Reviews for Mr. Hornaday's War

This review was written for The Daily Progress, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hornaday’s paradoxical past obscures conservation innovations

David A. Maurer / Daily Progress staff writer
June 10, 2012

The sun-bleached bones of slaughtered bison dotted the prairie like white pips on giant, discarded dominos.

Only a murmuring wind moved across the vast graveyard of the uncounted. William Temple Hornaday stood silent, horrified by the immensity of the unholy affront to nature.

As he surveyed this particular killing-ground on the plains of the Montana Territory in the spring of 1886, he saw but a glimpse of a profound tragedy. Still, the sight was enough to transform him into one of the most ardent champions of wildlife in history.

Albemarle County author Stefan Bechtel tells the story of Hornaday’s remarkable life and achievements in his new book, “Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed The World.”

The book opens with a young Hornaday rushing unwittingly toward his epiphany of horror. He soon learns that this wasteful butchery had been done willfully and with the complete backing of the government.

“Nearly everybody knows that bison were hunted to near extinction,” Bechtel said during a recent interview. “But to go back and look at the particulars of that story is heartbreaking.

“According to the American Bison Society, there were once as many as 40 million bison ranging from Canada to Mexico and as far east as Virginia. When Hornaday saw this battlefield of skeletons, it shocked him to his core.”

Hornaday had been working as the chief taxidermist for the U.S. National Museum in Washington, later to become part of the Smithsonian Institution. When the museum discovered it had just a few bison bones and old hides in its collection, he was sent West to procure new specimens.

But the immeasurable herds of bison were gone. After surveying ranchers and soldiers, Hornaday estimated there were no more than 1,000 of the magnificent creatures left on Earth.

The young taxidermist found himself in a painful dilemma. He had to weigh the importance of preserving specimens of bison for posterity against the fact he would be helping to hurry their extinction.

“It was a grinding contradiction, because here you are hunting this endangered species,” Bechtel said. “Hornaday wrote very feelingly about it, but said in the long span of history he was doing the right thing by the bison.

“So he mounted a full-scale expedition, which became known as the last buffalo hunt. He went back that fall and they got 20 specimens.

“He mounted six bison that were then displayed in a group on the main floor at the Smithsonian. It was on view for 60 years and was seen by millions of people.”

Hornaday also wrote an angry book about the extermination of the American buffalo. He described in detail the particulars of the slaughter and what drove it.

Then he set out to save the species.

“This guy thought big,” Bechtel said of Hornaday. “He said, ‘We’ve got to start a zoo. We’ve got to start captive breeding,’ and they did. And the last thing was to start a political organization called the American Bison Society.

“Hornaday was the president, and under his leadership they started captive breeding programs and created ranges and reserves in the West. He is generally credited with saving the bison from extinction.”

Hornaday had found his calling. In 1913 he wrote a book titled “Our Vanishing Wildlife.”

The book was a clarion call that drew attention to the mindless decimation of wildlife via firearms and trapping. Hornaday’s critics accused him of wanting to end hunting, but that wasn’t his aim at all.

Hornaday loved to hunt, and had done so all around the globe. His point was that if limits weren’t put into place, there soon wouldn’t be anything left to hunt.

“People forget that at the beginning of the 20th century, you could go into a fancy restaurant in New York City and order a robin from the menu,” Bechtel said. “Restaurants would have cold storage areas filled with thousands of songbirds that were considered delicacies.

“Back then, they would hold what were called ‘side hunts.’ All the men and boys in a particular town would divide into two sides on a holiday weekend.

“They would assign points to all the birds and animals. They would then go out and shoot everything and anything that breathed, be it a chickadee or a badger, and at the end of a given time period, the side with the most points won.

“One of Hornaday’s greatest contributions was instilling a sense of moral responsibility and moral outrage at what was being done to the natural world. Just because it’s here doesn’t mean we have the right to destroy it.”

Bechtel said Hornaday worked tirelessly to bring about many pieces of legislation protecting wildlife. Some of his staunchest allies were hunting groups, which became instrumental in setting bag limits, introducing the notion of ethical hunting and establishing rules of fair chase.

Hornaday authored as many as 20 books on wildlife conservation and his own hunting adventures. He was the founder and first director of the National Zoo in Washington, and for 30 years he was the director of the New York Zoological Park – known to the world as the Bronx Zoo.

Despite all these accomplishments, Hornaday isn’t nearly as well known today as other great conservationists, such as John Muir.

“The book has been very well reviewed,” said Bechtel, whose recent books include “Tornado Hunter” and “Roar of the Heavens.”

“But Kirkus Reviews said, ‘While it’s a lively book it doesn’t add much new information for Hornaday fans.’ I’m going, ‘Hornaday fans? I’ve been living with this guy for two years and I haven’t found any.’

“Why he has been so forgotten is a good question. He was a difficult, quirky guy who made a lot of enemies.

“But possibly it was the Ota Benga incident [covered in detail in today’s Yesteryears column] that was so repellent that it helped to expunge him from the historic record.”

Bechtel dedicates a chapter of the book to the scandal, which erupted in 1906 when Hornaday displayed Benga – a black pygmy from the Congo – in a cage at the Bronx Zoo.

There was a huge uproar, and the exhibit was shut down after 18 days. Hornaday was mystified and, according to Bechtel, never understood why what he perceived as a scientific exhibition would be so offensive.

“Hornaday’s views of race were pretty reprehensible, but he wasn’t what they called in those days a scientific racist or a eugenicist,” Bechtel said. “But after the Ota Benga thing, there was this dark stain that may have been part of the reason he has been largely forgotten.

“But here you have an iconic conservationist who embodied the greatest virtues of the American character and the deepest flaws. It’s sort of like this other renowned guy who used to live around here – Thomas Jefferson.”

Contact David A. Maurer at