In the summer of 1963, after finishing classes at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, I headed off to Austria for a co-op job. I had lined up a position at the Biologische Station Wilhelminenberg, which stood high in the hills above Vienna and looked down upon the spire of Saint Stephan’s Cathedral that pierced the sky above the old city. The station was located in an abandoned World War II anti-aircraft gun emplacement that had been transformed into a biological lab after the war by Otto and Lilli Koenig who were squatters on the property. Old barracks were repurposed as conference rooms, film processing and scientific laboratories, and housing for an interesting collection of staff and animals. The actual concrete gun emplacements were flooded and made perfect ponds for aquatic wildlife.
The atmosphere at the biological station was very different from the formal academic world of the university. Most of the staff were not university trained, but all were impressive naturalists, photographers, editors, or animal caregivers. Almost all had come to work there from some unusual background. One of my coworkers had been a tank commander at the age of 17 towards the end of WWII and had been blown out of the top of his tank when it was hit by allied forces’ explosives. Another was a single mother who had been abandoned by her family for having a child out of wedlock. I was the “visiting foreign student.” Somehow all of these interesting people, many of whom were in some way rejected by society, found their way to the Koenigs’ biological station.
Lilli and Otto Koenig were known for their research as well as for producing popular nature films and photography. They used their films for a well-known nationwide natural history television show. At that time, Austrian TV operated live in the zoo behind the Schoenbrunn Palace and had only a couple of government-run channels, so the Koenigs’ regularly scheduled nature program was enjoyed by nearly every Austrian who owned a television. One evening I was recruited to be on the show as the visiting American student to talk about North American wildlife. I was to join Noble Prize recipient and Otto Koenig’s mentor, Dr. Konrad Lorenz.
Needless to say, the main feature of the program was the world-famous Dr. Lorenz. He appeared to me to be a grumpy elderly fellow who expected everyone to defer to him, making the Austrian television program director very nervous. In addition, the director was worried about how I, the young foreigner, would perform on live television. Much to my satisfaction, my performance went over smoothly, but the TV staff was disappointed with that of the featured guest whom they assumed would be comfortable on a televised program. After that experience, I briefly became somewhat of a local celebrity because all of the locals I encountered in shops and restaurants had seen me on national TV talking about American chipmunks and woodchucks!
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