Fred Piegonski, Executive Assistant to the President
For Immediate Release: December 26, 2006
These Are Not the Usual Suspects
A margay, a whale, and a boa constrictor.
Attend the Tale
Wasps and a Whale
Whoever said that a person dies as he lives was probably thinking of
Gerhard Bakker. For many years a life sciences professor at LA City College,
he brought his enthusiasm for nature, and in particular for wild animals, to
the students in his classes. As a result of his handling the myriad fauna of
his studies he became known as “the man most bitten by wild animals,” and
his lifelong passion led to his unfortunate demise.
The following story is based on an interview conducted in 1985 with Robert Lyon about his colleague and friend Gerhard Bakker. (Mr. Lyon was LACC professor of zoology from 1949 to 1985.)
A newly described type of wasp species, Andricus Bakkeri, was recently named after Gerhard Bakker, the late retired LA City College zoology professor.
A description of Bakker’s namesake appeared in an article, “New Cynipid Wasps from California,” published by the Pan Pacific Entomologist, a scientific journal devoted to the study of insects. The article was written by Robert Lyon, LACC professor of zoology and an authority on cynipid wasps, having studied them for the past 30 years.
Mr. Bakker had provided the scientific illustrations for Mr. Lyon’s article, as he had done for all of his previous papers.
“The most fascinating characteristic of the cynipid wasp,” said Mr. Lyon, “is that it produces small tumors, called galls, as part of its life cycle on oak trees. These galls develop after a wasp deposits an egg on a branch or leaf, and the feeding larvae stimulate the growth of the developing plant tissue to form the gall. Each species of wasp creates its own uniquely shaped gall.”
Chairman of LACC’s life science department since 1961, Mr. Lyon said he named the species to honor the memory of Mr. Bakker, who died in a whale-watching incident off the coast of Baja California, shortly after his retirement in 1982.
Mr. Bakker, a gifted teacher and naturalist, had traveled throughout the world to pursue his nature studies. His trips included treks to the arctic and antarctic, excursions to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, and safaris to view the elephant herds and crocodiles near Murcheson Falls of the Albert Nile in Africa. His career also included climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, taking a river trip up the Amazon, and participating in a Navajo sand painting healing ceremony in the American Southwest.
His enthusiasm for adventure was matched by his desire to share his travel experiences through lectures and slide shows. An ardent conservationist, Mr. Bakker was instrumental in creating a special wildlife sanctuary in Owens Valley to preserve the Tule Elk and other native plants and animals.
A professor of zoology at LACC from 1943 to 1982, Mr. Bakker taught classes ranging from anatomy to zoology, including one in scientific illustration. A gifted artist, Mr. Bakker created drawings to accompany many of his own scientific articles. His homemade Christmas cards-wood block prints of wildlife scenes-appeared regularly each holiday season.
Although Mr. Bakker was a man of many distinctions, probably his most unusual distinction, according to Mr. Lyon, was the fact that he was one of the men most bitten by exotic animals. Tales of his encounters with the teeth, fangs and jaws of innumerable wildlife have assumed legendary status at LACC.
“Once, Gerhard took his boa constrictor into a class to show how it would eat a rat. But when he held up the rat to feed the snake, the boa bit him instead,” said Mr. Lyon.
“On another occasion, he was bitten by a pet margay, a small wild cat, like an ocelot,” said Mr. Lyon. “It bit Gerhard clear though the thumb, right to the bone and held on. The funny part, in retrospect, was that he used the other hand to pry the cat loose and was promptly bitten though that hand, too.”
A bite that Bakker received from the jaws of a gila monster landed him in the hospital, according to Mr. Lyon.
“When Bakker died, the newspapers reported that his accident had come about when his whale-watching party disturbed a whale calf and its mother. That was not true,” said Mr. Lyon.
“What really happened is this: Bakker was in a small boat equipped with oars and an outboard motor. There were 10 to 12 people in the boat and they were taking pictures of a whale a half mile away.
“Gerhard had taken the oar out of the oarlock, so he could take pictures, and the oar was loose.
“A huge whale surfaced at the side of the boat and deliberately rammed it. The oar flew up and hit Bakker in the head, which caused extensive head injuries and brain damage. He only lived a day or two afterwards.”
“I say the whale was deliberate in his attack because, two days later, the same whale hit another larger boat, rammed right into the propeller and subsequently died. This account was given to me by the operator of the boat,” said Mr. Lyon.
It is ironic that Bakker should have died as a result of studying something for which he displayed such enthusiasm. “He was the first person this century to be killed by a California gray whale,” noted Mr. Lyon.
There is the additional irony, and perhaps a peculiar aptness, that the most bitten man at LACC should have his name now associated with a California wasp.