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William T Hornaday, The bird tragedy of Laysan Island (Review)

May 4, 2017

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), whose article “The bird tragedy of Laysan Island” was a recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, is a tricky man to write about. Originally a taxidermist, he became one of the pioneers of the wildlife conservation movement in America after he realised, around the 1880s, the dire situation regarding the country’s bison population. In this LOA article,  published in 1913, he chronicles the bird massacre on Laysan Island and the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt in helping to end the plumage trade. But he wasn’t without controversy, of which I’ll write more a little further on.

Laysan Island

Laysan Island. By Robert J. Shallenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.doi.gov/photos/06152006_photos.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“The bird tragedy” is a powerful piece which starts by describing the island as “sandy, poorly planted by nature, and barren of all things likely to enlist the attention of predatory man” but as the home of many varieties of birds, including the “Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, sooty tern, gray-backed tern, noddy tern, Hawaiian tern, white tern, Bonin petrel, two shearwaters, the red-tailed tropic bird, two boobies and the man-of-war bird.” It was a “secure haven” for them, and, since 1891, had been viewed as “one of the wonders of the bird world”.

But, along came “man, the ever-greedy” looking for ways to make money, first via guano and egg collecting, then feathers for the plumage trade. The culprit was Max Schlemmer, who also introduced rabbits and guinea-pigs which multiplied and started to destroy the vegetation. Hornaday describes the horrendous massacre in 1909 of 300,000 birds for their wings. According to LOA, Hornaday is somewhat wrong in ascribing the massacre to Schlemmer. The say a biography of Schlemmer argues that he was ‘”cash-strapped” and sold the rights to the island to a Japanese entrepreneur. Whatever the situation, the destruction of the birdlife was massive in number and horrific in cruelty. Fortunately, it was stopped before complete destruction by a Zoology Professor who called the Government who in turn sent in the Navy – as you do!

Hornaday’s language makes clear his disapprobation of what happened and of the people who carried it out. His description of the massacre is horrifying, some of it quoted from a report by a 1911 scientific expedition to the island. This report notes that their “first impression” was that the island had been stripped of its birdlife:

Only the shearwaters moaning in their burrows, the little wingless rail skulking from one grass tussock to another, and the saucy finch remained. It is an excellent example of what Prof. Nutting calls the survival of the inconspicuous.

Hornaday says that if the Government had not intervened

it is reasonably certain that every bird on Laysan would have been killed to satisfy the wolfish rapacity of one money-grubbing white man.

Fortunately – albeit a little after the horse had bolted – Roosevelt, in 1909, created “the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds” which includes Laysan and which, Hornaday writes, will ensure that

for the future the birds of Laysan and neighboring islets are secure from further attacks by the bloody-handed agents of the vain women who still insist upon wearing the wings and feathers of wild birds.

However, as Bill McKibben, the environmentalist whose memoir Oil and honey I’ve reviewed, writes in the headnote to the article, Hornaday had his own controversy. He became, in the late 1890s, the head of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo), but, as McKibben writes,

a rough sense of the reasons why the social justice and environmental movements have often parted ways may be garnered from the fact that he saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a live African pygmy, named Ota Benga, in the zoo’s monkey house, later remarking that it was the “most amusing passage” in the institution’s history. His 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life … has a strongly nativist edge: immigrants and negroes are singled out as villains for their hunting of indigenous fauna.

According to Wikipedia, he was criticised, including by African-American clergymen James Gordon, who said that “Our race … is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” With the controversy, Benga was released to roam the zoo, even though Hornaday did not see anything wrong with what he’d done. Benga was later released to Gordon’s custody, but eventually committed suicide at the age of 33 when the start of World War 1 prevented his return to Africa.

Another wonderful LOA offering in a genre I always enjoy reading – nature or environmental writing.

William T Hornaday
“The bird tragedy of Laysan Island”
First published: Our vanishing wild life, 1913
Available: Online at the Library of America

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2017 7:03 am

    Within the lifetime of my grandparents, a man was being exhibited as an ape, in a zoo, in the capital of the Western World. What hope is there for us?!

    • May 5, 2017 8:05 am

      Yes, Bill, I hadn’t thought of it that way, ie being within the lifetime of our grandparents. After reading The hate race, I fear there’s not much hope.

  2. Meg permalink
    May 5, 2017 8:20 am

    A story I did not enjoy reading. It is good to know that there are good people working to protect wildlife. Unfortunately poaching and hunting continues, and threatens to wipe some of the most vulnerable species of the face of the earth.

    • May 5, 2017 8:26 am

      No it was an unpleasant read wasn’t it Meg. Horrible to be reminded of such cruelty.

  3. May 5, 2017 8:40 am

    I know these stories are important but boy, I hate to hear them. Man will just never learn. I don’t think there is much one can do about the greedy at any cost but I do feel things are changing but it just takes so much more time.

    • May 5, 2017 10:07 am

      Things are changing I agree, but you can see why it takes longer in poorer countries, can’t you? In a sense developed countries became more focused on conservation and animal welfare as life became more secure? No excuse but understandable.

  4. May 11, 2017 6:11 am

    I think I will not read this one. I was too upset just by reading your review of it! It breaks my heart the things humans have done and still do.

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