Thursday, October 8, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist

The 26th American president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a lifelong regard for nature. He is remembered for his efforts to conserve wilderness areas, yet he also killed thousands of animals on safari in Africa. It occurred to me when I was watching the PBS series "The Natural Parks" - and especially after seeing the photograph (top) depicting Roosevelt with the elephant he had just killed - that I would attempt to reconcile these two seemingly opposing mindsets.
He is shown (bottom) as a young man with one of his pets, a blue macaw. When they lived in the White House, his own children kept cats, dogs, guinea pigs, birds, snakes, a pony, a badger, a bear, a hyena, and a wildcat. Roosevelt showed off some of his hunting trophies in the study (center) of Sagamore Hill, the home he built in 1885 in Oyster Bay, New York, but his collecting had begun much earlier. The first accession of the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History" (established by him and his cousins) was a seal skull given to him at the age of 8. He added specimens collected by friends and family, and eventually donated some of these to the American Museum of Natural History, which had been co-founded by his father. By age 14, he was using a shotgun to collect specimens and - having become a skilled taxidermist - was able to skin and mount the many birds he killed on a family trip to Egypt and Syria. "If young Roosevelt's collection methods seem bloody and cruel, he merely followed the accepted practices of the leading naturalists of the time. Killing was the only way to make extremely accurate observations about the physical characteristics of unfamiliar animals." He kept a log of the animals he collected, and later studied natural history at Harvard. When he entered politics, he donated the specimens in the Roosevelt Museum to the Smithsonian and co-founded a club to promote hunting and study and preserve game animals and their habitat. During his presidency, he established 50 wildlife refuges and 18 national monuments. In all, Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres of wilderness in the U.S., preserving natural landmarks like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, but also saving entire species from probable extinction. When he left office, he went on safari to Africa, where his party collected more than 10,000 specimens and bagged a total of 512 big game animals (including 17 lions, 11 elephants, and 20 rhinocerous) - he kept 24 and donated the rest to museums. He wrote a book about his African adventure, in which he calls the beasts of the chase "infinite in number and incredible in variety" and describes the "thrill of the fight with dangerous game." About the expedition, he stated, "I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned." In 1913, he collected 3,000 specimens on his last big adventure: a trip to the Amazon sponsored by the AMNH.
Roosevelt believed that nature existed to benefit humans and that conserving wilderness would provide timber for harvest, animals for sport, and water for irrigation. While not excusing his love and practice of hunting, it should be pointed out that the reason teddy bears got their name is that he refused to shoot a black bear that had been captured for him after an unsuccessful hunt in Mississippi in 1902 "just for the sake of making a kill." He brought down animals for sport and for science, both of which he intended the conservation of wilderness to support.
P.S. I can't help pointing out that Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and his wife on the same day, February 14, 1884.

1 comment:

  1. There's nothing contradictory about being hunter and a conservationist. My home state of Pennsylvania has more hunters than any other state in the union and we have more state game land per capita than any other state. The more passionate people are about their hunting, the better guarantee that you'll have a large wilderness filled with animals.


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