By Charlotte Pomerantz
Illustrated by Jose Areugo
Young Scott Books, 1971
Children's book review by P.J. Rooks
Maybe it's because my own pet crusade is malaria eradication, maybe it's because the eccentricity factor for this story is just right off the scale or maybe it's simply because author Charlotte Pomerantz has taken the messy clump of a difficult subject and chiseled it into something kid-friendly and fun, but I fully loved this totally offbeat, super nutty and very cool poem about ecology.
Based on an actual story that appeared in the New York Times on November 13, 1969 and that went on to repeat itself in various locations around the globe, The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo is a tale of good intentions gone bad, of unintended consequences and of the dangers of wide, sweeping environmental changes.
Here's what happened:
Way back in the heyday of the insecticide, DDT, scientists decided that they might be able to eradicate malaria in less developed countries by crop-dusting entire towns with the stuff. It was a noble plan, but, unfortunately, very poorly thought out. The mosquitoes succumbed quickly, but were just the beginning of a catastrophic cascade of events.
As for the roaches, Pomerantz writes:
We just swallowed hard and kept right on a-crawling,
(People are so anti-roach.)
The roaches and caterpillars (who tended to feast heavily on the thatching of the farmer's huts) survived, but they were loaded with poison and the geckoes, who ate the roaches and caterpillars soon became very sick. The island's cats ate their fill of the slow, sick and poisonous lizards and soon, Borneo was fresh out of cats and lizards. Without any predators to keep their numbers in check, rats from the surrounding woods invaded the towns in droves.
Borneo for rent, we sang
And then the helicopters came...
Fearing an outbreak of the plague from the mice, the farmers cried out in desperation that they'd take malaria over plague any day. Thousands of "parapussycats" were dropped into Borneo and the rodent invasion came to a screeching halt. All was well again -- until the roofs of the huts came crashing down because the caterpillar population had run amok. Well, you can't have your cake and eat it too, right?
The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo story is written as a play and with each turn of the page, a new set of characters is telling its own little piece of the story. Borneo takes the stage first and introduces itself, followed by malaria (the disease), then DDT, then the mosquitoes, cockroaches, caterpillars, geckoes, helicopters, cats, the rivers and fish of Borneo (poisoned), rats, helicopters (again), parapussycats, roof beams, a farmer from Borneo and finally, an ecologist to put the whole thing in perspective.
Clearly meant to be used as a classroom lesson, the illustrations include ideas for props and how the play would actually be conducted in the real world. For those who don't have access to a classroom full of kids, the play could be easily converted into puppet theater for home use.
Though it was written nearly forty years ago, The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo carries a timeless message of ecological caution that still rings as true today as it did then, if not perhaps more so. Pomerantz reminds us, though we've already learned the hard way since the shrill and screeching era of the Greenpeace zealots, that broad, sweeping gestures are often met with broad, sweeping consequences.
Read more of P.J.'s children's book reviews.