Puffin man on a mission: Jürgen and Elfie Schau, Berlin, Germany and Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Text: Bernadette Calonego
Photos: Courtesy of Jürgen Schau
Enlarge image It is just like out of a movie: Semi-retired film executive from Berlin and his artist wife rescue puffins in Newfoundland! (© Jürgen Schau)
Jürgen Schau leads a double life – and he doesn`t do anything to hide it. The people in Germany, and especially in Berlin where Jürgen comes from, would be aghast if they saw this man on the East coast of Canada: He is traipsing around at night, in a weird outfit, carrying a torch in one gloved hand, a butterfly net and a basket in the other - and waders up to his waist. Sometimes he is crouching in a ditch, other times he is looking into basement windows.
Enlarge image This is film producer Jürgen Schau with Anthony Hopkins a.k.a. Hannibal Lector in the movie “Silence of the Lambs”. No, Hannibal did not eat Jürgen, I can vouch for it. (© Jürgen Schau)
You have to know that Jürgen (68), a former movie producer in Germany, normally dons hyper-fashion statements, like his shirt and the lining of his jacket made out of the same boldly patterned fabric. His sense for glamour should not surprise us because Jürgen used to hobnob with international movie stars and cultural icons across Germany.
Enlarge image A very young Jürgen with actress Jane Fonda at the Oktoberfest in Munich, doing some aerobics with beer mugs. (© Jürgen Schau)
He represented the American movie company Sony Pictures/Columbia-Tristar in Germany and was one of the driving forces behind the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival (www.berlinale.de). On the red carpet, he was seen with Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson, Will Smith, Courtney Love, Lucy Liu or Susan Sarandon.
Enlarge image Jürgen and Elfie Schau`s secret passion, a puffling (baby) and a puffin (adult). They are stuffed but still cute, don`t you think? (© Jürgen Schau)
But on the Canadian island of Newfoundland where he and his wife Elfie bought a house 16 years ago, he leads an entirely different existence. Jürgen is something like the patron of all puffins, and he and his combatants have saved the lives of hundreds of these pretty birds.
Enlarge image No, Elfie, we won`t take the birdie away from you – please don`t squeeze it too hard. Nice gloves, by the way. (© Jürgen Schau)
It is kind of ironic that Elfie and Jürgen initially came to Newfoundland because of much larger animal: whales. They had heard that humpback whales can be seen in the ocean at Witless Bay, about an hour`s drive south from St. John`s. To cut a long story short: The Schaus fell in love with the area and purchased a modest house on the North Atlantic.
Enlarge image These are Jürgen`s treasures that he is hiding off-shore in Newfoundland. Another case of trophy evasion, I`m afraid. (© Jürgen Schau)
During the first night in their new abode, they were woken up early in the morning by a strange noise: the breathing of the humpbacks! The Schaus were ecstatic. They have come back every summer since for a three-month stay and also for the Christmas holidays.
Enlarge image The beak of the puffin becomes only colourful when they are adults. This is a baby, but Jürgen`s shirt makes up for the missing colours. (© Jürgen Schau)
But then, Jürgen discovered the dirty little secret of Witless Bay. Dead puffin babies lined the roads, perished in ditches and holes, or were trapped in basements and could not get out. “Don`t touch them”, the locals used to tell their kids when they inquired about the dead birdies. “They are poison.”
Enlarge image Since the Schaus are active in Witless Bay, there is Puffomania everywhere! (© Jürgen Schau)
Well, don`t say this to animal lovers like this well-traveled German couple. Jürgen soon found out why so many puffin babies had to die. Not far from the coast in Witless Bay, on Gull Island, you find North America`s largest puffin colony. “The puffin babies leave their nests in the cliffs at night and fly towards the moon light that leads them out to the water”, Jürgen explains. “They don`t come out during the day because of predators like gulls and eagles. But when it is foggy or rainy, and the moon is hiding, the puffin babies fly towards the lights on the land, like street lamps, headlights of cars or illuminated houses.”
Enlarge image One of Jürgen`s combatants, fully equipped and in his protective armour. No, it is not a bullet-proof west, are you kidding me? (© Jürgen Schau)
On land, the pufflings are crushed by car tires, eaten by dogs and cats, or trapped in basement rooms. Once Jürgen realised what was going on, he and Elfie sprang into action: They founded the Puffin Patrol. This patrol consists mainly of kids and their parents, who scout the area with butterfly nets, pick up the puffin babies and put them into plastic baskets (Jürgen had the baskets engineered by a local man out of lobster traps).
Enlarge image Jürgen (in the checkered shirt) is gathering a crowd around him – he is the uberfather of Puffin Patrol. (© Jürgen Schau)
In August and September when the puffin babies emerge from their nests, Jürgen and his helpers are out and about during the nightly hours. In the early morning, the baby puffins are released on the beach. “This is my highlight”, Jürgen says. “The kids can touch a puffin and give it a name.
Then the puffin is thrown high up in the air. It tests its wings and slowly descends onto the water. When it eventually dives into the ocean, it is okay and safe from predators.” That is also the moment when Jürgen, Elfie and the kids and other volunteers happily clap their hands.
Enlarge image It is all about letting go, Elfie. Little puffin is returned to the ocean. (© Jürgen Schau)
Jürgen has not told me this, but I am absolutely convinced that this applause on the shore of Witless Bay moves his heart way more than any standing ovation did at a movie premiere in Berlin. Right, Jürgen?
Let`s see what Jürgen Schau has to say to our Curious and Crucial Questions (CCQ):
Jürgen, every German puts his car into his garage. Why is your silver Honda Civic standing outside your house in Witless Bay these days?
Because my garage is the Puffin Patrol headquarters and there are about 50 plastic containers stacked in there for the puffin babies. There is no room for my car. And I have things like whale bones and old sails in there, too. One day I will have to put all this stuff into a museum.
Enlarge image Don`t mess with these bird rescuers, folks. They are the next generation of David Suzukis and Jürgen and Elfie Schaus. (© Jürgen Schau)
Have you become a folk hero in Newfoundland?
I don`t know about folk hero, but when people see me they greet me with “Hey, Puffin Man!”. I have become something like an Übervater (uberfather) in our area. But Elfie and I just want to give something back, because staying here is like a gift.
Do the local people know that you were a successful film producer in Berlin?
I don`t think so. But here, it is not important. Amongst the 1200 people in Witless Bay, I have lots of friends, from a truck driver to a heart surgeon. We love to have parties and barbeques with the locals. It is our second home here.
Enlarge image Jürgen with actors Andie McDowell, Antonia Banderas, Drew Barrymore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and so on and so forth. Move over, guys, it is puffin show time now! (© Jürgen Schau)
Why do you roll out the red carpet now for puffins instead of stars?
The puffins are my stars today! They are fantastic birds. They can bat their wings 400 times a minute. And they are incredible divers; they can reach a depth of 70 meters.
Enlarge image The Schaus use all the weapons in their battle for the puffins. This is Elfie Schau throwing in her amazing artistic talent for the poor birds. (© Jürgen Schau)
The national newspaper The Globe and Mail in Toronto published an article about you, the “semi-retired film executive from Berlin”. How do you feel about this?
On one hand, I am delighted that we have now seven communities with Puffin Patrols. But it got bigger and bigger, with the media and politicians involved. This was not my intention. And we also got donations and I did not want to have to deal with money.
Oh, you were not pleased about the money? Interesting. So what did you do?
The Canadian Park and Wilderness Society has taken over the responsibility and also the scientific analysis of the rescued puffins. Which is a huge relief because there are kids out in the night and anything could happen.
Enlarge image If you look closely enough, you will see that Jürgen`s shirt matches the colours of the puffin baskets. This is what I call German precision. (© Jürgen Schau)
But the parents are with the kids, aren`t they?
Yes, and it is great to see that they have quality time together and do something really interesting. I used to be out until one o`clock in the morning but I could not do it anymore. Now, the teenagers go from 10 to 1 at night.
Are teenagers really into the rescue of puffins? That is quite a feat!
Yes, they go with their girlfriends or boyfriends and have fun.
Did you have a career change? Have you become a teacher in Newfoundland?
Sort of. I go to the schools and teach the kids everything about puffins. I show them a stuffed puffin baby that has a grey beak. Most of them don`t know that only an adult puffin has the famous colourful beak.
Enlarge image Puffin School. I am sure that kids in Newfoundland never had a successful film producer from Berlin to ruffle their feathers – metaphorically speaking. (© Jürgen Schau)
So you have nothing to do with filming anymore?
I am still a consultant for young film directors in Germany. But in Canada, the only film camera that is active is a remote camera in my house. On the internet, I can see the surroundings and the ocean of Witless Bay, even when I am in Berlin.
And can you see puffins, too?
No, the tiny pufflings come out only at night. But let`s face it, we also love gigantic things! We have the biggest screen in the world, which is the North Atlantic. “Titanic” meets “Gone with Wind” – so to speak.
If you could produce a movie with your remote camera, to whom would the credits go?
To the whales, the icebergs - and the great people of Newfoundland and Labrador!
Enlarge image Jürgen, Elfie, come! Quick, quick! We see an iceberg through your remote camera!!! (© B. Calonego)
One last question: Can you remember what you did on the day when the Berlin Wall was destroyed (November 9, 1989)?
Yes, but first I have to tell you what happened before. In April 1989, I moved from Düsseldorf to Munich, the location of my new employer Columbia /Tri-Star. Elfie was still working in Düsseldorf, because we had to find an apartment in Munich. We could already feel a strong emotional tension in the weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall because hundreds of refugees flooded into Germany from the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
Enlarge image Jürgen, you deserve your place in history for chiseling away the Berlin Wall! (© Jürgen Schau)
In the night leading up to the historic event, my wife Elfie and I had a long phone conversation. We could hardly believe what was happening. With our families and friends, we experienced the emotionally most stirring political phase in our lives. We shed a lot of tears, out of joy and sadness.
Ten days later, I traveled to Berlin with the head of European operations of our company. For the first time in my life, I set foot on the ground of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or Eastern Germany). East-Berlin seemed poor and desolate to us. But then I was carried away by excitement because a new professional adventure waited for me: I was set to bring Hollywood to Eastern Germany.
Enlarge image Elfie and Jürgen in front of the Brandenburg Tor, the Berlin Wall, and a traffic block. (© Jürgen Schau)
Three months later, in February 1990, I opened the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, in the movie theatre Kosmos in East Berlin with the film “Steel Magnolia”. Actress Julia Roberts was there, and Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah. They were received with a standing ovation. Everybody was extremely moved, many shed tears.
A few days later, a photo that showed Julia Roberts and Sally Field on the Berlin Wall, standing beside two policemen and making the victory sign with their hands, went around the world...