03 September 2018

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, the Spanish David Attenborough

The municipal park in Alcalá, next to the Paseo de la Playa and site of the new tourist information office, is named after one Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.  But few visitors from outside Spain have a clue who he was.

Félix was born in 1928 in Poza de la Sal, Burgos, into a middle-class intellectual household.  During the Civil War (1936-1939) he was home-schooled, and spent a lot of time outdoors where he developed a deep passion for the natural world.  At the age of ten, he was sent to a religious boarding school and lamented his lost freedom, but on a summer holiday in Santander he apparently witnessed a hawk taking a duck in flight, which led him to become interested in falconry.

At a falconry exhibition in 1955

After leaving school he went to the University of Valladolid to study medicine, at his father's insistence, but he was more interested in environmental issues and was never a good student.  It was there that he met and became influenced by the biologist José Antonio Valverde, who was campaigning to stop the government draining the wetlands which later became the Doñana National Park.  Félix also took time out from his medical studies to research medieval texts on falconry, which hadn't been practiced in Spain for 150 years, and was a founder member of the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO) in 1954.

Felix graduated in dentistry in 1957 but after a couple of years, following the death of his father, he decided to devote himself full-time to his true passions.  In 1961 he worked as falconry advisor during the filming of El Cid, a Hollywood movie starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, filmed mainly in Spain.  He published the first of many books, The Art of Falconry, in 1964 and in the following years made a name for himself through numerous television and radio appearances as well as articles in newspapers and magazines.

In 1965 he rescued two wolf-cubs being beaten to death in a village, and took them away to raise at home with his future wife Marcelle Parmentier.  He named then Sibila and Remo, and acknowledged them as his first children.  It was with them that he first practiced the technique of imprinting, becoming "alpha male" in this small pack.  The experience was to develop into a life-long passion for wolves.

Félix's big break came in 1970, when he produced and presented a documentary series for Spanish state television entitled El Planeta Azul (The Blue Planet), in black-and-white.  Unlike David Attenborough's series of the same name, which appeared 30 years later, it dealt with all kinds of wildlife, not just marine life.  But like Attenborough, he alternated between speaking directly to camera and narrating film footage shot in the wild.  His passion and enthusiasm is clearly shown in this episode on big cats, where he explains the relationship between the behaviour of domestic cats and kittens and their larger predatory cousins.  The show ran for four years and won acclaim across the Spanish-speaking world.

In the following years he continued to produce and present documentaries on TV and radio, and edited a series of wildlife conservation volumes, Enciclopedia salvat de la fauna mundial, which was translated into 14 languages and sold 18 million copies worldwide.

At the same time he became involved in a number of conservationist projects.  The most memorable and successful of these was the protection and reintroduction of the almost extinct Iberian wolf.  This gained him respect amongst conservationists worldwide, but also the animosity of hunters and farmers.   Other campaigns included the brown bear, Iberian lynx, golden eagle and Spanish imperial eagle, as well as fighting to preserve precious habitats such as Coto Doñana and the Tablas de Daimiel, which later became National Parks.

His most famous documentary series, El Hombre y La Tierra (The Man and the Earth) was launched in 1973 and ran till his premature death in 1980, a total of 124 episodes which can be watched online on the RTVE A la Carta archive. The project was divided into three parts, covering Iberia, South America and North America.  They are subtitled in Spanish, and well worth watching even if you don't speak the language because of the stunning photography.   It was shot in 35mm colour film and the crew frequently had to lug bulky equipment across inhospitable terrain, but their combined efforts resulted in numerous awards and a whole new generation of fans across Spain. 

Felix's "David Attenborough-with-gorillas" moment came when he used the imprinting method first devised with the cubs Sibila and Remo to make himself a member of a pack of wild wolves, in order to study and record their behaviour as if there were no humans present.

In March 1980 Felix flew to Alaska with the film crew to cover the Iditarod Trail sled dog race.  He was apparently afraid of flying, and quipped on take-off “what a beautiful place to die”.   Tragically the small plane on which he was travelling with two of the crew became unstable when one of its skis came loose, and crashed with no survivors, not far from the Klondike.  The date was 14 March 1980, his 52nd birthday.

Felix believed passionately in a future where humans and animals could live in harmony, and dedicated his life to that goal, leaving a whole generation of Spanish children (and adults) with a new respect for the natural world.   I’ve no idea whether he ever met David Attenborough, but they would certainly have got on.  Had he survived, he would no doubt have been a comparable force in the fight against mankind's wilful disregard for the environment.

Statues, monuments and plaques bearing the name of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente can be found all over Spain, including Alcalá de los Gazules, located in the park which was given his name in 1983.

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