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Russ Greenberg: father of the Bambi

July 28, 2014

Russ Greenberg: father of the Bambi

For decades, STRI’s Barro Colorado Island has held weekly seminars known as “Bambis.” The origin of the name has been lost in the mists of time, and is the subject of much speculation on the part of island residents

For decades, STRI’s Barro Colorado Island has held weekly seminars known as “Bambis.” The origin of the name has been lost in the mists of time, and is the subject of much speculation on the part of island residents. But now it can be revealed: the seminars were named after a baby tapir by Russ Greenberg.

Tapirs were probably hunted out in the Panama Canal Zone before the creation of Barro Colorado in 1913. They were reintroduced to the island starting in the 1950s by STRI Director Martin Moynihan. By the late 1970s there was a thriving population on the island. To keep the tapirs near the station, where they would be better protected from poaching, they were fed in the evening outside the kitchen on loaves of white bread.

One female tapir in particular, named Alice, was a regular at feeding time. About every 18 months she would bring a new baby tapir into the clearing. When she came in with a new one in 1979, there was much discussion about what to name it. It had long been the tradition to name the tapirs after figures from the Third French Empire, in commemoration of the French attempt to build a canal in Panama in the 1880s. For example, Alice’s consort was named Louie, after Louis Napoleon, and her previous offspring had been named Max, after Maximilian I of Mexico, and DeLesseps, after Ferdinand DeLesseps, leader of the attempt to build the canal.

However, a rebellion arose, instigated by some who thought this tradition was stodgy. Instead, it was proposed to name the new baby Bambi, since baby tapirs are spotted and striped like fawns. It was felt this would be particularly amusing in a few years, when Bambi grew up to be a hulking, slobbering gray 600-pound behemoth like her mother.

To promote the name, Russ, a leading member of the dissident faction, began referring to everything on the island as “Bambi.” At dinner he would say, “Would you please pass the Bambi?” If he was going into town, he would say “I’ve got to go catch the Bambi.” He would gaze up at the sky and say pensively, “I think it’s going to Bambi.”

In the midst of this campaign, Russ decided to give a seminar on his research in the BCI lounge. In those days, all STRI seminars were held in the conference room in the Ancon Building. They were often intimidating affairs, where hapless grad students would be grilled during their presentations by STRI senior staff members. Russ wanted discuss his ideas in a more informal setting, where there could be more relaxed give and take. So before the seminar Russ went around asking people, “Won’t you please come to my Bambi?” And we all came and had a lovely time. And ever since, seminars on BCI have been called by the name of a baby tapir.

-Submitted by STRI Research Associate, George Angehr

Russell Greenberg was a pioneering ornithologist and founder of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. A visionary, Russ was among the first to recognize a precipitous decline in Neotropical migratory bird populations. As an innovator, he invented the concept of “shade-grown” coffee as a bird-friendly product, and developed the rigorous science-based criteria now used in Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee. Greenberg died in 2013.

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