In the spirit of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Turner and Hooch, and just about anything that Disney has ever produced, animals have captured the imagination of Charleston residents, enabled by the rapt attention from local media — led by The Post and Courier. For the last few weeks, newspaper stories have covered mange foxes, right whales, a missing giant tortoise, and beloved pet pigs. Oh yeah, and armadillos have come to town. Is it animal overkill in the Lowcountry or a natural extension of man's fascination with other species?
"I'm speculating that the Post and Courier is following reader response to such stories," says Doug Ferguson, a professor of mass media research at the College of Charleston.
Newspapers, TV, and magazines have found animals attract an audience, Ferguson says, noting there's hardly a better example than the hit documentary March of the Penguins.
"Magazines that put animals on the front tend to sell more copies," he says.
The paper also may be trying to balance a flood of bad news with some feel-good pieces, he says. With more than 30 homicides this year in Charleston and North Charleston, continued toil in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, we've had more than enough bad news.
The varying stories that have appeared in the paper spotlight various themes that make for a great animal story.
The truly bizarre: The story that started it all and got the most press was the Where's Waldo search for a malnourished breed of fox that turned into a days-long episode of CSI. On Monday, Aug. 7, The Post and Courier printed an article about a fox-like animal that had fascinated locals, complete with the grainy photos one would see on the hunt for Nessy or Bigfoot. On Tuesday, there were more mysterious sightings to report. Wednesday brought the revelation that a woman had found and frozen the corpse of one of the animals. A state biologist weighed in on Thursday and genetic tests were promised come Saturday. Three more stories over the next two weeks slowly dragged on the guesses of what the animal could be. Turned out the first guess was the winner — it was a unique kind of grey fox.
Jaap Hillenius, a biologist with the College of Charleston, says the fascination with the grey fox isn't surprising considering the find.
"You're dealing with some type of animal with a different appearance," he says.
But the attention has been a double-edged sword.
"We weren't aware of these animals until the story broke, so in that case it was helpful to us," he says, though noting the spotlight is glaring. "On the other hand, parts of this process are going to take time. It's not helpful to hurry these types of conclusions."
The college has created an e-mail address to report fox sightings at email@example.com.
The government versus the family farm: Once the fox drama was solved, pigs and politicians entered the picture. Dear old Hambone and Riblet have been with Ann Gemma for 14 years , but a North Charleston prohibition against pigs is forcing Gemma to look for a home outside of town or face a fine of $1,087 per pig or 30 days in jail. Though it likely was instituted to keep pig farms out, efforts by supporters and City Council members to revoke the pet pig ban have failed and Gemma has until Oct. 22.
Where the fox story carried a sense of mystery and, in some sense, fear, the pigs rallied readers behind a woman trying to keep her swine. Though calls of support for Gemma flooded City Hall and the newspaper, a majority of the city council remain steadfast in kicking the pigs to the curb.
The exotic and endangered: There hasn't been a freaky sighting of any right whales and that's how the State Ports Authority would like to keep it. After years of fighting for a terminal on Daniel Island, the authority shifted course to North Charleston, but trouble followed in the form of the near-extinct right whale. Everything was moving ahead on the port until the National Marine Fisheries Service suggested that any expanded shipping off the Atlantic may endanger the migrating, slow-moving whales that have nary a chance of dodging a container vessel. Final word on the fate of the new terminal will be linked to the determined risk for the whales. No word yet, so look for the right whale to return to the news before it's all over.
The incredible journey: Before it spawned two live-action films, The Incredible Journey was a bestselling children's book about two dogs and a cat that hit the road and got into all kinds of hair-raising adventures. In Charleston, it was a solo trip for 40-pound exotic tortoise Willy. It started in July, when Willy's caregiver left the tortoise unattended in a backyard kiddie pool and he went crawling off somewhere.
Ridgeville pet-lover Kelly Copeland-Burnup waited about two weeks before putting a notice in the lost and found for a missing giant tortoise. The ad drew attention from reporters that contacted her for a story. From the P&C, the story went everywhere, including Fox News and MSNBC.
"I had no idea it was newsworthy," she says. "I never would have guessed that many people would be interested."
Copeland-Burnup was contacted about a found tortoise, but it turned out to be another missing giant tortoise from James Island. Willy was picked up by animal control but wandered off from their office as well, she says. He was eventually returned by a good samaritan who found Willy on the side of the road and called — who else — the newspaper.
It certainly shouldn't be considered a local phenomenon. The recent coverage of the first armadillos in the Charleston region is dwarfed by the weeks of attention the first armadillo immigrants got down in Beaufort County. A brief in the Post and Courier last week about an alligator that snuck under a fire truck is reminiscent of a Bluffton photo of an alligator climbing a suburban front door, almost reaching the doorbell, that received national attention this summer. A recent smattering of front pages nationwide reveals circus elephants in Rhode Island, brown bears and deer in Colorado, dogs in Atlanta and Augusta, and sea turtles in Hawaii.
"Animals are comfortable and simple," Ferguson says. "They're innocent. You see that 'no animals have been harmed' in the making of a movie. You don't see that for people."