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There are only 400 Sumatran Tigers in existence right now. Congruently, there are only 400 pressings of Portugal. The Man’s Endangered Song, “A Song manufactured to go into extinction unless it’s reproduced.” The partnership between the band and the Smithsonian Zoo is meant to raise awareness for endangered species in general, especially for those who see the Zoo as a tourist attraction and field trip opportunity rather than a conservation effort. This would be the fitting live debut of this song, too.

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We started the day by meeting lions, tigers and panda bears, cubs and parents alike. A “baby” Sumatran Tiger at nine months old weights almost 50 kilograms or 110 pounds– not exactly what you’d picture as a baby anything. The band met each of these animals and greeted them with a mix of awe and intimidation. Knowing that these beautiful creatures, standing just a few feet away from you, could easily tear you apart? It’s a strange situation to navigate.

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Before the band took the stage, we had the opportunity to ask Zach Carothers, the band’s bassist, about how this all began.

Why Sumatran Tigers?

A lot of people have asked that, and they [The Smithsonian Zoo and DDB] came to us with the idea, specifically with Sumatran Tigers, and I liked it. They came to us probably because we’re known for being a band from Alaska we had a unique childhood and a very hands-on perspective and respect for the environment and nature in general. They asked us to do this, and you know, a lot of people ask, “well there’s this endangered species, and that one…”

There’s over 3,000 endangered animal species total.

Yeah, people ask what’s so special to us about the tigers. It’s not that, it’s for all endangered animals, for all non-endangered species, for all species in general. It’s more of a general awareness. Just because we picked one animal doesn’t make it better than the others. I like this idea because we’ve done a lot of things for causes in Alaska, and that might be a little too obvious, but this one is far away. It’s like what Craig said earlier, most people don’t even know where Sumatra is.

Are you guys planning to go there?

I would love to. There’s no plans as of yet, but I’m going to try to get that in the works. I would love.

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You guys are doing a great job of bringing this to the attention of people who don’t see the zoo this way. 

The whole reason for this is the cross-connection. People who are already on the newsletter list for the Smithsonian Zoo, they probably already know about the situation. Maybe our fans don’t. Maybe they had no idea that it was a problem. That’s the whole point, is that we can get it out to people who don’t normally hear about it. It’s just great to be a part of something like this. I’m really happy with this project and it’s a very unique way to raise awareness. These days with social media sites, it will reach more people than Sean Penn doing a PSA on TV. I mean, a lot more people probably know who Sean Penn is, but this is cooler. Sorry, Sean.

Not sorry, Sean. 

I mean, I’m a fan. But we’re going to make music anyway, so it’s really cool to make it for an issue that’s far bigger than we are.

Is tonight the first time you’re playing the song live?

Yeah.

How did writing this song differ from your other conceptual songs?

This one in particular, to be honest, it was already started. It’s a song we had for a while that wasn’t done, and it was basically still an idea. We really liked it. We get asked to do exclusive things for commericals and TV shows all the time. and we’ve always said no, we were saving this song for something very special. This gave us a reason to finish it, and to have it go to something good. We love this song. It’s just a little more focused and specific than our other songs, which are very strange and a lot of people don’t get that.

Is this the first concert you’ve played at a zoo?

Yes. I dig the concerts at the zoos!

What other zoo concerts have you been to recently? 

Well, I just missed this one– we had a last minute show the same night Weird Al Yankovic played the zoo in Portland. We tried to work it out where we would go over there and play a song with him, and he’d come back and play one with us, but with flights and everything it just didn’t work out. But it’s a cool thing, and particularly this zoo. Because this zoo is awesome. And not all zoos are good. This one is all about conservation and spreading knowledge and information. Our first time being here is very special to us.

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Do you remember your first trip to the zoo? 

Yes! We’re big fans of the Alaska zoo. It’s not that good– we have pretty harsh climates.

So that limits the animals they can house. 

Yeah. And our polar bear did kill a tourist. Yeah. Binky. He was my boy. He was the main attraction, a giant polar bear. But some guy climbed the fence and tried to feed him, so that was his bad. It’s a polar bear. It was pretty rough. He was always a sweet guy, Binky. I’ll miss that dude. But yes, I do remember seeing the polar bear, and I really liked the elephants and the musk ox. It’s always the smells that get you.

Especially when you’re a kid. 

Exactly. And at the gift shop they had those little capsules that you’d put in water, in the sink, and they’d turn into dinosaurs? And other animals? I loved those. And animal crackers?

The circus box ones?

Yeah. loved those. I was about four, and I’m sure I had gone there before that, but that was the first trip I could remember.

In my first trip to a petting zoo, I yelled at a koala and he scratched me through his cage. It wasn’t exactly the best day. 

Have you seen the photos of wet koalas? A koala is something that looks like you could cuddle with, it’s super cute, and a wet koala, however, looks like a cyborg from the future that’s here to kill you. We got to hold koalas in Australia. Random thought– things like today, going down to see the lions, we get to do so much more of that stuff now. Man, my bucket list has been checkmarked like crazy.

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What animals are you still waiting to hang out with? 

Sharks. I want to swim with some sharks. It sounds terrifying. And killer whales are my favorite animal ever. I’ve seen them, but they’re still very– they’re the most badass thing. They eat sharks. That’s a badass animal.

Growing up in Alaska, I’m guessing everyone has dogs. Are they seen as pets or as more since they work? 

Everyone’s got dogs up there, and they’re still pets, yeah. A lot of them are sled dogs. Actually, I got my life saved by a pet wolf. His name was Lucky. My fried had one full-bred wolf as a pet, and then one half-Husky, half-wolf. I was eight years old, and I accidentially got between a mama moose and a baby moose. The mama moose charged me and this dog jumped on the moose’s back, sadly killing the moose. One of the wolves broke its chain and the other one dragged its doghouse behind it. I was playing swords or something– I had a stick and the metal lid of a trash can, and I was just holding it up, frozen. I had no idea what to do. And this wolf saved my life. That moose would have completely stomped me. My very short life passed before my eyes.

So… shit. That answers my “any weird Alaskan pet stories?” question. 

We had a lot of ’em. We fed squirrels at my house. We named them Binky after the polar bear.

Is Binky dead? Or is he just gone?

I’m pretty sure he was put down. But he was pretty old anyway. It was still sad. But we just named all of these squirrels Binky after him, every generation.

George Foreman style. 

Exactly. We could feed them by the hand. There was one I called stinky and he had been shot with a BB gun. He had three BBs still stuck in him, and because of that one of his teeth wrapped around the outside of his skull like a sheep horn. It was awesome.

Only in Alaska. I think that about covers it. 

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A few hours later, the same lawn we’d been occupying was flooded with fans of the band and zoo alike sitting atop a sea of blankets. Portugal. The Man dove into a stripped down version of some of their most popular songs, starting off with Purple Yellow Red and Blue before debuting Endangered Song. The song itself is a swirling blend of hollow tones the band used to rely on heavily, and their more current polished, tight production. Echoing lyrics of “you don’t have to worry” wrap around the bright instrumentation and offer warmth with metaphors and promises to keep something safe.

The overwhelmingly positive response created a comfortable atmosphere for the remainder of the set, which was true to Portugal. The Man tradition: new and old favorites were honored, and of course Sleep forever was blended into Hey Jude for a breakdown that was anything but stripped down. Not even a situation with a belligerent attendee could detract from the good message and good vibes the band was emitting. In fact, the entitlement of some (kids, specifically) was an important reminder of our own entitlement. We feel entitled to visit the zoo with our out-of-town visitors and expect every animal to be there, each and every time. We feel entitled to baby tigers and PandaCams. But we’re not entitled to anything we’re not actively part of.

You can become more involved by learning more about Endangered Song, and more importantly, volunteering with Friends of the National Zoo.

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More from our zoo adventures:

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