William Temple Hornaday may have been a small man, but there was nothing diminutive about the naturalist’s ego, bravery, energy or ambition. Born a few years before the U.S. Civil War, the tenacious naturalist accomplished so much in his 82 years that Bechtel’s biography of him reads like larger-than-life fiction. Yet few will recognize Hornaday’s name.
He was almost solely responsible for bringing the American buffalo back from the brink of extinction and played a crucial role in saving Alaskan fur seals from a similar fate.
Beginning his career as a taxidermist, Hornaday would become a father of the American wildlife conservation movement. He not only developed plans for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but also collected its initial specimens and cared for them on the National Mall. Shortly afterward, he was ousted as zoo director — only to be recruited to design and run the Bronx Zoo.
Hornaday proved especially indefatigable in a nearly six-decade-long war against the plunder of wildlife, instigating legal protections for many animals and pioneering captive breeding for endangered species. The irony: He was a crack shot who throughout his 20s traveled the world killing and collecting animals — albeit in the name of science.
Bechtel doesn’t present Hornaday as a saint. But a full accounting of this complex man probably deserves a little deeper probing into events that seem to dirty Hornaday’s otherwise fairly white hat — like his inability to understand the hullabaloo over his short-term display of a homeless pygmy in his zoo’s monkey house.
Beacon Press, 2012, 288 p., $27.95