How America’s Greatest Taxidermist Helped Save the Buffalo From Extinction

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May 7 2013 1:00 PM

The Last Buffalo Hunt

How America’s greatest taxidermist helped save the bison from extinction.

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This amnesia helps explain a phenomenon I stumbled on, again and again, while researching an upcoming book: namely, why some members of every generation have seemed to feel like theirs is the one that’s truly watching the world go to shit. (Here is a prominent butterfly collector’s description of San Francisco in 1928: “rendered sterile and worthless ... destroyed, defiled, eradicated.”) The truth is that, no matter what manner of damage is being done during one’s lifetime, or the relative magnitude of that destruction, we are always the ones cursed with watching Earth’s “normal” condition—what we presume to be nature itself—unravel and warp; that burden is ours exclusively, just like it was for the generation before us and will be for the one after us, too, because each generation operates with its own definition of “normal.” But, in reality, our pristine patch of woods is only a scrap of someone else’s more ancient, boundless wilderness. Our charming neighborhood pub is their unbearable, gentrifying Tuttimelon. In other words, Shifting Baselines Syndrome doesn’t just mean that we start our lives unaware of the damage that came before us, but that we end them burdened with having seen so much damage done. The clean slate we inherit gets mucked up all over again, right before our eyes.

Hornaday’s experience was no exception. By the end of his life, something inside him would curdle, and it would become hard for him to control his dread. (Introducing a mostly whimsical book about animal intelligence in 1922, he recommended America read it now, “before the bravest and the best of the wild creatures of the earth go down and out under the merciless and inexorable steam roller that we call Civilization.”) But long before that, after returning from the Last Buffalo Hunt with his trophies, he would spend decades not just resisting that jadedness, but charging ahead in exactly the opposite direction. Hornaday came to believe more of the world he inherited could be saved, not less. He quickly transformed himself from taxidermist—a somber craftsman building memorials to vanishing species—to one of America’s first modern conservationists, working to preserve those animals, alive, in the wild, and even to rebuild their decimated populations. He became an activist, a best-selling author of a new genre of environmental screed, and an intractable lobbyist, helping to pass landmark environmental laws like the Migratory Bird Act. In 1905, he founded the American Bison Society with his friend Theodore Roosevelt, rounding up surviving buffalo, breeding them in New York, then shipping them to preserves to slowly repopulate the plains. Describing him loading the first batch of animals onto railcars, the New York Times wrote that Hornaday “deserves the gratitude of the Nation.”

What’s remarkable though is that, sitting down to write his letter to his “illustrious successor” at the Smithsonian, in 1888, the 34-year-old Horanday could not imagine any of this progress—not his own evolution as a conservationist or the invention of modern wildlife conservation that he would help bring about. The only progress he could imagine, in fact, was increasingly talented taxidermists—more of the same, in other words, but better. It’s the one moment in his letter when Hornaday sounds humbled, apologetic even. Describing the specimens in his esteemed buffalo exhibit, he tells the future curator: “Of course, they are crude productions in comparison with what you produce, but you must remember that at this time (A.D. 1888, March 7) the American School of Taxidermy has only just been recognized.” And he asks to be judged mercifully: “Give the devil his due.”

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Of course, it’s funny now to think of taxidermy as tool for conservation; it feels like a meek and unambitious way to fight back against extinction. For the most part, taxidermy has been mostly forgotten even as an art form—it mostly survives in roadside hunting depots and kitschy hipster curiosity shops. The grand bison exhibit that young Hornaday imagined as his legacy—a monument, like the ones built on battlefields, to a grave American loss—is mostly forgotten too. When the Smithsonian curator found Hornaday’s letter in 1957, in fact, it was while dismantling the buffalo group so it could be moved to the museum’s basement. The following year, the exhibit was shipped to the University of Montana, where the herd was eventually divided and the six individual animals scattered and gradually lost track of. Eventually, the buffalo were tracked down and reassembled. Today, Hornaday’s masterpiece is on display at an obscure agricultural museum in Fort Benton, Mont.   

In a way, his letter evokes more now than his taxidermy does. Hornaday’s small moment of self-consciousness, as he tries to save face in front of the taxidermists of the future, is a powerful measure of the passage of time. He’s like a Victorian businessman who’s come hurtling out of the past—into Apple headquarters, say—and begins apologizing, sheepishly, for a sticky key on his typewriter. The dramatic irony of that apology may be proof of a strangely comforting corollary to the problem of Shifting Baselines Syndrome. Yes, our constantly recalibrating sense of normal obscures the past, keeping us from recognizing the enormity of our problems. But it also obscures the future, hemming in our sense of what’s possible, of how we might evolve to actually solve those problems. It takes a special sort of imagination to see around that blind curve up ahead—not just what’s in the middle of the road, but all the promising, untraveled paths beyond the shoulder.

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to New York Times Magazine. His first book comes out next week. It’s called Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Follow him on Twitter.

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