His methods seem beastly to us today, but from the twenties through the forties, Frank Buck was celebrated for his jungle adventures. Buck spent more than thirty years hunting, capturing, and delivering wild animals to circuses and zoos worldwide. He regularly engaged in breathtaking exploits such as subduing a king cobra and lassoing a tiger, and he detailed his brushes with death in a series of popular books and movies. But some of his contemporaries criticized his methods—many of his animals died during capture or while being shipped—and one modern zoo historian noted that Buck’s first book, Bring ‘Em Back Alive!, “might more aptly have been titled, ‘Kill Most of Them Along the Way.’” He was born on March 17, 1884, in Gainesville. He later moved to Dallas, and dropped out of school after the seventh grade. His first animal-related job was working as a cowboy.
While still a teenager he left home to travel the country, taking jobs as a carny and a bellboy. In 1911 he was living in Chicago when he decided to trek to Brazil, buy exotic birds, and resell them to pet shops. He netted $3,000.
For the next quarter century Buck traveled constantly. He made a few trips to Africa, Australia, and South America but focused on Malaysia, Borneo, and other parts of Southeast Asia. He later estimated that over his lifetime he had collected 39 elephants, 60 tigers, 62 leopards, 52 orangutans, 5,000 monkeys, and 100,000 birds, among other creatures.
In 1920 he was commissioned to acquire the “entire lot” of animals for the new Dallas Zoo. Three years later he was hired as the director of the San Diego Zoo but was promptly fired for arrogance, ineptitude, and questionable veterinary practices.
Despite many fearless encounters with dangerous predators, Buck was afraid to fly, and he always traveled and transported animals by boat. In 1928 a typhoon hit his cargo ship and hundreds of birds and mammals drowned.
His book On Jungle Trails (1937), a combination adventure story and geography primer, was once used as a sixth-grade textbook in Texas’ public schools.
In 1939 and 1940 three million people visited Frank Buck’s Jungleland, his exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
In the late forties Buck moved to San Angelo, where several members of his family lived. He died on March 25, 1950.