On Oct. 29, 1929, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Audubon Societies [sic], a hitherto-unknown upper-crust birdwatcher from Manhattan’s Upper East Side rose from the audience to address the society’s directors. Rosalie Edge, a former suffragist, wasn’t intimidated. As a writer in The New Yorker later noted, her habitual demeanor was “somewhere between that of Queen Mary and a suspicious pointer.”
Why, she demanded, was the organization tacitly supporting the killing of bald eagles? The genteel gentlemen she faced dismissed her as impertinent and out of line. It was not until the mid-1930s that they changed their tune.
Michelle Nijhuis’ spirited and engaging “Beloved Beasts” tracks the not always predictable course of species protection from the flora and fauna classification system developed in the 18th century by the Swede Carl Linnaeus to the present day. Although much of her subject matter has been previously chronicled, the author makes it new by treating it as one continuous story and by focusing on fascinating personalities like Edge. Her prose flows easily from these pen-portraits to heart-breaking statistics to larger social trends.
Always attuned to ironies and anomalies, Nijhuis points out the changes of heart that changed history. William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution, once roamed the world collecting specimens to shoot and stuff, including the bison he killed in Montana in 1888 for an exhibit. Like many others, he viewed the extinction of these wooly beasts as inevitable. Eventually, though, he came to view this prospect as “a national disgrace” and led efforts to save them.
Aldo Leopold, author of the revered “A Sand County Almanac,” trained as a forester at Yale, where trees were regarded as board feet as much as objects of beauty. (His father was a logging magnate.) His early experience in the US Forest Service turned his head regarding the importance of top predators in an ecosystem. Wolves deserved protection, not for sentimental reasons, he realized, but because their absence in Southwest deserts resulted in an explosion of hungry deer that destroyed too many trees and shrubs.
Nijhuis is painfully aware that conservation heroes often came with egregious flaws. Founding fathers of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society (Bronx Zoo) were notorious racists. Julian Huxley, the English polymath and scientist who directed organizations that were forerunners of the World Wildlife Fund, championed the pseudoscience of eugenics and its call for sterilizing the “lower orders.”
Complexity — in individuals and culture — is a constant in Nijhuis’s narrative. People change their views, as do societies. The feathered hats that were all the rage for late-19th-century ladies gave way by the early 20th century to disgust at the carnage required to create them. Photographing lions replaced shooting them. Saving species came to be viewed as a stepping-stone to saving humanity.
Nowhere better illustrates the knotty problems inherent in wildlife protection than Africa. Huxley had advocated for protected national game parks in British colonies there, but he was notoriously skeptical of locals’ ability to successfully run them. Current thought reverses that view. Success requires that local people understand that keeping the big predators alive is in their self-interest.
Competition for scarce resources — water or meat — can inhibit conservation practices. Yet Nijhuis shows that when Namibians are offered tangible proof of its benefits — jobs as park guards, regulated hunting privileges, and extra income from tourism — they not only refrain from poaching but also actively discourage it.
She will not gain any friends from PETA members, however, by agreeing with John Kasaona, a Namibian conservation official, that a small measure of big-game trophy-hunting is integral to a necessary bargain between rich foreigners and poor Namibians. It’s a huge money-maker for the locals, money that is shared between them and that funds other conservation activities. Kasaona also reminds her that “trophy hunters are sometimes directed toward individual lions or elephants who have become aggressive toward people,” a fact often forgotten in the sheltered West.
Less controversial methods of species protection can prove remarkably frustrating. At his cabin on a Wisconsin prairie, Leopold was an awed witness to hosts of migrating cranes, which journey from Canada to Texas and back. Captive breeding, an effective technique for saving other species, has largely failed in the case of rare whooping cranes. Even when trained by ultra-light aircraft to migrate, they still don’t know how to protect their eggs from other animals.
“Beloved Beasts” is at its best in illuminating the passing of the conservation torch from one advocate to the next. William Temple Hornaday became an ally and scientific adviser to Rosalie Edge. Edge used her wealth to buy Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, a promontory where migrating raptors were once shot by the thousands, and transformed it into a bird-watchers’ Eden that delighted a young Rachel Carson.
Carson’s “Silent Spring,” a scathing indictment of DDT’s poisoning of birds, inspired Stewart Udall, John Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior, to activism. Udall presided over the establishment of four national parks, 50 wildlife refuges, and eight national seashores. His crowning achievement: passage of the Endangered Species Act (1973), which remains the strongest bulwark protecting our beloved beasts.
Dan Cryer is author of a biography, “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church,” and a memoir, “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues From the Heartland.”
BELOVED BEASTS: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
By Michelle Nijhuis
Norton, 342 pp., $27.95