Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction

Image of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
Release Date: 
March 9, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
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“Humans have probably been extinguishing bird species for thousands of years,” writes Michelle Nijhuis in her absorbing history of species conservation, Beloved Beasts. Hunted for meat and for beauty, birds have suffered more extinctions than any other class of vertebrates.

In the late 19th century, she writes, an ornithologist walking around New York City noted that of the 700 ladies’ hats he observed, 542 were decorated with feathers from 40 bird species, including bluebirds and hummingbirds. At about the same time, the greater availability of inexpensive binoculars made birdwatching fashionable: “Enthusiasm for watching live birds soon began to compete with the enthusiasm for wearing dead ones.”

Many readers—birders included—may not be familiar with those facts, nor with the fact that a wealthy Bostonian, Harriet Hemenway, after reading about the commercial egret slaughter in Florida, led an 1896 boycott of feathered fashions and helped revive the nascent Audubon movement.

Writing with warmth and humor, science journalist Nijhuis offers innumerable stories of the men and women—birders, scientists, hunters, and others—who played seminal roles in the haphazard advancement of modern species conservation. Time and again, their fascination with threatened plant and animal species led them to join likeminded individuals in creating conservation organizations from the World Wildlife Fund to the Nature Conservancy.

Nijhuis, who writes for High Country News, focuses on the human side of conservation, giving us close-up views of diverse people—some well-known, others much less so, and many painfully shy, or suffering from illness or marital problems—who found consolation in colorful and showy creatures. Many were wealthy North American and Europeans who could afford to take controversial positions that went against prevailing attitudes.

There was William Hornaday, champion of the bison, founder of zoos, and member of the racially anxious triumvirate that led the New York Zoological Society (the others were noted conservationist, bon vivant, hunter, and racist Madison Grant [The Passing for the Great Race] and Henry Fairfield Osborn, an arrogant paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History).

There was the tireless Rosalie Edge, traveler, suffragette, and life member (and thorn in the side) of the National Association of Audubon Societies. One zoologist called her “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.”

And there were those whose names continue to ring out: the “almost dangerously eloquent” Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), the forester who gave new meaning to “wilderness”; and Julian Huxley, the man behind the creation in 1948 of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose ongoing Red List of more than 100,000 species of animals and plants still guides the work of many conservation groups.

Along the way, we learn that most of the early international conservation efforts “were extensions of colonial power, enacted to protect economic interests overseas.” Also, that conservation has early roots in “elite hunting circles,” an influence present to this day. No less an authority than Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring helped launch the environmental movement, once dismissed Aldo Leopold and “other men who smugly assume that the end of conservation is to provide fodder for their guns.”

Nijhuis’s book tells conservation’s story though the modern era, including the emergence of conservation biology, the work of E. O. Wilson on biodiversity, and the roles of sustainable development and community-based conservation in efforts to balance the needs of people and nature.

Even the language of conservation can be seen evolving in these pages. A zoologist coined the word “ecology” in 1866. It was not until 1935 that we had a word—“ecosystem”—to describe an assemblage of interacting species and their physical surroundings. Now we have “ecosystem services” that help ensure the quality of air and water, among other benefits to people.

Without doubt, men and women have treated nature badly. “People are still killing too many animals and destroying too much habitat,” writes the author. By one estimate, one million species face possible extinction within decades, including a quarter of all plant and animal species. In Beloved Beasts, Nijhuis gives us the remarkable stories of humans who have made a difference for other species.