Sunday, April 17, 2011

Our Vanishing Wildlife, 1913

I just returned from the American Society of Environmental History in Phoenix, Arizona, where I delivered a paper on William Temple Hornaday's Our Vanishing Wildlife. As you may recall from my last posting, Hornaday was the director of the Bronx Zoo. But, he was also a very influential wildlife conservationist. I will post more about the conference throughout this week, but will begin by posting my paper. I did not go crazy with sourcing, let me know if you have any questions!

Gregory J. Dehler, Our Vanishing Wildlife: William T. Hornaday’s Case for Wildlife Protection. Delivered at the American Society of Environmental History, Phoenix, Arizona, Saturday April 16, 2011.

Throughout the Fall of 1912 William Temple Hornaday, whose day job was director of the Bronx zoo, labored his nights away on a conservation book that became Our Vanishing Wildlife. “As a matter of fact,” he wrote to fellow conservationist Henry Shoemaker of Pennsylvania in September 1912, “I am tired enough all the time but after I have written at my game protection book as long as I can keep awake, I am too tired to do anything but to go to sleep.” (Hornaday Papers, Widlife Conservation Society) The book that the sleep deprived Hornaday produced was a unique contribution to the literature and print culture of the progressive era conservation canon. His book differed widely from any existing work on the subjects of conservation or wildlife. Previous books by wildlife conservationists, like T. Gilbert Pearson’s Stories of Bird Life (1901), to cite one example, sought to gain sympathy for animals with sentimental portraits. Books that mentioned wildlife conservation more directly tended to incorporate the advocacy material into texts focused more broadly on the larger topics of hunting or zoology. An excellent model of this style is American Duck Shooting by George Bird Grinnell (1910). Despite the fact that he was a forceful advocate of conservation for over thirty years, Grinnell buried the subject of conservation at the end of his book. One has to wade through 582 pages of material on ducks, geese, swans, and how to hunt them until getting to the twenty page conservation section where he championed many of the same laws Hornaday would demand three years later. Our Vanishing Wildlife differed even more sharply from the generalized conservation works. Gifford Pinchot’s Fight for Conservation (1910) and the Charles Van Hise’s Conservation of Natural Resources (1910), for example, do not mention wildlife at all. Although this is a small sample of its contemporary literature, it is representative and demonstrative of the uniqueness of Our Vanishing Wildlife as a book devoted exclusively to wildlife and its conservation. Hornaday’s book also differed markedly in tone and style, resembling more the voice and techniques of the muckraking journalist than the conservationist or scientist.

In this paper I will examine the message of this unique contribution to the print culture of the environmental movement and the techniques used to convey it.

He told his readers in the very first sentence of the book: “The writing of this book has taught me many things. Beyond question we are exterminating our finest species of mammals, birds, and fishes according to the law!” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, ix) His first sentence and the first of many exclamation points. As much as he might have claimed to have learned during the research of the book, the truth is that he formed most of his underlying arguments and theses as to the causes of wildlife decline, the seriousness of the situation as he saw it (which was apocalyptic in nature), and the reforms he deemed necessary to reverse it, all formed in his mind long before he sat down to write the most famous of his one dozen books. As early as his 1887 monograph, “The Extermination of the American Bison”, published as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report, Hornaday studied the deadly forces driving the buffalo to extinction. He concluded that the forces behind extermination were the demands of the market and the constantly improving firearms and transportation technologies. The difference between Our Vanishing Wildlife and “Extermination of the American Bison,” is that Hornaday applied the same formula to every species, not just one, in 1913. This rationale for the decline of wildlife cast Hornaday in a decidedly Malthusian frame of mind, complete with the requisite gloom and doom pessimism that forecast mass extermination. He explained it in Our Vanishing Wildlife thusly: “There is not a single state in our country from which the killable game is not being rapidly and persistently shot to death, legally or illegally, very much more rapidly than it is breeding, with the extermination for the most of it close in sight. The statement is not open to argument; for millions of men know that it is literally true. We are living in a fool’s paradise.” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. ix)

Hornaday wrote Our Vanishing Wildlife to raise the alarm and awaken his fellow citizens from their fool’s paradise. To do this, he appealed to both the heads and hearts of his readers with a blistering barrage of facts, page after page, in a strident and moralistic prose, laden with exclamation points. A Sierra Club reviewer wrote, “Its burning and indignant pages remind me of the zeal of the old anti-slavery days when the force of great moral convictions won the day against greed and wrong.” (quoted in Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement, 150) No one who read this book would be able to claim they did not know the nature and scope of the danger facing American wildlife.

When it came to dealing with facts, Hornaday was in his element. To use the parlance of the 21st century, he was a policy wonk fully at home in the details of issues. Now he unleashed his encyclopedic store of information on a hitherto unexposed public. He hit his readers with the official number of game killed in Louisiana over a the course of a year, states that allowed the eating of wood duck, the number of hunting licenses issued in 1911 (1,486,228), the amounts of money each of the states spent on enforcement and propagation, copies of commendable wildlife laws, detailed accounts of feather sales figures from the London market, numbers of shotgun shells sold annually (775 million), just to illustrate with a small sample the type of data he employed to make his case for conservation. Then there were a variety of lists, including lists of extinct species, endangered species broken down by state, birds around the world being exterminated for the millinery industry, magazines and newspapers friendly to conservation, compilations of laws needed by state, etc. All of these precise numbers supported his argument that market forces and technology were driving wildlife to extinction with all the power and certainty of an enormous and amoral killing machine.

Despite his criticism of some of the latest firearms technology Hornaday was no Luddite. On the contrary he employed the latest publication techniques, Our Vanishing Wildlife included dozens of photographs to accompany the text. He further advanced his case for conservation with cartoons charts, graphs, and maps to demonstrate and visualize his arguments. In a way it was as close to a powerpoint presentation as one could get in January 1913.

Reviewers attributed the successful appeal of Our Vanishing Wildlife to this powerful use of his graphic material. The reviewer for The Auk wrote: “It is gratifying therefore at a time when the support of the entire country is necessary to the success of this movement to find a work such as Dr. Hornaday’s which in originality of illustrations and method of presentation, compels the attention of everyone whose hands it finds its way.” (W.S. “Hornaday’s ‘Our Vanishing Wildlife’” The Auk 30 (July 1913 443) In a more popular periodical, American Review of Reviews, George Gladden wrote of Our Vanishing Wildlife, “It is by all odds the most comprehensive and convincing presentation and discussion of the subject that has ever been produced.” (GG, “A Champion of WL” ARoR 48 Dec 1913 p. 698)

Hitting his readers with page after page of facts, graphs, charts, and graphic photographs he presented a forceful argument for the conservation of wildlife on moral grounds, which is to say humanity had a moral responsibility to protect wildlife from wanton destruction and unnecessary extinction. Not content to rest on emotional and moral strictures alone, Hornaday threw in the kitchen sink and appealed to the pocket book of every single American with a critical chapter dedicated to the amount of noxious insects birds consumed. Hornaday outlined his reasoning thusly: “The logic of the situation is so simple a child can see it. Short crops mean higher prices. If ten percent of our vegetable food supply is destroyed by insects, as certain as fate we will feel it in the increased cost of living.”(Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. 208) Citing the 1904 Department of Agriculture Yearbook, he claimed that waste from insects cost the economy over $750 million at a time when the GDP was a little over $33 billion. He used this line of reasoning to argue for support of the Weeks-Mclean bill, a sweeping proposal that would grant federal protection to all migratory birds. Of course, Hornaday had not discovered the connection between birds and insects. Like all the other facts in Our Vanishing Wildlife he pulled it from another source. In this case, pamphlets produced by the Biological Survey, but his genius was using it as a key message of Our Vanishing Wildlife and as the central point on which to rally the broad support of farmers, hunters, nature lovers, scientists, and urban consumers in favor of a controversial conservation measure.

The Weeks-McLean law was only one of many sweeping legal reforms he proposed in Our Vanishing Wildlife. Some aimed at hunting practices, such as an end to spring shooting and limitations on the use of pump and automatic shotguns. Other suggested reforms targeted the deadly grip of the market. He advised states to adopt New York’s model laws to prohibit the sale of game meat and plumage feathers, for example. To improve the chances of these laws being adopted the New York Zoological Society, who printed Our Vanishing Wildlife, sent copies gratis to important lawmakers. As Hornaday recounted to his friend former President Theodore Roosevelt: “The book has now gone to every member of every legislature now sitting in the United States, and every member of Congress. It will also go to every governor, Supreme Court Judge, game commissioner and state game warden.” (WTH to TR, 2/3/13, Theodore Roosevelt Papers) When Hornaday testified before the House Ways and Means Committee at the end of January 1913 on behalf of clause banning the importation of plumage for upcoming tariff revision, he referred Congressmen to specific pages in Our Vanishing Wildlife so they could read along in their copies. Wildlife protection advocates in the Congress appreciated the assistance they received from Hornaday. Senator George McLean, who led the successful fight in the Senate for the Weeks-McLean migratory bird protection bill that passed in March 1913, wrote to say: “The book arrived in the nick of time, and it put a fourteen-inch hole through the hull of the enemy side to side.” (Hornaday, Thirty Years War for Wildlife, 164)

Hornaday did not believe statutory solutions were enough to achieve the total reform he sought, especially considering the low level of enforcement of existing laws. He reminded readers in both the photographs and the text of Our Vanishing Wildlife that many of the seemingly excessive kills were indeed legal. He targeted the consciences of every American, aiming to instill a sense of moral responsibility in each of his fellow citizens. He wrote in the introduction, “We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness, and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage. It is time for sweeping Reformation; and this is precisely what we demand.” (Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, p. x) Because he considered the market to be the decisive force driving wildlife towards extinction, more than hunters bore responsibility for the results. Anyone who ate game meat, wore feathered hats, or purchased fur products shared equal responsibility with the greediest market hunter. It is hard to gauge the effect this moral scolding had on his readers. Hornaday received letters from readers of all his books and there is nothing exceptional to suggest Our Vanishing Wildlife had a disproportionate impact on his readers. On the other hand, there are a few notable individuals. The most influential of whom a young forester recovering from Nephritis on his parent’s farm in Iowa named Aldo Leopold. Although his biographers disagree to the extent Hornaday’s moral message impacted Leopold, they do agree that it was an important, if immeasurable, influence upon the man who shaped the entire post-Word War II attitude toward the environment. (see for example, Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold and Julianne Lutz Nelson, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey)

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