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.

William Temple Hornaday (center), Taxidermist and Zoo Keeper, Andrew Forney, and another unidentified man, working in the taxidermists' laboratory located in a shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building.
William Temple Hornaday working in a taxidermists' laboratory located in a shed behind the Smithsonian Institution Building.

Photo by Smithsonian Institution Archives

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.

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.”

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.