While searching for a story at the National Zoo in Washington, Stefan Bechtel came across an extraordinary man whom history at the very least shunted aside onto a dusty table, if not quite having lost him completely.
Though William Temple Hornaday by many aspects was single-minded, obstinate at times and a contradiction at others. He was as well a conundrum of sorts when you compare his early life to his later ambitions, when he came to play a vital role in the nation's wildlife conservation movement.
Indeed, his efforts eventually led to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has played a key role in saving species the world over. Even today the Society is pushing an issue dear to Mr. Hornaday's heart: having Congress recognize the bison as the "national mammal."
But let's back up and return to the story Mr. Bechtel uncovered.
“He has been so nearly forgotten by history. When I was working on this book I asked people if they had heard of this guy, and 98 percent of the people I talked to had never heard of him," Mr. Bechtel told me on the last day of August during a telephone call to his Virginia home. "The way I came across him was I had written a couple of books for National Geographic, and I wanted to do another book for them. I had this idea of doing a book about a year in the life of the National Zoo, sort of following a bunch of animals through for a year.
"So I started researching this book, and very quickly came across this character, William Temple Hornaday, who I had never heard of. Who sort of jumped off the page because he was so vivid. He really reminded me of my grandfather. Because he’s very cranky, he’s difficult and intimidating."
Though Hornaday died nearly a century ago, and had been largely overlooked until Mr. Bechtel stumbled upon him, he continues to live a colorful life in papers archived in the Library of Congress. There Mr. Bechtel, who has written other books on tornado hunters, the rehabilitation of dogs lost to neglect and abuse, and the wrath of Hurricane Camille, was delivered a godsend of documents that not just traced, but chronicled, Hornaday's incredible life.
"He’s written 18 or 20 books of his own, and there were two doctoral dissertations written about him, and an unpublished autobiography, and this huge archive at the Library of Congress of his letters and papers," the author recalled. "So there was a ton of material to work with. ... I was able to go up to the Library of Congress and sort of burrow into these fantastic archives quite a few times and get to the point where I realized I can recognize not only his handwriting, but her (his wife's) handwriting, and his children’s handwriting, and his grandchildren’s handwriting."
That material was parsed, organized, and woven into a fascinating story that follows Hornaday from his boyhood days in Indiana to equatorial Africa and India, Ceylon, Malaya and Borneo, far off lands where he spent two years collecting wildlife specimens for Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a company that Mr. Bechtel describes as "a kind of Sears, Roebuck of natural history specimens for museums, universities, and private collectors."
In crafting Mr. Hornaday's War, the author presents us not only with a rich biography of the man and his wondrous globe-trotting adventures as a specimen collector, but with a historical narrative of the near-extinction of bison, a threat that pulled Hornaday and a young Theodore Roosevelt together to form the American Bison Society.
The terrible onslaught on bison, waged in large part by a U.S. military that wanted to deprive the Plains Indians of their main source of food and shelter, was a focal point of the wanton attacks on wildlife of the day, but not the only example. In developing this crescendo of tremendous loss, Mr. Bechtel recounts a 20-day hunting foray in 1872 by Col. Richard Irving Dodge, who oversaw Fort Dodge in southwestern Kansas, and four companions, three of who were British visitors.
Hunting was the primary amusement for soldiers garrisoned at bleak outposts in the West, and when there were visitors, especially those from overseas, the hunting parties lasted for weeks. Colonel Dodge dearly loved to hunt; General Sherman, in an introduction to another of Dodge's books, later called him "a capital sportsman."
In this case, Dodge's five-man party ranged down along the Cimarron River watershed to the southwest of the post, and when they returned, they had joyful news. They had shot not 1, not 10, not 100, but 127 buffalo, or more than six each day. As if that were not enough, they had also shot 2 deer. And 11 pronghorn antelope. Also 154 wild turkeys, 223 teal, and 84 field-plover. They encountered 7 raccoons and shot them all. Also 2 badgers. And 9 hawks. And 3 owls. Also 5 geese, 45 mallards, 49 shoveltails, 57 wigeons, 38 butter-ducks, 3 shellducks, and 17 herons. They also shot 187 quail; 32 grouse; 6 cranes; 12 jack-snipes; 33 yellowleg snipes; a pigeon; a few doves and robins; a bluebird, "for his sweetheart's hat"; and 11 rattlesnakes. Oh, and 143 meadowlarks -- meadowlarks! -- whose only crime was to warble like glory and be a target. In all, the total number of carcasses produced by Colonel Dodge's merry hunting party was 1,262. It was such a successful hunt that the next year, the Brits came back and the same group (minus one) hunted the Cimarron River drainage and killed almost the same number of birds, mammals, and reptiles. They were a little puzzled that there wasn't quite as much game the second year, but they must have been pleased nonetheless.
While Hornaday spent much of his young adult life traipsing about the world to kill wildlife that could be put on display, he evolved into "one of the country's most ardent defenders of everything that was being lost," Mr. Bechtel tells us. "The young specimen collector was a far different man than the one who dreamed of a great zoo in the nation's capital and who was now furiously writing, night after night, his raging polemic The Extermination of the American Bison -- a book that laid out, in all its heart-wrenching particulars, the national crime then occurring in the hinterlands of the West."
Why was Hornaday, for all his battles for wildlife preservation, his appointment as the first director of the National Zoo, and a bit later as the first director of the Bronx Zoo that led to the creation of the Wildlife Conservation Society, largely lost to the conservation movement? Possibly because of his combativeness, his no-holds-barred approach to conservation.
"He was a difficult man. He took no prisoners and he made enemies, even among people who should have been his friends," Mr. Bechtel pointed out during our conversation. "He had a big feud with the Audubon Society, for instance. At one point, I believe it was Gilbert Pearson who was the president of the Audubon Society, took money from one of the gun manufacturers. They were going to do some joint enterprise, preserving wetlands or something. Hornaday just hopped right on that and started a feud with the Audubon Society,which is an organization he should have been friends with.
“Some people have said, the historians have said, he could have accomplished so much more if he’d been willing to make deals with, quote, the enemy. But the enemy was incredibly well-armed and well-funded, and the general population was not really on his side at that time, 100, 120 years ago."
Mr. Hornaday's war is a riveting read that won't disappoint, not just in portraying Hornaday, but in following the country's slow evolution in thinking about wildlife conservation.
Traveler postscript: While William Temple Hornaday is largely lost to the conservation movement today, he is not absent from the National Park System. Head to Yellowstone National Park and in the northeastern corner of the park, above Pebble Creek, you can find 10,003-foot Mount Hornaday.