MAUN, BOTSWANA - The American boy who was killed by hyenas on July 19 at the Xakanaxa Campsite in the Okavango Delta would have celebrated his 12th birthday last month. It seems fitting that we recognize him for whom he was and for the person he might have become. At a minimum, he deserves something more than the perfunctory official investigation prompted by his death, something beyond the terse press release issued by Capricorn Safaris, our safari operator in the delta.
Instead of dismissing that boy's brief life as if it were inconsequential, rather than shying away from confronting the perplexing questions raised by the incident, we should honor his memory.
He wasn't perfect. But he was special. He wasn't just another American kid. He wasn't just a statistic among the faceless well-heeled tourists who pass through Maun each year. He was Garrit Shea, a child born on 8-8-88, a date full of promise.
His first love was birds, and the two cockatiels he received on his first birthday are still alive and well, coexisting with the menagerie of creatures he collected over the years: a flock of hens and one black rooster, two emus, at least 10 cats and kittens whose names and relationships only Garrit could keep track of, three dogs, and a lizard he called Lucky. Most nights at home, he fell asleep with a cat and a dog at the foot of his bed.
But Garrit was not only an avid lover of pets. He absorbed information about all kinds of wildlife and had an uncanny intuition about animal behavior. Last summer in Zimbabwe, Garrit learned to distinguish the tracks and other spoor of game in the bush. Our guide that summer noted that Garrit was unusually observant and that his feel for the natural world was a gift that would serve him well all his life.
While Garrit was a miniature cornucopia of bush knowledge, he also possessed a healthy respect for the perils of the wild. He was acutely aware that the hippo's yawn was a warning not to take lightly. He knew about elephants - the male's mock charge, the female's more threatening charge. He realized that climbing trees in Africa was not just for fun.
Bush wisdom aside, Garrit was book smart. A straight-A student, a high achiever, he'd graduated from elementary school in June with a certificate of recognition for academic excellence from President Clinton. The last book Garrit read was "Cry of the Kalahari," by Mark Owens and Delia Owens. He was reading it on a boat in the delta during the last afternoon of his life.
His fifth-grade teacher said Garrit had the potential to some day make a difference in the world. She told him he was a leader and wanted him to understand that along with brains and talents came an extra responsibility toward other people - a burden, she said, but also a gift. I'm not sure whether Garrit was old enough to understand or accept her message.
At the Chobe Game Lodge, just two days before his death, Garrit discovered that the president of Botswana was also staying there overnight. Hoping for an autograph, Garrit cut the map of Botswana from our guidebook and waited patiently in the gardens for the president and his entourage to pass by on their way to dinner. Though Garrit was excited to have been close enough to the president to catch his eye, he couldn't work up the nerve to ask for an autograph.
With a boyish passion for sports - an ice hockey goalie at home, he told people he might want to be a professional ice hockey player when he grew up - Garrit may not have been aware that he had a poetic streak. He wrote about his trip to Zimbabwe and kept a journal about Botswana. He asked me to read to him Laurens Van Der Post's "The Heart of the Hunter" and "A Story Like the Wind."
Garrit wanted to return to Africa this summer not only for the wildlife but also to visit some Bushmen - "real Bushmen" as he put it. He wanted to hunt with them, to see them use bows and poison-dipped arrows.
Not only did he join them on a hunting expedition, but he also dug for tubers with them, and later participated in a magical dance in celebration of the huge amount of honeycomb they'd extracted from a bee-infested tree. He was drawn by their chatter, constant laughter, and unabashed childlike humor. He passed out the beads and tobacco we'd brought as gifts, handing them to the men first, then to the women, in order of seniority. His small round face brightened with the pleasure of respecting local custom.
When one of the elder Bushmen named "Bum" made Garrit a digging stick and presented it to him, "adopting" Garrit as a "grandchild," Garrit's eyes lit up with delight. I had no doubt that Garrit would hold that moment in his memory, tell his children, and someday hand his digging stick down to one of his own grandchildren. The nickname "Little Bum" - sometimes shortened to "Bumette" - followed Garrit for his remaining days.
Garrit learned the meaning of "duvet" in Botswana. Sometimes at night around the campfire when other adults were present, he'd whisper to me, "My duvet is calling." That was his signal to me that he was ready for sleep. I don't remember if he said those words to me on the last night of his life at Xakanaxa. But I do remember kissing his forehead and patting his head after he'd burrowed under the duvet. I remember Garrit thanking me that night for bringing him to Botswana. Just before he fell asleep, he said, "I can't wait until tomorrow." Those words are etched in my mind just as the smell and feel of him will always remain a part of me.
Had he not been killed by hyenas seen lurking about the campsite that night, we'd have gone on to the Kuai area of Moremi, and then to Linyanti - the place Garrit envisioned as the high point of the trip due to its abundance of hippos, the animal that never failed to bring a smile to Garrit's lips.
Garrit was my son. He was precious. I honored his memory by lighting candles on his birthday last month. The loss to me is irreplaceable, the grief private. By the same token, the horror of his death and certain questions it has raised ought to be addressed in a responsible manner by appropriate officials, the Maun community, and Capricorn Safaris.
The half-baked police investigation, coupled with an unresponsive Wildlife Department and HATAB organization, suggest that Botswana's investment in tourism is such that the incident will be laid to rest in the shadows as quickly and quietly as possible.
Local predator populations are on the rise. It is not news that wild animals are capable of acquiring new behaviors and reactions to humans. Unfortunately, wearing blinders to these and other circumstances pertaining to Garrit's death will not prevent someone else's child from being taken in his or her sleep by hyenas and other predators. Silence will only ensure that another child will not live to celebrate his next birthday.