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Authors: Stefan Bechtel

Mr. Hornaday's War

BOOK: Mr. Hornaday's War
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Mr. Hornaday's War

How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper

Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife

That Changed the World

Stefan Bechtel




For my grandfather,

Earl S. Krom,

who taught me to love the woods.






The Awakening

1   His Name Was Dauntless

2   A Melancholy Insanity

3   The Second Civil War

4   Souvenir of a Lost World

5   The Last Buffalo Hunt

6   A Mysterious Stranger

7   “A Nobility Beyond All Compare”


The Heedless Hunter

8   Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa

9   Yearning, Too Much, for Fame

10 The Empress Josephine

11 Man-Eaters of the Animallai Hills

12 Darwin's Firestorm

13 “A Thief in the Night”

14 A Dream Deferred

15 Scandal at the Zoo


Wildlife Warrior

16 The Dark Shadow

17 Empire of the Buffalo

18 Our Vanishing Wildlife

19 Two Hundred Years of War








This is a work of nonfiction. So far as possible, all assertions of fact in this book are supported by original source material, including William Temple Hornaday's private letters and papers, books (both published and unpublished), news clippings, and official documents. Dialogue that appears in direct quotations is taken from an account of the conversation by someone who was present (usually Hornaday). Dialogue that appears in italics is a reasonable reconstruction of conversations whose substance was described by someone who was there (for instance, Hornaday's description of his first meeting with Theodore Roosevelt). All errors of fact or inference, of course, are mine.

A Life in Brief

   Born on a farm near Plainfield, Indiana.

   Attends Okaloosa College and the Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State).

   Hired by Ward's Natural Science Establishment of Rochester, New York.

   First collecting expedition to Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. First zoo in the United States opens in Philadelphia.

   Meets Josephine Chamberlain at a dinner party. Collecting expedition to the Orinoco River delta, Venezuela.

   Two-year collecting expedition to India, Ceylon, Malaya, and Borneo.

   Marries Josephine in Battle Creek, Michigan. The marriage lasts fifty-eight years, until his death.

   Appointed chief taxidermist at the U.S. National Museum (the Smithsonian).

Two Years in the Jungle

The Last Buffalo Hunt

   Becomes founder and first director of the National Museum in Washington. Publication of
The Extermination of the American Bison.

   Serves as director of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo).

   Lacey Law, the first federal law protecting wild birds, game, and plants from illegal trafficking, passed; repeatedly amended, it remains in effect today.

   Ota Benga incident at the Bronx Zoo.

   Serves as president of the American Bison Society.

   First bison sent to Wichita National Forest and Game Reserve, in Oklahoma. By 1919, Hornaday and the American Bison Society have established nine herds across the West.

   Hay-Elliot Fur Seal Treaty, which saves the Alaskan fur seal from extinction.

   Hornaday creates the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund, which he uses to finance his “crusade for wildlife” until his death. Publication of
Our Vanishing Wild Life.

   Dies in Stamford, Connecticut, at age eighty-two.

The Fear

Long after the early dark had fallen on the evening of December 1, 1934, an old man with a neatly trimmed gray beard and fierce, slightly accusatory eyes sat down in the library of the rambling, comfortable home he called “The Anchorage,” in Stamford, Connecticut, rolled a sheet of blank paper into a typewriter, and began to write the story of his life.

It was his eightieth birthday. Earlier in the day, there had been a small celebration attended by a few of his colleagues from the wars and, of course, by his sweet and long-suffering wife, Josephine, the one he liked to call “the Empress Josephine” because of her grand, highborn manner and discerning intelligence, and because, quite simply, he adored her. She'd been by his side for nearly six decades, since a long-ago dinner party in Battle Creek, Michigan, when both of them had been twenty-one. She'd been a comely young schoolteacher wearing her best black silk dress; he, a naturalist and adventurer preparing to depart on a collecting expedition into the dark and fateful Orinoco River delta in Venezuela. Hoping to win her sympathy, he'd regaled her with the dangers that he would soon face on the Orinoco, with its flesh-eating fish, giant electric eels, and forty-foot snakes. He'd gazed directly into her eyes. He'd reached out and lightly touched her arm. In the corseted Victorian age, his boldness and presumption, verging on rudeness, was shocking. At one point, he'd even corrected her grammar. She had been taken aback, but when he pressed for her address, so he might perhaps write to her from some lonely outpost on
the dark river, she'd relented. That was his manner: blunt, aggressive, acquisitive. If he saw something or someone he liked, he just put his head down and went for it, like a country boy tackling a calf. Life was short, and those who hesitated lost.

His audacity, as well as his boundless love of the natural world, eventually carried him to some of the remotest places on the planet. He'd been one of the first white men to penetrate the interior of Borneo, voyaged up the Malay Archipelago not long after the young naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had been so astounded by the profusion of life there that it had led to the theory of evolution he cofounded with Darwin, and hunted big game on the Indian subcontinent, the Amazon basin, Trinidad, the Everglades, the Canadian Rockies, and the Montana Territory. In the Everglades, he'd tried to grab an immense alligator by the tail. He'd stalked man-eating tigers on foot, nearly drowned, starved, perished of tropical fever, or otherwise died on multiple occasions, and told people he'd always felt more at home in a remote hunting camp than in any of the finest salons of New York.

Pugnacious, intrepid, and blessed with amazing physicial stamina, he had survived all manner of escapades and adventures, but now—and he found this difficult to admit—his long life had begun to catch up with him at last. Both his feet were crippled by a mysterious form of neuritis, which his doctors were struggling to overcome but which left him virtually unable to get around except with a walker. Now the old adventurer and naturalist spent a good deal of time in bed or in his chair, with a blanket over his lap. The pain was continuous, like a grinding noise.

“Tonight as I sit in the glow of my library fire,”
William Temple Hornaday began, “with a perfectly clear mind, and a memory for these events almost as good as new, I see the main features of the past years more sharply than contours of terrain are seen from an airplane.” From these heights, his life looked like a Civil War battlefield, with smoking battlements, the clash of advancing infantry lines, strategic retreats, desperate regrouping, and dauntless charges against impossible odds.

Glaring down the corridors of history at his many critics, living, dead, and yet unborn, Hornaday spat in their eyes: “I now give notice that in writing the stories of my own campaigns I am perfectly indifferent to all the scoffs and charges of ‘egotism' that my enemies can
or will make. I do not propose to write misshapen history under any handicaps of false modesty.”

Yet, at the same time, with this declaration of war against his detractors and implied promise of ruthless truth-telling, there was one enormous thing in particular that he would fail to mention at all. The document that he was now writing, which would grow into a full-blown, three-hundred-page autobiography called
Eighty Fascinating Years
(and would never be published), would not breathe a word about it. The archive of his papers at the Library of Congress alone, one of several such historical data banks, would run to 39,000 items but with no more than a single sentence referring to it. Squarely at the center of the life of a man who could rightly be considered one of the greatest environmental heroes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a crime against humanity, yet he did not address the charges against him either in his public or his private writings. The man who would later be credited with saving at least two species—the American bison and the Alaskan fur seal—from extinction, a man whose greatest contribution to the environmental battles of the twenty-first century would be a sense of
moral responsibility
moral outrage
concerning the natural world, this man would be the central player in one of the most morally repellent incidents of his day. Yet nowhere in the voluminous written record of his life did he directly address the incident for which he would still be remembered seventy-five years after his death. (In fact, he would no doubt be aghast to learn, it would be almost the
thing he would be remembered for, if he were remembered at all.) He was the man who, in 1906, displayed a human being—a black pygmy from the Congo—in a cage at the Bronx Zoo.

Instead, Hornaday preferred to view his life as a war, with himself in the thick of the fight. “With the exception of the period from 1890 to 1896”
—when he'd made an ill-fated attempt to leave the battle behind and become a businessman—“I have been continuously on this wild-life job. The total period of my really MILITANT activity in this field is now (at the close of 1934) about 40 years.” The past four decades of his life had been one of more-or-less continuous war—what he called his “war for wildlife,” which to his mind was undoubtedly the greatest and most important armed conflict in human history. The Civil War had quite literally ripped the nation asunder, but at least it eventually came to an end; but the slaughter of birds and
wildlife, if they were driven to the desolate terminus of extinction, would leave a wound that would last forever.

BOOK: Mr. Hornaday's War
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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