Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Burgess meets William T. Hornaday

Burgess tended to idolize people he regarded as true naturalists. Among these were William T. Hornaday of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo). Hornaday became a friend and would give Burgess his "greatest honor"--a gold medal for distinguished service to wild life from the Wild Life Protection Fund.

Hornaday's famous take-no-prisoners approach to game law reform in this country is best documented in his memoir, Thirty Years War for Wild Life. A good sample of his rhetoric can be found in his 1913 book, Our Vanishing Wildlife, embedded below

To be clear, Hornaday was not anti-hunting. He required the killing of animals for his famous taxidermy exhibits. Rather he believed that bag limits were far too liberal and under-enforced, that open seasons were poorly defined, and that certain hunting tactics such as the use of live decoys were unfair. Thus sport hunting would necessarily lead to the extermination of a wide range of species unless dramatic reforms were put in place.

Burgess was drawn into Hornaday's project, encouraged to put his children's stories to use in this fight. So, in what might be his only overt work of propaganda [UPDATE: not nearly true], Burgess wrote a series of tales about "Poor Mrs. Quack," later collected in a book (here's a link to the Gutenberg text).

A bit from chapter 11, titled, "The Terrible, Terrible Guns."
"Bang! Bang! Bang! Not a feather spare!
Kill! Kill! Kill! Wound and rip and tear.
That is what the terrible guns roar from morning to night at Mrs. Quack and her friends as they fly on their long journey to their home in the far North. I don't wonder that she was terribly uneasy and nervous as she sat in the Smiling Pool talking to Peter Rabbit; do you?

Here Burgess dramatizes the use of live decoys. Mrs. Quack tells her story to Peter Rabbit:
"If you saw a lot of Rabbits playing together on the Green Meadows, you would feel perfectly safe in joining them, wouldn't you?"
Peter nodded, "I certainly would," said he. "If it was safe for them it certainly would be safe for me."
"Well, that is just the way we felt when we saw a lot of Ducks swimming about on the edge of one of those feeding-places. We were tired, for we had flown a long distance, and we were hungry. It was still and peaceful there and not a thing to be seen that looked the least bit like danger. So we went straight in to join those Ducks, and then, just as we set our wings to drop down on the water among them, there was a terrible bang, bang, bang, bang! My heart almost stopped beating. Then how we did fly!When we were far out over the water where we could see that nothing was near us we stopped to rest, and there we found only half as many in our flock as there had been."

A harrowing first person account through the eyes of the victim. Leveraging a point of connection between humans and birds--enduring mate relationships--Burgess then raises the emotional level:
"Where were the others?" asked Peter, although he guessed.
"Killed or hurt by those terrible guns," replied Mrs. Quack sadly. "And that wasn't the worst of it. I told you that when we started each of us had a mate. Now we found that of those who had escaped, four had lost their mates. They were heartbroken. When it came time for us to move on, they wouldn't go...They thought they might not have been killed, but just hurt, and might be able to get away from those hunters. So they left us and swam back towards that terrible place, calling for their lost mates, and it was the saddest sound..."

Mrs. Quack has grown to hate the "two-legged creature" whose lust for killing is seen as unnatural.
It wouldn't be so bad if a hunter would be satisfied to kill just one Duck, just as Reddy Fox is, but he seems to want to kill EVERY Duck...If they hunted us as
Reddy Fox does, tried to catch us themselves, it would be different. But their terrible guns kill when we are a long way off, and there isn't any way for us to know of the danger. And then, when one of them does kill a Duck, he isn't satisfied, but keeps on killing and killing and killing. I'm sure one would make him a dinner, if that is what he wants...And they often simply break the wings or otherwise terribly hurt the ones they shoot at, and then leave them to suffer, unable to take care of themselves.

The young reader is implicitly encouraged to resist this depiction of him/herself, to earn Mrs. Quack's trust. In this the reader is given the model of Farmer Brown's boy, now reformed, having given up his gun to become an observer (and feeder) of living wild life.

The book ends happily. The animal community joins together to search for the missing Mr. Quack (who had been shot and injured) and a safe place is found for the ducks to raise a family. Burgess could refer to tragedy but would not allow it to happen to his characters.

Burgess writes that his efforts to assist Hornaday caused him personal troubles. He had been named to Hornaday's loyal "Committee of One Hundred" but was "bitterly assailed for so doing. Men whom I had long looked up to, and whose regard and good opinion I cherished, turned against me."(p 132). Hornaday's efforts split conservationists (the National Association of Audubon Societies was on the wrong side, from his point of view). Burgess, though, truly believed that Hornaday was was right and remained loyal, no matter the personal costs.

A curious, unexplored note in respect to Burgess and propaganda. In his autobiography, Burgess claims that he wrote slogans and propaganda during WWI but doesn't provide any specifics. [UPDATE: This mystery is solved in later posts]

Tomorrow: When the scoters fly

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