Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ian McTaggart-Cowan, zoologist, conservationist (1910-2010)

Ian McTaggart-Cowan hosted early television programs encouraging the young to understand the natural world. Courtesy UVic Photo Services.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 21, 2010


A scholar and early activist in the cause of wildlife conservation, Ian McTaggart-Cowan informed generations of British Columbians about the natural wonders in which they lived.

He encouraged management of nature’s bounty, a somewhat radical approach in a province where pillaging the seas, forests and wildlife seemed a privilege of residence.

The eminent zoologist produced hundreds of papers, pamphlets and books, yet it was undoubtedly his appearances on the fledgling medium of television that won his message its widest audience.

In 1955, already established as a distinguished figure in academia, the dapper professor, who favoured vests and neck ties, hosted a live television show called “Fur and Feathers.” Filmed live, he taught children about animals while encouraging them to appreciate the natural world.

He later served as host of two other documentary series for CBC television. “The Living Sea” was shown in British Columbia in 1957 and on the national network in 1962. This was followed by the “Web of Life,” an 11-part series of half-hour episodes that aired in 1963. These programs were sold to other broadcasters from around the globe. His success as a televised educator preceded that of David Suzuki, the Vancouver geneticist whose teachings also enjoyed widespread popularity through television.

Mr. McTaggart-Cowan, who died on Sunday, aged 99, remained active well into his advanced age. He was a director emeritus of the Nature Trust of British Columbia, a non-profit, non-advocacy group on whose board he sat for more than 30 years.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 25, 1910, he immigrated to Canada at age 3 with his family, who settled in North Vancouver. The boy, the eldest of four children, was encouraged by his mother to take note of natural history. At age 12, according to Rod Silver, who profiled Mr. McTaggart-Cowan for the Vancouver Natural History Society’s “Discovery” magazine six years ago, Ian completed a year-long diary of all birds spotted around his home to fulfill the requirements for a Boy Scout proficiency badge. From this simple beginning emerged a biologist of encyclopedic knowledge.

He began studies at the University of British Columbia, spending his summers in the field, studying Rocky Mountain fauna in national parks. In 1931, a fruitful spring spent with Kenneth Racey, a naturalist who served as a mentor, resulted in several finds, including the Pacific Pallid bat in the southern Okanagan, as well as the rediscovery of the Vancouver Island marmot.

After graduation in 1932, he began work on a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. He then joined the staff of the Provincial Museum (now the Royal B.C. Museum) in Victoria as a biologist, helping to revive a moribund institution by resurrecting field work and expanding the collections.

After five years, he joined the faculty at UBC as a zoology professor, becoming department head in 1953. He was dean of graduate studies from 1964 until retiring from the university in 1975.

During the war years, he conducted important field studies in the Rockies.

(Two of his siblings also enjoyed careers of note. His brother, Patrick, was a Rhodes Scholar and eminent meteorologist before becoming the first president of Simon Fraser University at Burnaby, B.C. A sister, Pamela Charlesworth, became a well-known architect in Victoria.)

Mr. McTaggart-Cowan encouraged the application of scientific methods to wildlife management. He felt British Columbians, as custodians of the richest biota in the land, had a particular responsibility to ensure this “extraordinary diversity of living organisms is passed on to our successors with all options intact.”

He had an extensive list of public service contributions, including seven years spent with the National Research Council of Canada, for which he was the first chairman of an advisory committee on wildlife research. He also sat on the board of governors of the Arctic Institute of North America and sat as chairman of the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council.

Having moved to Vancouver Island in retirement, he began serving a five-year term as chancellor of the University of Victoria at age 69 in 1979.

As a zoology professor, he developed a diet, called UBC 14, consisting of alfalfa hay and a mash of corn bran and corn glutton, designed to make deer as efficient a meat producer as sheep. The diet, developed with an animal nutritionist, was tested on waifs rescued from forest fires. The news about a new source of venison led one manager of a drive-in restaurant to ponder adding 50-cent buckburgers to the menu.

At one point, he had more than 60 deer sampling his high-protein diets from the safety of campus enclosures.

One of his more exotic television performances included a look at the preservation of wild animals in Africa, produced for CBC-TV’s “Discovery” in 1962. Mr. McTaggart-Cowan described poorly-tended domestic cattle as a scourge.

“They are miserable, useless, undernourished creatures that defile the water holes, denying them to wildlife. By intense overuse they have done to the land in 20 years what centuries of use by wild beasts and locusts have not done. They have turned large areas of the once productive grassland into a sea of lifeless sand.”

He also appeared in a 1982 film opposing the use of leg-hold traps.

His papers ranged widely, from studies of white-footed mice to definitive looks of the mammals and birds of British Columbia.

He was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971 for his contributions to zoology and as a conservationist. (His younger brother later joined him in the Order.) He was named to the Order of B.C. in 1991.

His name graces the Cowan Vertebrate Museum on the UBC campus, which boasts 17,000 mammal and 15,200 bird specimens.

In 2005, the provincial government contributed $500,000 to establish a professorship in his name at UVic’s school of environmental studies. The university raised an equal amount to fund the professorship, for which Brian Starzomski was hired last year.

As well, a $25,000 endowed scholarship at the university carries the names of the wildlife biologist and his late wife, Joyce.

On his birthday in 2007, 97 trees — one to mark each of his years — were planted at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill nature sanctuary. Cedars, Douglas fir and black cottonwoods were planted at a site which the conservationist had been instrumental in establishing as a sanctuary. Until its acquisition in 1976, Swan Lake, in Saanich, just north of Victoria, was a dumping ground for raw sewage and wastes from dairy farms and a winery.

The subject of the honour was on hand to encourage the tree planting.

Ian McTaggart-Cowan was born on June 25, 1910, at Edinburgh, Scotland. He died on April 18 in Victoria. He was 99. He leaves his daughter, Ann Schau, three grandchidlren, and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Joan, who died in 2002. He was also predeceased by a son, Garry; by his sisters, Joan McTaggart-Cowan, and Pamela Charlesworth, who died in 2008, aged 80; as well as by his brother Patrick, who died in 1997, aged 85.

1 comment:


Would you know of the name of the film that Dr.McTaggert-Cowan appeared in opposing leg hold traps? We are trying to stop the COYOTE CULL proposed by our province - Nova Scotia ... thanking you in advance for any assistance.
Janet Chernin