Mr. Hornaday's War:
How A Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged A Lonely ‘War For Wildlife’ That Changed the World
How do you write about a man who was arguably one of the greatest conservationists of his day, who probably saved the bison from extinction… and who also exhibited an African man in a cage at the Bronx Zoo in 1906?
I have spent much of the last two years wrestling with the contradictions of this man’s loud, large, improbable life. (His name, by the way, was William Temple Hornaday — and I’ll bet you’ve never heard of him.) My new book, due out in 2012 from Beacon Press, is called “Mr. Hornaday’s War: How A Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged A Lonely ‘War For Wildlife’ That Changed the World.”
I’ve rummanged through the great written archive of Hornaday’s life– the repository of his papers at the Library of Congress runs to 39,000items — yet I must say I’m still not quite sure what to make of him. Though I have struggled to restore the breath to this once-famous, now-forgotten man, like some restless spook he has come to haunt me in ways I did not expect and cannot quite control.
There are things about Hornaday that I truly love. I love his preposterous, almost laughable boldness, when, as a sixteen-year-old prospecting for a job, he writes the editor of a country newspaper: “What can you do for me?” I love him when, in his early twenties, he embarks on a three-year specimen collecting expedition to Malaysia and Borneo and in a remote jungle camp in India, scribbles in his diary: “This is the jolliest life that ever was lived.” I love his fearlessness in the face of impossible odds, and his nobility of purpose when he is fighting for the wild things and wild places.
In fact, his very public adult life was essentially forty years of war, fighting the gun manufacturers, “market hunters,” poachers, scandalously lax game protection laws and the vast apathy of the American public, all in the service of the American bison, the Alaskan fur seal, the bird-of-paradise, the heath hen and the whole phantasmagoria of nonhuman life on the planet. Long before almost anyone in the world saw it coming, Hornaday prophecied the great waves of extinction that would soon sweep over the planet, and sought to raise the alarm before it was too late.
And yet, in the infamous case of Ota Benga, the Congolese pygmy who was displayed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday (the zoo’s long-time director) comes across as almost incomprehensively insensitive. A white adventurer “purchased” Ota Benga from his captors in Africa for a bolt of cloth and a sack of salt and later brought him to America to be displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. It says perhaps too much about those times that the display was part of an exhibit called “The University of Man,” meant to demonstrate the supposed ascent up the ladder of development of all the races, from the lowly forest pygmies of Africa, to the Eskimos, the American Indians and lastly the “dominant” whites.
After the St. Louis Fair, Ota was taken to the Bronx Zoo, where Hornaday “hired” him and where, a few months later, he wound up on display in a cage with an orangutang. Forty thousand people a day came to see this “missing link” between humans and apes, but the black preachers of New York raised such an outcry that the exhibit was shut down after eighteen days. Yet Hornaday never apologized, and never seemed to understand why the exhibit was so offensive. To him, Ota was simply a willing participant in an educational “ethnographic exhibit” about the evolution of man. Despite all his many virtues, Hornaday was unable to see his own blindness.
Opening the pages of this century-old American story, I sometimes had the feeling I was lifting the lid of an ancient box; unfamiliar and sometimes unpleasant odors wafted up to my nostrils, the stinks of a long-forgotten life. I could smell the mud and bruised jungle grass of Borneo; the smell of oiled leather, dung, guns and ammunition from a Montana buffalo hunt; the smell of heavy Victorian hunting clothes, darkened with sweat and blood; and the faint musty aroma of something else, something deeply buried and decaying, something that might turn out to be truly frightening.
When “Mr. Hornaday’s War” comes out in 2012, I hope you’ll pick up a copy and give it a read, and also let me know what you think. My tenth book, this has been as inspiring and disturbing a project as any I have ever undertaken. But if the life of William Temple Hornaday was an unsettling mixture of the noble and the ignoble, the high-minded and the nakedly racist, well, so is the rest of American history. At the same time, Hornaday’s fierce and far-sighted battles in service of the natural world, at a time when he was often nearly alone on the battlements, are a thrilling inspiration to a new generation of nature-lovers.