Man's best friend's best friend Roger Caras' life with the animals


Freeland, Md. -- LAZY MID-DAY on the old farmhouse porch finds Roger Caras refereeing a disagreement between dogs, accepting a job to lecture on venomous snakes for the New England Aquarium, taking that call from a humane society official and another helping of salad, consulting the telephone man about installing another line and explaining his new job as president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

One of America's most famous animal lovers -- he's spent 30 years writing about them and almost as long reporting on them -- Caras does fit the portrait of the true dog fancier: He's a man impervious to drool and generous with the dog biscuits. Despite his chock-a-block schedule -- he must leave for New York to shoot a "20/20" segment in another hour -- he takes the time to listen to his animals and to introduce them properly to his guests.

During the three years he and his wife Jill have lived at 35-acre Thistle Hill Farm in northern Baltimore County, they have accumulated 25 or so pets.

"The typical American family," Caras says, summoning various members of a well-behaved group that includes three greyhounds, two bloodhounds, a Belgian draft horse and a Hereford steer named Steakums "to keep him in his place."

After years of traveling the world for ABC News, the 63-year-old Emmy-award-winning naturalist will become the ASPCA president next month. He will preside over the organization's veterinary hospital, animal transit port at Kennedy International airport and animal shelters, including a new 600-cage shelter to open soon in Manhattan.

Among his immediate goals, Caras hopes to rule that all animals adopted from the Society must be spayed or neutered before leaving the shelter, and he wants the Society to expand programs to bring animals into contact with the disabled and the elderly. He also hopes to clear up any lingering misconceptions about the mission of the ASPCA and those of animal rights groups.

"I won't use the term "animal rights" because it is polarizing and argumentative," he says. "Animals have to be property, I don't know of any way around that. If they weren't property, and your dog got his pelvis crushed by the truck up on the road, you couldn't euthanize him. And you couldn't slaughter animals for food. Property, by definition, has no rights.

"Our charge is to alleviate pain, suffering and fear. And that's what we're going to do. I don't agree with the people who think you have to be a vegetarian to do that. We'll take anybody's help. There are lots of different ways of serving the cause."

One of America's most prolific animal writers -- he had finished 54 books at last count -- Caras' interest in animal welfare began as a child when he volunteered for the humane society near his boyhood home of Methuen, Mass. However, he initially pursued a career in the movie business. After obtaining a degree in cinema from the University of Southern California, he held studio posts, including serving as press agent for various movie stars.

His first assignment for Columbia Pictures was to take the place of the press agent Joan Crawford had just fired. He soothed, he coddled, he "poured it on."

"We were friends for years and she made my career," he says. "And for umpteen years I ran around with movie stars like Edward G. Robinson, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, taking them to lunch, dinner, breakfast, to airports and press conferences. It was hard work! Seven days a week, sometimes five nights a week."

But hardly daunting for Caras, who still managed to write book after book and spend time with his wife and two children. Eventually his experience as a publicist and his knowledge as a wildlife writer conjoined to lead him into the broadcast industry.

After he appeared on the "Today" show to talk about one of his books, the show's producers hired him as its resident naturalist. Next he began "Pet & Wildlife" broadcasts for CBS Radio. Then ABC lured him away in 1974, putting him to work for the "AM America" show, the "Evening News," "Nightline" and "20/20." Caras remains the only correspondent in television to cover wildlife and the environment exclusively. His ABC contract will expire Sept. 28.

When he talks about his work, it seems as if the naturalist forages through life's feast of information. One thread of conversation touches upon wild pandas in Sichuan, his son's work as a forensic psychiatrist, the gestational period of elephants (23 months) and why his greyhound Xyerius smiles (a genetic throwback to the wolf's expression of submission).

He has just finished a script for his book "Monarch of Deadman Bay: The Life and Death of a Kodiak Bear," first published in the late 1960s and now optioned for film. Plans call for Bart, the Kodiak bear who starred in the 1988 film "The Bear," to play the role of Monarch.

Meanwhile, he is re-editing "The Trashing of America," writing a book on the African elephant, researching another about whales and working on "The Thistle Hill Regulars," a story about the social life of the Caras family's nine cats.

"I always work on five or six books at a time," he says. "That way I can take a break from one of them whenever I want to."

Although he says he will miss talking to his ABC audience of 20 million, he has become a bit footsore. Breaking personal records can wear you down.

"According to my travel diary, I have been abroad 64 times, not including Mexico or Canada. I've been to Africa 24 times. Japan, 10 or 11. Sri Lanka, four times. I've been in every state in the union, and in almost every corner of every state. I've just come back from Alaska for the umpteenth time. If I never see the Dallas/Fort Worth airport again, I could live with that."

Now travel can be recreational, more or less. This fall, he will lead his fourth tour group to the sub-Arctic to see the polar bears migrate; last year's group included his 6-year-old granddaughter Sarah and "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson. He will charter a boat for his fourth tour of the Galapagos this spring.

He also has bold plans for Thistle Hill Farm, a lovely, rambling piece of land with pasture, marsh, forest and several outbuildings you might consider works in progress. The Carases moved here to be closer to their daughter, a publishing executive for Williams & Wilkins Co. in Baltimore, and their grandchildren. There is talk of a swimming pool, a larger porch, a gazebo and guest house.

And another book, this one about Steakums.

"Basically speaking, life is a gas," he says. "If you decide you won't settle for it being anything less, it isn't less. Where is it written that people are supposed to pray for Friday?"

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