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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mr. Hornaday's War

Air Date: Week of

William Temple Hornaday was an early environmental crusader. Biographer Stefen Bechtel tells host Steve Curwood how the 19th century taxidermist and hunter transitioned into an outspoken defender of the natural world.


CURWOOD: John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt usually get much of the credit for launching the American conservation movement. But one important early champion has been largely forgotten - and that's William Temple Hornaday. It may be because he wasn’t all that likeable.

Some say William Hornaday could be a stubborn, difficult and callous man. But he did become one of America’s most important and unlikely environmental leaders. He established the National Zoo in Washington, was director of the Bronx Zoo in New York City, and almost singlehandedly saved the American Bison from extinction. Journalist Stefan Bechtel tells the story in a new book, “Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World.”

Welcome to Living on Earth, Stefan Bechtel.

BECHTEL: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So, William Temple Hornaday changed the world? How?

BECHTEL: Well, he was probably one of the first people to be an eco-activist, long before there was such a term. He was a lover of wild places and wild things who recognized the terribly dire straits that the natural world was in, in the late 19th century- long before anyone else did.

CURWOOD: But where did he come from?

BECHTEL: He was born on a farm in the Midwest. Everybody was born on a farm in those days. And became chief taxidermist at the U.S. National Museum, then he became a rifleman and specimen hunter for a place called Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which is sort of a Sears Roebuck catalog of natural history specimens for museums. He traveled the world to some of the world’s most remote places – Borneo, the Malay Peninsula… and began to realize, although he loved to hunt, that in places that were near human habitation, even in places as wild as Borneo, they were beginning to be shot out.

CURWOOD: What is it, Stefan Bechtel, that brought you to this story of William Temple Hornaday?

BECHTEL: I had written a couple of books for National Geographic and I was researching a book about the National Zoo, and I pretty quickly came across this fabulous, fascinating character who reminded me of my own grandfather. My granddad was also a 19th century man, born in 1889, was somebody who just came alive in the woods…loved to hunt.

And, one day, we happened to spot a big owl up in a tree, I think it was a great horned owl. And, he took a shot at it. I couldn't for the life of me understand why you would see something beautiful and then shoot it. Well, this is part of this 19th century attitudes toward the natural world that William Temple Hornaday had to contend with. People grew up closer to nature, but they also had this idea that varmints, hawks, owls, crows, snapping turtles, woodchucks should be killed. And, you know, going back and looking at this historical research it wasn’t so much dusty piles of paper; I remembered this. I had some avenue to understanding this.

CURWOOD: Here’s a guy who was a taxidermist – he stuffs animals – and then he goes out and shoots them for his collection. What is it that causes him to take this turn, to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to lose all of this if we keep killing them.’?

BECHTEL: It’s a great question and at the center of his life are all of these grinding contradictions. You know, he was a hunter, a rifleman, and the last half of his life, he become the noisiest and the most relentless conservationist in the country. And, kind of the turning point was this trip to the West in 1886 when he witnessed for the first time this fantastic massacre of buffalo that was taking place in the West. It was like the second Civil War out there…you know, as far as the eye could see, these buffalo carcasses.

Map of the extermination of the American Bison to 1889. Dark numbers indicate number of bison as of January 1st 1889 in remaining areas. Light numbers give date of local extermination. Adapted from a drawing of William Temple Hornaday in "Geographisches Handbuch zu Andrees Handatlas, vierte Auflage, Bielefeld und Leipzig, Velhagen und Klasing, 1902.”

And he conducted a census to see how many of these animals were remaining alive on the planet and came up with a number somewhere on the order of a thousand. When 20 years earlier there were thought to have been 15 million. So, he came back from the West and he was absolutely galvanized and wrote this angry book called “The Extermination of the American Bison,” started this organization called The American Bison Society with himself as president, and Teddy Roosevelt, who seems to have been everywhere, was the honorary president.

CURWOOD: And, back in those days, Teddy Roosevelt would have been what? An up-and-coming pol in New York City.

BECHTEL: He was, and they first met, actually, when Hornaday was preparing this six figure bison group for the National Museum and one day this pale young man just comes walking into the exhibit that was incomplete and off-limits to the public and this young man just immediately was very knowledgeable about the bison, wanted to know where he had been to get them, what weapons he’d used, and finally Hornaday said to him, ‘By the way, who are you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Theodore, Theodore Roosevelt.’ And Roosevelt was 28 years old at the time and had just run for office, run for the mayor of New York City and had been defeated. But they immediately had this bond and talked for an hour and I just think it was a meeting of kindred spirits. And these two men recognized that the natural world in the North American continent was in deadly peril, and that it was going to take a huge war and a fight to make any progress on it. And the two of them both devoted much of the rest of their lives to preserving what we have.

CURWOOD: And, oh, by the way, Teddy Roosevelt had issues about ethnic diversity, should we say?


CURWOOD: Famously in his book “The Winning of the West” he says it won’t be won until we’re rid of the red, yellow, black and brown man. To what extent did his buddy William Temple Hornaday share those views, do you think?

BECHTEL: Well, there was one unfortunate incident that stained William Temple Hornaday’s reputation for his life, and that was the display of a Congolese pygmy in a cage at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. And, I’ve been interested in writing this book and talking to people about it that almost nobody has heard of Hornaday, but a lot of people have heard about the black man in the cage at the Bronx Zoo.

Stefan Bechtel

CURWOOD: Indeed.

BECHTEL: And, long story short, there was a Congolese pygmy who had been brought to the United States for the 1904 World’s Fair and eventually wound up at the Bronx Zoo and Dr. Hornaday allowed him to kind of wander the grounds in kind of a bark loin cloth, and sometimes accompanied by this orangutan called Dohong, the presiding genius of the monkey house.

Then, step by step there was a cage that was open, and they hung a hammock in there and sometimes he slept there, and then one day the door was closed and there was the sign up- about Ota Benga, Congolese pygmy. He’s such and such a height and weight and captured in the Congo Free State. And so on and so forth. Huge, huge outcry and the exhibit was shut down in 18 days.

But Hornaday himself never apologized, never recognized how offensive this was and wrote at one time ‘when the history of the zoo is written, this will be considered one of it’s most amusing moments.’ This is a very imperfect man, but if you go back in our history, there’s plenty of our forefathers who were imperfect.

CURWOOD: Now, if we were to quickly line up a list of William Temple Hornaday’s accomplishments, what would they be?

BECHTEL: You’d have to say that he was probably the key person involved in saving the bison from extinction, that’s pretty good…


BECHTEL: He’s also often credited with saving the Alaskan fur seal from extinction. He was the director of the Bronx zoo for 30 years and built it into one of the great institutions in the world. He was the founder and first director of the National Zoo in Washington; author of about 20 books about wildlife conservation and his great adventures; and he was a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker of legislation about preserving wild things. And, you could say he really was the godfather of the endangered species act, which didn’t pass until 1973, but that whole movement really began with William Temple Hornaday’s horror at seeing what was happening in the West in 1886.

CURWOOD: Since he was so seminal to the conservation movement and everything, it’s a bit puzzling as to why he’s so little discussed. I mean, I’d never heard of the dude until I came across your book…

BECHTEL: I know. I know. That’s the most remarkable thing. It’s possible that the Ota Benga incident was repellent enough that that expunged him from history.

CURWOOD: Putting a pygmy in a cage for public display….

BECHTEL: You know, it’s pretty hard to get around that. But, also, it’s been argued by other historians of conservation that he made so many enemies, including among his friends, that when he passed along, the people that should have carried along his legacy declined to do so. Nevertheless, looking back at his life through the lens of all this time that has gone by, he was an enormous environmental hero, as you say.

CURWOOD: Stefan Bechtel’s book is entitled “Mr. Hornaday’s War: How A Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged A Lonely Crusade for Wildlife that Changed the World.” Thank you so much, Stefan.

BECHTEL: Thanks Steve.



Click here for the Radio Diaries story about a pygmy displayed in a zoo

Hornaday's War


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