In 1957, a curator at the Smithsonian was dismantling the museum’s exhibit of six taxidermy buffalo when he found a mysterious metal box buried in the fake prairie ground. Inside was a handwritten note, dated March 7, 1888.
The letter was written by William Temple Hornaday, who’d assembled the buffaloes while serving as Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist. Hornaday, born in 1854, was a peculiar and self-aggrandizing man. He’s usually remembered, if he’s remembered, as the first director of what would become known as the Bronx Zoo. But he spent his early career blossoming into something akin to America’s taxidermist laureate. Beginning as a teenager, Hornaday made many perilous trips around the world to hunt exotic animals to stuff. He claimed, during these adventures, to have survived a jaguar attack, wrestled a crocodile, captured an orangutan named Little Man (and given it as a present to Andrew Carnegie), and sailed past a manta ray so large he mistook it for a small, volcanic island. After shooting an elephant in India, he climbed atop the carcass and popped a Bass Ale.
Now, with the discovery of his hidden letter, Hornaday had effectively thrown his voice 70 years into the future, to brag a little more from the grave. “Dear Sir,” his note began. “Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The old bull, the young cow and the yearling calf were killed by yours truly.” Included was a copy of a magazine article Hornaday had written, describing his grueling expedition to Montana in 1886 to shoot these animals for the museum. He billed the trip “The Last Buffalo Hunt.”
Hornaday’s hunt came during a great spasm of buffalo obliteration in the American West. Actually, it came at the tail-end of that slaughter, and—for people who’d lived through it, like Hornaday—it was astonishing how quickly and recklessly the animals seemed to have been wiped out. Two decades earlier, it wasn’t uncommon for trains to have to stop for hours to let rivers of buffalo cross over the tracks. Now, the population had been decimated to the point that the death of a single animal was significant enough to be reported by the Associated Press. As one newspaper put it, it was a “rate of extermination that is almost incalculable and one of which the mind can have no just conception.” Hornaday estimated that there were maybe 300 wild buffalo left on the plains—and this is precisely why he was going to Montana to kill several dozen of them.
For those of us bathed in messages of conservation and environmentalism, who grew up carefully slicing our six-pack rings so that baby seals wouldn’t wind up with their necks stuck in them, Hornaday’s logic will seem ridiculously backward. But the contradiction didn’t trouble him. For Hornaday, this killing was conservation: His gift as a taxidermist, he said, was to make imperiled animals “comparatively immortal” so that generations of Americans could continue to experience them after they went extinct. (The scholar Gregory Dehler, author of a forthcoming biography, The Most Defiant Devil, has written that Hornaday would eventually blossom into “one of the greatest American conservationists” and also “probably killed more endangered animals world-wide than any other single person of his generation.”) Hornaday confessed that “the idea of killing a score or more of the last survivors of the bison millions was exceedingly unpleasant,” but somehow that discomfort seemed only to make his willingness to kill them, for posterity’s sake, more heroic. There were no good buffalo specimens at the museum, only a few shoddy hides. (In another fine biography of Hornaday, Stefan Bechtel describes them as “sad, neglected relics, like discarded overcoats whose owners would never return.”) In other words, the inconceivable was starting to seem possible, even likely: that a once overwhelming feature of the landscape—“our national animal,” as Hornaday called the buffalo—would be forgotten; an America without buffalo would, one day, feel normal.
Scientists have a term for the kind of collective memory loss Hornaday was combating. They have two terms, actually: In the mid-1990s, the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly dubbed it Shifting Baselines Syndrome and the psychologist Peter H. Kahn Jr. proposed the term Environmental Generational Amnesia. Though their specific descriptions differ, both scientists realized that we accept the version of nature we inherit as normal, and we measure any changes we see in our lifetime against that baseline. We watch forests get logged, species disappear. But when the next generation comes along, it merely accepts that depleted condition as their normal. Our vision is narrow and subjective; we are zoomed in on a small part of a line graph that is, in reality, much longer and plunging more steeply than we perceive. It’s hard to zoom out and internalize those changes stacking up across generations. Pauly proposed Shifting Baselines Syndrome in the context of the slow decline of global fish populations and noted how humanity has blindly transitioned to eating smaller and smaller species of fish as we’ve fished the larger ones into scarcity. When he first published papers about Shifting Baselines Syndrome, 20 years ago, he liked to joke to the press that kids might soon be enjoying jellyfish sandwiches, instead of tuna. But about 10 years ago, he started pointing out that there really is a commercial jellyfish fishing industry ramping up.