck provided a trio of performing Asian elephants, an 80-foot “monkey mountain” with 600 monkeys, and camel rides. His sixth book, Animals Are Like That, co-authored with Carol Weld, came out later that year.
World War II temporarily halted Buck’s expeditions to Asia, but his popularity kept him busy on the lecture circuit and making guest appearances on radio. During the war years he continued to publish books and star in films: In 1941 he published an autobiography, All in a Lifetime, co-authored by Fraser, and narrated Jungle Cavalcade, a compilation of footage from his first three films. He also appeared in Jacaré (1942) and starred in Tiger Fangs (1943). His eighth and final book, Jungle Animals, again co-authored by Fraser, was published in 1945 and was intended for schoolchildren grades five to eight.
Final years and death
Following the end of World War II, Buck returned to animal collecting, telling The New Yorker “You dig the same old-fashioned pits and use the same old-fashioned knives and come back with the same old-fashioned tigers.” By his own estimate, he had by then captured 49 elephants, 60 tigers, 63 leopards, 20 hyenas, 52 orangutans, 100 gibbons, 20 tapirs, 120 Asiatic antelope and deer, 9 pigmy water buffalo, a pair of gaurs, 5 babirusa, 18 African antelope, 40 wild goats and sheep, 11 camels, 2 giraffes, 40 kangaroos and wallabies, 5 Indian rhinoceros, 60 bears, 90 pythons, 10 king cobras, 25 giant monitor lizards, 15 crocodiles, more than 500 different species of other mammals, and more than 100,000 wild birds. Sultan Ibrahim of Johor was a good friend of Buck’s and frequently assisted him in his animal collecting endeavors.
Buck’s final film role was an appearance as himself in the 1949 Abbott and Costello comedy Africa Screams. His last recorded performance was Tiger, a 1950 children’s record adapting two stories from Bring ‘Em Back Alive. Buck spent his last years in his family home at 324 South Bishop Street in San Angelo, Texas, and died of lung cancer on March 25, 1950 in Houston, aged 66.
In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a comic book in the Classics Illustrated series (issue 104). The following year, the Gainesville Community Circus in Buck’s hometown of Gainesville, Texas was renamed the Frank Buck Zoo in his honor. Actor Bruce Boxleitner starred as Buck in the 1982–83 television series Bring ‘Em Back Alive, which was partially based on Buck’s books and adventures. In 2000, writer Steven Lehrer published Bring ‘Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck, an edited collection of Buck’s stories. In 2008 the Frank Buck Zoo opened the Frank Buck Exhibit, showcasing camp tools and media memorabilia that had once belonged to Buck and were donated by his daughter Barbara.