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Passionate advocates have helped humanity rethink its relationship with Earth’s other species

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction

Michelle Nijhuis
Norton
2020
352 pp.
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By 1963, the number of bald eagles—long a symbol of American exceptionalism—had dwindled to a staggering low of 417 known nesting pairs in the contiguous United States, having been decimated by a combination of habitat destruction, DDT poisoning, and illegal hunting. With the passage and enforcement of sturdy conservation laws, however, the species has steadily recovered. There are currently around 10,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states and more than 100,000 individual birds, making the bald eagle one of a number of profoundly satisfying success stories of the modern conservation movement.

The quest to save endangered species has been a journey of gains and losses, with many wrong turns and dead ends. Michelle Nijhuis’s Beloved Beasts is a definitive and informative history of this journey, from its conflicted and noisy beginning at the dawn of the 20th century to the present day. A writer for National Geographic and editor for The Atlantic, Nijhuis deftly reminds readers of some of humanity’s greatest conservation achievements and disappointments. Along the way, we meet towering figures in the conservation movement, including the militant socialite conservationist Rosalie Edge and the father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold. We are also reminded of the determination of individuals such as Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, one of the better angels of
our nature.

In some respects, the title of the book is misleading: This is more of a human story than a tale about animals. Humans, after all, are the reason the dodo disappeared from Mauritius in the space of a few short and bloody decades (the last one was killed in 1662). The bird was joined in extinction by the great auk (1852); the Falkland Islands wolf (1876); the passenger pigeon (1914); the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (1936); and an unknown number of unnamed species that disappeared before we even got around to cataloging them. Since the 1500s, Nijhuis writes, humans have driven more than 150 bird species alone to extinction.

Nijhuis’s detailed account is clear-eyed and unvarnished in its honesty. She readily acknowledges that many of the early figures of the conservation movement were deeply flawed. William Temple Hornaday, for example, almost single-handedly repopulated the North American Plains with bison, which had dwindled from 20 million to 30 million in the 1700s to an estimated 300 in 1886, when Hornaday headed out west to shoot some for a museum diorama. In 1907, Hornaday, who was the director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, transported zoo-bred bison by rail to Oklahoma and released them into a bison preserve that he had pressured Congress to designate. However, his motivation for protecting the bison population did not come from a desire to protect the animals for their own sake. Hornaday wanted to rescue the bison so that hunters could continue shooting them for sport. And while he imagined vast herds of bison re-darkening the plains, his dreams did not include the Comanche, the Blackfoot, the Lakota, or any of the other Indigenous people whose way of life depended on the bison.

To this day, Nijhuis writes, the conservation movement has maintained its awkward ties with hunters. In Africa, for example, dwindling populations of lions, giraffes, and elephants are protected using funds raised via trophy hunting auctions. If the contemporary conservationists Nijhuis interviews in Beloved Beasts have any say in it, this too will eventually change.

As Nijhuis reminds readers, the late 19th century marked the dawn of a new way of thinking, and ecology was a new concept—the word having only just been minted in 1866 by zoologist Ernst Haeckel. Before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 (and afterward too), many people thought that God had made each species for humanity’s convenience. Nevertheless, the conservation movement grew, as important ideas tend to do, one organization at a time: from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, established in 1889, to the Sierra Club (1892), the Wildlife Conservation Society (1895), the National Audubon Society (1905), and Birdlife International (1922).

The effects of the Anthropocene will remain for millennia in the form of species extinctions, habitat destruction, and the uncountable fragments of plastic floating in our oceans. But the moral evolution that
Nijhuis recounts in Beloved Beasts is part of our legacy as well—one worth documenting and worth celebrating

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, 2017).