Review: ’Mr. Hornaday’s War’

An early conservationist’s unusual approach to saving embattled wildlife.

Personal salvation through taxidermy—this was the bizarre philosophy that carried a God-fearing, gun-toting midwestern farm boy named William Temple Hornaday into the most colorful career in American conservation history. Shoot, stuff, and exhibit the mortal remains of slaughtered game for the public’s admiration and education. Those educated admirers might help save what’s left of our wildlife heritage.

“His shame at the deaths of birds and animals that died in his hands was tinged with the soul-sickness of sin,” writes Stefan Bechtel in Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World. “When he discovered that taxidermy existed, it was as if a light went on: Here was a way of ‘resurrecting’ dead birds and animals, bringing them back to life as Christ had been brought back to life. . . The inner shame and torment he felt about hunting could be channeled into a noble purpose.”

Bechtel’s subtitle exaggerates his subject’s impact on global sentiment, which still leaves wildlife in jeopardy. His book, however, spies out the many contradictions in his main character. Hornaday’s later passion for preservation combined with a notable lack of concern for the feelings of those who did not agree with him brought widespread fame as well as hostility from politicians, bureaucrats, other hunters, and even conservationists (who thought his protests extreme). The war of extermination carried on against birds and mammals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries fueled his fury in books, articles, and a flood of vituperative pamphlets. Exclamation points flew like bullets from his pen.

“In America,” Hornaday thundered in the early 1900s, “the national spirit may truly be expressed in the cry of the crazed Malay: Amok! Amok! Kill! Kill!”

But before the confrontations came slaughter, and taxidermy. Having seen his first mounted duck in an Indiana gun shop around 1870, the young Hornaday was hooked. Cocky and brash, he talked his way into a job at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, where he learned the art of mounting and preserving dead animals, then went a step further. He persuaded the proprietor to finance his expeditions to collect the rare animals to be mounted.

Hornaday shot the first crocodile recorded in Florida. In India, spotting the first tiger he had ever seen, he approached it armed only with a small rifle designed to subdue deer. “Great Caesar!” he reported that he exclaimed (and probably did). “He’s as big as an ox!” In as melodramatic a description of the kill as would be found in any penny dreadful of the time, Bechtel mimics Hornaday’s own prose style to re-create the titanic clash of man and beast. The victor ultimately knelt beside the man-killer he had shot, lifting “the huge, heavy paws . . . which, minutes earlier, could have disemboweled him in an instant.”

Fascinated by reports of the existence of rare “ape-men” called orangutans in Borneo, Hornaday (still in his early twenties) plunged into the jungle to claim some for the taxidermy shop. “I shall not leave here with less than 25 good orangs,” he wrote to his employer, “and I expect to have even more than that. Senior Piccari got 24, and have I not vowed to snow every naturalist completely under?” He ended up with 43 orangutans—shot, skinned, and suitably resurrected.

Yet back home, the news of a different slaughter horrified him. High government officials were determined to clear the West of pesky Indian tribes by wiping out the buffalo on which their economy and cultures depended. (“Shoot a buffalo and starve an Indian,” was how an old Civil War hero, General Phil Sheridan, put it.) Summoned to Washington to create exhibitions of mounted animals for the U.S. National Museum (which later became the Smithsonian), Hornaday discovered there were precious few buffalo specimens left to stuff and mount.

Accordingly, he set off late in 1886 for the Montana Territory, where he and his party picked off the few local survivors. Experts later enthusiastically described the habitat group of six buffalo Hornaday mounted for the museum as “a triumph of the taxidermist’s art.” More important, he put in motion plans for a national zoo in Washington, where he suggested an area be set aside for a small group of living buffalo. His ideas on sanctuaries and captive breeding stimulated the national campaign to save the species from extinction.

In 1896 the new Bronx Zoo named Hornaday its director. Bechtel provides an enlightening chapter on the one blot on his service there—his decision to display an African pygmy named Ota Benga in a cage alongside an orangutan. While thousands flocked to the exhibit, an outcry from wiser heads (aghast at the sight of a human put on exhibition in a cage) persuaded the puzzled zookeeper to end the experiment after 18 days. Hornaday explained away the cage as simply an attempt to protect the wretched Benga from the public.

By then a passion drove him to save the remnants of American wildlife. He threw himself strenuously into writing and lobbying for conservation, while excoriating foot-draggers in high places. He worked with Theodore Roosevelt and Audubon groups to preserve herons and egrets; mounted a campaign to save Alaskan fur seals; and spent years battling hunting clubs and gun makers to tighten the permissive regulations on waterfowl shooting.

Hornaday’s blemishes were mostly a reflection of his violent time, his undoubted virtues the product of a conflicted but unique man.

Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World

By Stephan Bechtel

Beacon Press, 254 pages, $26.95

This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "'Amok! Amok! Kill! Kill!'"