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Photo of Phobe Snetsinger, the world-famous birder and author of Birding on borrowed time.
Phoebe Snetsinger
Even now, the majority of us will experience shudders and dread when we receive a cancer diagnosis. Imagine being diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, when cancer treatment was still in its infancy and almost always entailed a period of excruciating physical and mental suffering, living in a revolting body, palliative care, and anticipating death.
After a fruitful birding trip in Panama, Phoebe Snetsinger, a 50-year mother of four from Illinois, had just returned home when the lump under her right armpit started to hurt and bleed. Despite being aware of it and having an ominous feeling about it for some time, she never bothered to take it seriously. Not any longer. After a flurry of scans and tests, she was informed of her illness: “metastatic multiple myeloma, incurable, the prognosis is grim, and you will have about a year to live.”

Phoebe Snetsinger: Cancer and Birding 

I’m sure the news would have shaken her and her family to their core. But she sprang out of it in a matter of days. In her memoir “Birding on Borrowed Time,” she describes her medical diagnosis and its aftermath as follows:

“At the time, there was no proven effective treatment for melanoma; neither radiation nor chemotherapy had been shown to have any significant beneficial effect. Therefore, I wasn’t under pressure to take any standard follow-up treatment simply because there wasn’t any. There were some experimental possibilities, but at least one of these was a lengthy, totally deliberating, even life-threatening process-which was easy for me to turn down.”

She refused all experimental treatments. Instead, she did something her soul desired. She went birding in Alaska. She continued birding for the next 18 years, ignoring the cancer recurrence, until she died in a car accident while on a birding trip to Madagascar on November 27, 1999, after seeing an extremely rare Helmet or Red-shouldered Vanga. She had the death she had always wanted. “I want to die with a binocular in my hand,” she used to tell her friends. By then, she had travelled more than half the world, from Antarctica to Japan to Papua New Guinea, seeing nearly 8500 birds, a world record for any woman at the time. Even a few men with a larger tally were only ahead by a few hundred.
Snetsinger was born Phoebe Burnett on June 9, 1931, in Lake Zurich, Illinois. Her father was the famous advertising executive Leo Burnett, who created several iconic campaigns, including Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes and the Marlboro Man. After college, she married Dave Snetsinger, who had returned home from serving in the Army in Korea. According to the Times, they met as children at a 4-H Club in Illinois.
Elizabeth Selden, her next-door neighbour, introduced her to birding in the summer of 1965. She tells the story of how seeing a Blackburnian Warbler changed her life in Birding on Borrowed Times,

“ So when did it finally happen, this awakening that has ultimately let me get the real world in focus and that has given me my bearing for navigating through the best years of my life? Probably when I saw my first Blackburnian Wabler in 1965.” When she reached 8000 species, she stopped listing

with the American Birding Association. Birding had become a way of life for her by that point. Her journey had not been easy. Of course, cancer was the major battle she had to fight throughout her birding career, but she had to almost abandon her family to focus on birding. She had written in her memoir with a mother’s melancholy about having to miss her daughter’s wedding due to a birding travel commitment overseas.

Her global birding adventures had never been simple. Along with dealing with ominous pain and the side effects of her medications, she also had to contend with shipwrecks, landslides, and other natural disasters while birding in remote areas of the world. She was robbed, pursued, and even brutally attacked in Papua New Guinea, but nothing could stop her from seeing the birds she had always loved. After recording her 7,530th species, the Guinness Book of Records named her the “world’s leading bird spotter” in 1992.

Birding on Borrowed Time is more than just a bird watcher’s memoir. It is also a story about human determination, a person’s fight against a deadly disease, enduring female power, and, last but not least, the beauty of birding. By the time she died, she had become something of a celebrity and legend among birding and adventure travel enthusiasts. She inspires many birders who have followed in her footsteps, including me. 

Thanks, Phoebe!