There’s a photograph in Errol Fuller’s latest book of a pair of odd-looking critters with stripes on their backs and fox-like faces. The animals are thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, carnivorous marsupials native to Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. The species became extinct in 1936, 30 years after the picture was taken, and the forlorn appearance of these animals almost suggests they knew what was coming.
The image also comes with a strange emotional pop: This animal was caught on camera? The thylacine had been around for about 4 million years before it died out. Here we have a prehistoric creature, no longer with us, that lasted just long enough to be snapped by a 20th-century photographer.
We tend to think of vanished species as belonging to the distant past. But “Lost Animals” uses photographs from the 1860s through the turn of the 21st century to remind us how many lived side-by-side with us in the modern era, from the laughing owl of New Zealand to the Yangtze River dolphin to Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon, who died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The photographs are often grainy, or poorly framed, or badly lit. But this fact, oddly, is also part of the book’s power—the everyday nature of these snapshots somehow hammers home the enormity of the subject matter.
Fuller, an author, artist, taxidermy collector, and self-taught natural historian, has become one of Britain’s more notable authorities on extinction—he has written well-received books on the dodo, the great auk, and various birds of paradise. He has also collaborated with the celebrity naturalist David Attenborough and recently curated an auction of dinosaur bones. “What I do is the collision between art and science,” he says. “And I mean collision.”
Fuller spoke to Ideas from his home in the English spa town of Tunbridge Wells. This interview is edited from two conversations.
IDEAS: How did you first get interested in this subject?
FULLER: I was brought up in south London, and when I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7, my mum would take the train into town to go shopping. She quickly realized that I didn’t want to go with her, so she’d drop me off at the Natural History Museum and I’d wander around looking at all these fossils, skeletons, birds. I’d thought that this must be the one of the greatest treasures the world has to offer.
IDEAS: How does this translate into writing all these books on extinction?
FULLER: I got hold of a case of stuffed birds with a passenger pigeon in it, and that fired up my interest. Then, when I was about 20 I was looking for a book on extinct birds, and I couldn’t find one. There were lots of books on endangered birds, but none that I could see on extinct ones. So I collected my own bits and pieces to make a book just for me. After 10 years or so, I realized I had enough material to make a real book.
IDEAS: It’s clear from the book that you’re emotionally invested in these animals.
FULLER: You can’t help but identify with them. Martha, the last passenger pigeon—I couldn’t help but see her as being the whole species. One of my favorites was the ivory-billed woodpecker, who was called Sonny Boy, because you could see his personality. There were some that I grew attached to—in a silly way, really.
IDEAS: The image of that woodpecker shows him perched on a man’s head. You sort of expect the bird to be looking out at you with an accusing eye, but the photo is actually really sweet and funny, which of course makes it even more melancholy.
FULLER: There’s an interesting story to that picture. It was taken in the 1930s by a man named James Tanner. He was possibly one of the last people to see one of these birds alive. I discovered while writing the book that his wife was still alive, and I managed to find her in Knoxville, Tennessee. I asked if it was OK to use a photo, and she said, “Well, my dear, I have more.” She had another 10 or 12 in an envelope in a drawer—I don’t think they’d even been developed. She gave me permission to use them, and I said I’d send her a book when it was done. Sadly, she died before it was published.
IDEAS: This story raises an important point. There are really two narratives at work in each entry—one about the animal, and another about the photographs and the people who took them.
FULLER: One that stands out for me is a Hawaiian bird called a mamo. There was only one photo, and it was a really poor one of a mustachioed man in the 1890s—he’s holding the bird and you can hardly see it. He was collecting birds for a man called Walter Rothschild, who had a museum. He’d caught this mamo but thought it so beautiful and charming he couldn’t bring himself to kill it. He kept it alive for several days but at one point needed to relieve himself. He went off into the bushes, and when he came back someone had wrung the bird’s neck. So the photo was taken just minutes before this poor little thing was killed. And then this very specimen was used as a model for a famous painting by J.G. Keulemans.
IDEAS: There’s also something quite powerful, on an emotional level, about these being photographs rather than illustrations.
FULLER: Some years ago, I wrote a book about extinct birds that used mostly paintings but also the odd photo. Some of the paintings were quite wonderful—by Audubon and Rembrandt—but I noticed that when people looked through the book, they’d always stop at the photographs. They’d start moving the book closer to their eyes, as if that would give them more information than they were getting. There’s something about a photograph that grabs people’s attention in a way that paintings don’t.
IDEAS: Why do you think that is?
FULLER: I’m not quite sure. I think it has something to do with the fact that, while people understand that these things are gone, a photograph proves that they were once here in a way a painting couldn’t. It makes them almost touchable.
IDEAS: There’s a tension between the gravity of the topic and the fact that many of these snapshots are so mundane.
FULLER: Yes, I think that’s one of the things that appeals to people maybe without them realizing it. In fact, very often, the poorer the quality of the photograph, the more interesting it is.
IDEAS: Since trawling the junk shops of London as a kid, you’ve also amassed quite a collection of taxidermy.
FULLER: I have several hundred specimens, some of them seriously rare. People think these things are in museums, but they’re not—they’re in people’s attics. I’ve got, for example, two stuffed passenger pigeons, 10 platypuses...
IDEAS: Ten? Isn’t that overkill?
FULLER: Maybe, but what happens is, every time I see a platypus for sale, it’s better than the ones I have.
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.