In an iconic image of the preeminent success of his life’s work, William Temple Hornaday—another one of our past environmental heroes—is holding a leash and looking down lovingly at a newborn American bison (more commonly called the buffalo). We owe Hornaday a deep debt of gratitude for personally saving this symbol of the western American landscape from almost certain extinction.
Hornaday was born in 1851 in Avon, Indiana, and educated at Oskaloosa College (now Iowa State University). While working as a taxidermist in the 1870s, he had the opportunity to join a series of scientific expeditions. Traveling extensively throughout the United States and the world—to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas, South America, India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo—Hornaday gained quite a reputation as a marksman in hunting big game animals. He also applied his taxidermy skills to create what he called life groups—featuring animals in their natural settings—for museums across the country. In 1882, Hornaday’s high-quality animal displays vaulted him into the position of chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, at the distinguished Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
In this post at the Smithsonian, Hornaday took it upon himself to investigate what he had heard about the dwindling herd of American bison on the western prairies. He sent hundreds of letters to ranchers, settlers, explorers, and homesteaders all over the American west.
What he heard back painted an appalling and depressing picture. As Hornaday wrote to George Brown Goode, his superior at the Smithsonian, “In the United States the extermination of all the large herds of buffalo is already an accomplished fact.” His diligence in collecting and reporting this discouraging information led to a trip that forever changed his life and set a milestone in the history of North American wildlife management.
In 1886, Hornaday traveled to Montana’s Musselshell River to observe a few remnant bison herds for himself and collect museum specimens before the species went extinct. The fact that he knew what to expect did not diminish the deep distress he felt at seeing that the vast herds of buffalo had vanished and only a few animals still survived in widely scattered groups. To counter his anguish over what he had seen in Montana, Hornaday returned home and, at the still-young age of thirty-six, immediately transformed his work orientation to focus on saving the bison from extinction. To initiate this effort, he acquired live bison that he brought to Washington, DC, and placed on display behind the Smithsonian’s administration building (nicknamed “The Castle” for its unusual architectural design).
Hornaday’s strategic decision to display live bison proved to be sheer genius on two levels. First, the live exhibit was much more popular than the museum’s encased bison group display and soon familiarized thousands of Americans—who had never traveled to the West—with the magnificence of these wildlife icons and the imminent threat of their disappearance forever. Secondly, this created the groundswell of public support Hornaday was seeking and opened the door for funding to ensure the bison’s long-term preservation. It also led to the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, with Hornaday serving as the first director.
Hornaday followed up his successful work at the Smithsonian in 1889 with the publication of The Extermination of the American Bison, a book that proved very popular and generated increased public support to save the species. Then, in 1896, he received the ultimate honor when he was appointed director of New York City’s Bronx Zoo, where he remained for the next thirty years. Now—thanks in large part to Hornaday’s efforts—the Bronx Zoo is the foremost zoo in the United States, with a long history of emphasizing the importance of saving American native wildlife.
Throughout his tenure at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday used his impressive skills as an articulate orator and influential writer to produce hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and more than twenty books. His works led to the passage of important conservation and wildlife protection legislation. In particular, his unceasing efforts battling against old-fashioned bureaucrats and obstinate politicians led to the passage of the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty and, most notably, the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which still protects all migratory birds in the United States.
By 1918, the buffalo was no longer in danger of extinction, thanks in large part to Hornaday’s diligent efforts. Today, the National Wildlife Federation carries on his legacy by helping to ensure that free-roaming buffalo herds will forever be found across the American landscape. In the process of dedicating his life to preserving the American bison, Hornaday also earned the title “Founder of the American Conservation Movement.”
Climate-change activists can learn a great deal from studying William Temple Hornaday’s biography. First, he dedicated his life to a cause and then figured out how to create the groundswell of public support needed to accomplish his goal. The positive techniques he used to accomplish his objective are also admirable. Instead of emphasizing a doomsday outcry for the American bison, Hornaday first turned the public on to the beauty of these burly beasts and then kept emphasizing that it was not too late to save them from extinction. This is exactly the same approach we need to emphasize with climate change: while the livability of our magnificent planet is in serious jeopardy, it’s not too late to save it—if we all act together right now.