Happy 90th Birthday Dr. Klinghammer


Today we remember our founder, Dr. Erich Klinghammer, on his 90th Birthday with a tribute from Head Curator Pat Goodmann:

Remembering Erich Klinghammer, February 28, 1930 – October 6, 2011

by Pat Goodmann

To understand Erich Klinghammer, and why he wanted to build a wolf park, it helps to understand a German term, the Umwelt. The Umwelt is the perceptual surround of each of us as well as our evolutionary history, as humans, and our life histories as individuals. The Cuban proverb, “inside every head, a world” is a good way to remember what Umwelt means. Even before Erich studied ethology, which is the biology of behavior, he observed and questioned his teachers, himself, and his own assumptions. Erich found teachers everywhere.

At the University of Chicago, he was majoring in psychology when he took a course from Eckhard Hess. Reminiscing about that moment, he said: “I felt a holy shiver” listening to that lecture. Erich had found his calling. After class, he approached Hess and announced: “I want to do what you do.” Hess invited Erich to come to his office and talk about himself, and his newly recognized aspirations. That is probably why Erich was always willing to give even unprepossessing people a chance. The memory of that “holy shiver,” as he recognized what he wanted to do with his life, meant he could not deny someone else the chance to find their heart’s desire.

As part of his outlook on life Erich always had a soft spot for the underdog. His understanding of how animals adapt to environments or try to relocate to an environment they can adapt to, often led him to speak up for animals. He advocated changing an animal’s environment, or moving it to a different environment altogether rather than just thinking in terms of helping – or forcing – an animal to adapt to an inadequate or improper environment.

When the Allies liberated Europe after WWII, Erich eventually wound up working for the Americans. It was years before he could emigrate to the U.S. and in the meantime, he had his first run-in with the American IQ test. German kids tested did not do very well because the test assumed a familiarity with American culture that the German kids did not have. Erich did not like the test and its outcome-skewing assumptions and for the rest of his life he has cast a skeptical eye on IQ tests, grade point averages, and other standardized tests meant to predict the performance quality of people in the real world. He was always a believer in the exception to the rule, that appearances can deceive, and that the long shot can quite possibly come from behind and win the race. He was always ready to give chances to people with less than sterling academic credentials and see how well they did with the opportunity to follow a dream.

To Erich, a person’s willingness to work and to immerse himself in observing animals was more important that a transcript full of A’s. His treatment of women students was a mix of European courtliness, and an assurance that females were more liberated than they realized. He opened doors for them, relinquished his seat to them, or provided them with other seats, but he also expected them to be able to lift 25+ pounds and be willing to work hard on butchering (“think of it as dissection on a large scale”) and light construction. Ignorance of tools, whether it was a saw, a hammer, or the clutch on a stick shift vehicle was no excuse, rather it was a Darwin-sent opportunity to expand your horizons and adapt.

In the 37 years I knew him, he always looked for ways to relate daily experiences to biology and evolutionary history. One time he helped me with a plumbing problem in the walls of the apartment in an old house, which he and Zsuzsa, his wife, owned and rented out to students. The problem involved slippery, escaping pipes, and fun with fiberglass. Erich, as landlord-once-removed, was inside the crawlspace under the roof, manipulating pipes and asking me to observe and report on their behavior as they appeared inside the bathroom. His tone was grumpy. So was his vocabulary. But there, in the dark between the walls, in cozy intimacy with the fiberglass, he talked himself into a more philosophical mood. Like someone moving back in space until the earth appears as a tiny mote of light, he managed to distance himself from the immediate discomfort of pipes with dropsy, defiant plumbing tools, and the overly familiar fiberglass, by musing aloud on the evolutionary history of humans that allowed the two of us to communicate verbally, creating a word picture of the problem and how to fix it. By the time he emerged he had managed to relate the plumbing problem to Life, the Universe, and Everything. His tone and his vocabulary were much more cheerful as he dealt with a remaining question: “How much do you suppose a Ph.D. should charge for this?” he wanted to know. [NB: the answer we agreed upon was that he should do it gratis.]

Over the years many interns, practicum students and other formal and informal varieties of student have found Erich willing to help them follow their dreams of working with wolves, or in some cases, discovering that they had wandered into the wrong dream for them, and to leave and look for their dream elsewhere.

We humans have the saying “you can’t understand a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.” Erich tried to walk in the paws, and hooves of others, to swim upon the fins of others and to soar with others’ wings. We remember him when we try to look at the world through the golden eyes of our wolves, or enter into the worlds inside the heads of other animals. We are still working to keep his dream alive. RIP, Erich.

Happy 90th Birthday Dr. Erich Klinghammer from all of Wolf Park to you.


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