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Taking the Bait by Nigel Roth


If you are ever allowed to travel anywhere again, you might fancy visiting one of these fabulous places. A zoo and nature institute in Louisiana, a town in Pennsylvania, a country club, museum, and state park in Kentucky, a county in Iowa, a bridge in Mississippi, a roundabout in Massachusetts, a parkway and an avenue in New York, a bird sanctuary in Alabama, a wildlife refuge in North Dakota, a neighborhood in Minnesota, a gallery in Florida, a conservation center in Missouri, a recreation center in Texas, a ‘metro park’ (I don’t know what that is either) in Ohio, a mountain in Colorado, a high school in New Jersey, and an elementary school in Illinois.


The common thread that holds all of these wonderful places together is their dedication to that great American ornithologist, naturalist, and illustrator, John James Audubon.


But, of course, this is me you're reading, so you know I’m going to annoy every single one of those places with a little truth.


John James Audubon was actually French, born in Les Cayes, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. And his name wasn’t Audubon, it was Rabin. Jean-Jacques Rabin.


But before you dash off to change the name of the Audubon Business and Technology Center or the Audubon Terrace Historic District, or the John J. Audubon schooner which sits at the bottom of a deep bit of water somewhere, be happy he was at least a man of good honest breeding, and suited to adorn your treasured landmarks.


Except that, he was, of course, the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French pirate, and his Breton mistress Jeanne Rabine, a chambermaid, who died when he was only a few months old.


Anyway, don’t run off and rename the Audubon Society just yet, be warmed by the fact that Audubon's father was an upstanding and morally-guided man who loved his children.


Although, of course, he didn’t know how many he actually had. Could've been ten, maybe twenty; some by his housekeeper Catherine Bouffard, who he had more children with after his other mistress had passed to a place of comparative peace and quiet, and who subsequently raised Jean-Jacques, and some by a plethora of other servants whose names shall remain unwritten because I don’t know them.


But I’m not here to tell you about people whose birth country has been forgotten or misplaced, like Thomas Paine, the influential writer and political pamphleteer, whose Common Sense and Crisis papers spurred the American Revolution that created the country that Rabin was able to make his own, and who was, of course, born just around the corner (geographically-speaking) to where I reside, in the county of Norfolk, in England.


No, I’m here to tell you about a side of Jean-Jacques rarely known.


First though, I want you to relax, close your eyes, and think of mermaids. Well, one mermaid in particular, and she was so shockingly grotesque that you might want to open your eyes slowly.


Her name was The Fiji, or Feejee, or Fran mermaid, to be less-than precise. Our old friend, that bastion of exploitation and unconscionable degradation, Phineas Taylor Barnum, once said he beheld an “ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about three feet long,” with a gaping mouth and flailing arms, “giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” Once he’d said that about his mother, the mermaid stood no chance.