In Squabble of the Titans there are numerous allusions to Theodore Roosevelt’s thirst for hunting, killing and eating. Teddy wrote 47 books in his 60 years of life and of those, 9 full volumes were memoirs exclusively dedicated to hunting. That’s not counting his other autobiographical works where he extols the virtues of hunting or discusses the biology or natural history of specific animals.
By the end of the 19th century the American frontier had disappeared and the last few wild places were being encroached upon. The early era of conservationism was guided by a different set of values than those that guide it today. The purpose of preserving nature was for the future enjoyment of “man,” and it was assumed that future enjoyment included hunting.
Hunting animals in order to preserve them was not perceived as ironic or antithetical to the Western mind. Hunting was part of the romanticized lifestyle of freedom and adventure that was recently lost upon the closing of the frontier, a freedom that was an inevitable if lamented casualty of progress—at least, that’s how Theodore Roosevelt saw it.
In the early part of the twentieth century, conservationism was still a fairly new concept. It slowly became apparent that human beings could deforest places faster than they could regenerate. With the advent of transcontinental railroads and repeating rifles, bison were hunted almost to extinction. Yet it wasn’t the chainsaw or railroad that necessitated conservation, but unregulated, unrestrained harvest of natural products, required to fuel the insatiable appetites of the industrial revolution. Given this state of scarcity, how could it make sense to advocate killing what was already endangered?
Hunting was considered integral to conservationism in order to raise public awareness and fulfill a need for specimens for scientific study. That’s because photography was still primitive and cinematography was in its infancy. It was not until the 1920’s and 30’s that methods were developed that could even begin to capture wild animals behaving naturally in their habitats.
While zoos existed well before the beginning of the twentieth century, their purpose was to entertain, not conserve. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that an ethos developed that elevated conservation and care of animals as the primary purposes of zoos above the educational and entertainment needs of patrons. With a poor understanding of ecology, habitat, and wildlife biology to augment the care of animals, it would also be difficult to consistently transport and maintain populations of healthy, thriving zoo specimens that exist today.
Early conservation sought to preserve lands and wildlife for future generations; its efforts were focused on preserving the past as static time capsules and relics as opposed to living, breathing, dynamic organisms, part of complex and interconnected webs of relationships with other species—including humans. As the last wild places were encroached upon by civilization, this ethos also extended to the treatment of “primitive” cultures viewed as untouched and untainted by progress. In the early twentieth century the new field of anthropology sought to preserve these cultures by recording their languages, songs, rituals and oral histories before they disappeared.
The “mandate” of manifest destiny, that the strongest and most technologically advanced societies had a right—and even a responsibility—to conquer and rule, made it seem a forgone conclusion that these cultures, people, places and species were “destined” to disappear, so the best method of ensuring their continuance would be to freeze them as snapshots in time. Even ardent conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt did not advocate for equality or coexistence with that which they were attempting to conserve; rather their efforts were geared towards subjugating all of nature first, then superimposing Western values on nature and re-creating it in museums according to the values and designs that subdued it.
“To save you I need to kill you and eat you first. You’ll thank me for it later.”
This is a line that is repeated in my forms throughout the book. It may be ironic to the point of complete absurdity, but Roosevelt and others believed it to be true. (However, even in Roosevelt’s day, cartoonists and other detractors questioned and criticized the massive body counts of dead animals he supplied to various museums in the name of science).
In Squabble of the Titans, I parody the fact that Roosevelt killed over 10,000 animals on his African safari (he lists them all by species in a table in African Game Trails, one of his numerous hunting memoirs). He killed scores more at home. His memoirs make it clear that he relished the act of killing. More to the point, what happened to all of these animals? Many of them were sent to various museums that sponsored his trips and expeditions. Roosevelt made it clear that while he kept some for personal trophies, the vast majority were donated to museums—or directly commissioned by the museums themselves.
What the museums did with the skins and hides of wild animals was put a leash on wild nature, encapsulate it, make it safe, accessible, mysterious yet within reach through a process that is familiar today, but once upon a time, was like magic...
There are no art forms more representative of subjugating and reshaping nature than diorama and taxidermy. Diorama-making is now an obsolete art form, but in the era before wildlife photography and cinematography were perfected, taxidermy—the art of preserving (or “stuffing”) and posing dead animals to make them appear life-like was far more popular and widespread than it is today. Taxidermy is now experiencing a resurgence in respectability after being viewed as a ghoulish hobby, or a rarity appreciated only by people who fish and hunt.
Diorama-making entails the creation of natural scenes in which animals are displayed once they are preserved. They often include a combination of mural, sculpture, and posed natural elements such as tree branches to provide context to taxidermied animals. Examples of some of the most respected remaining wildlife dioramas can be found at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis and the Field Museum, in Chicago.
The golden era of both diorama and taxidermy as art forms were the result of the pioneering efforts of Carl Akeley, who, like Teddy Roosevelt was also a big game hunter and conservationist. His fascinating story is detailed in the book Kingdom Under Glass, by Jay Kirk.
Before Akeley perfected the craft of taxidermy, it was known for resulting in schlocky-looking, frankensteinian animals that often appeared more like cartoonish, limp noodles than living creatures with intact skeletons and rippling musculature. After Akeley’s hard-won success in creating new methods of preservation and "realism," taxidermy and diorama became respected art forms with the power to inspire awe. Ironically, it was Akeley himself who led to the downfall of diorama as a relevant art form in museum displays. He developed and patented the first techniques that made motion-picture filming and wildlife photography possible, thus rendering dioramas obsolete.
Western conservationists were often obsessed with the exotic and with the distinction of being the first to “discover” new species, often conveniently ignoring the fact that local peoples were already well-aware of “mythical” creatures in their midst for generations before the arrival of expensive expeditions with porters, baggage trains and journalists.
Panda Steaks & Cryptid Critters
It’s clear that pure-hearted conservation and scientific inquiry were not the sole motivations for Theodore Roosevelt’s love of hunting. His memoirs clearly extol the virtues of glory seeking, adventure, the thrill of the chase and even killing for its own sake. As with many other Western endeavors, great value is placed on discovery, regardless of how convoluted the definition of discovery may be. By the early twentieth century, there were few new places left on the globe to "discover." That still left new species to beckon intrepid explorers to find and officially document using the methods that would legitimize them for science.
It was pointed out in Kingdom Under Glass as well as in a lecture I attended by a nationally acclaimed Bigfoot author that often yesterday’s cryptid (an animal claimed to exist but never proven to exist) is sometimes today’s rare but real, newly discovered species. Such was the case with the mountain gorilla, “discovered” by Akeley at the end of his life. But until the gorilla was “found” its existence was doubted and for all intents and purposes it was in the same category as Bigfoot.
Ironically, in the Western mind discovery is less about seeking and finding something new, and more about placing one's indelible mark on it as an individual in order to receive the status, glory and timeless recognition attached to the act of finding. In that sense, discovery is the act of claiming something for one's self, placing one's stamp on it, and holding it out as a trophy for all the world to see and know.
In Squabble of the Titans, there are references to cryptids as well. The “Saysquack” or Bigfoot is the most obvious one. The Bigfoot hunt represents Teddy Roosevelt’s real-life obsession with bagging and stuffing rare animals. There is however, reference to another enigmatic critter, ubiquitous today, who was none the less a contemporaneous cryptid with the mountain gorilla and remained a question mark in the minds of Westerners for far longer than the gorilla ever did.
I’m talking about the panda bear, of course. Astute readers of history will call me out on my frequent references throughout Squabble of the Titans to Theodore Roosevelt dining on canned panda steak (preserved from a prior safari, of course. There are no panda bears to be had in the Olympic Peninsula), to writing in a journal bound in panda bear leather and even having a panda rug at the foot of his cot in his expedition tent. Because…wait a minute…the events in my book take place in 1911 right? Right. But...the mysterious panda bear remained mostly the stuff of legend in the west until Theodore Roosevelt’s sons Kermit and Theodore Jr. shot one on an expedition to China in 1928, a full 17 years after my story takes place. While the senior Theodore Roosevelt would have no doubt loved to shoot a panda, he died in 1919 (although to be fair, in 1912 he swore off hunting for the rest of his lifetime).
They don’t call it poetic license for nothing, eh?
I have not read the Roosevelt brothers’ memoir Trailing the Giant Panda (mostly because I do not have the $150-$800 to purchase the only copies available online), but I can’t imagine it reads anything like their father’s account of shooting a grizzly bear right between its eyes as it foamed at the mouth, gnashed its teeth and charged from 20 feet away. I suspect that the vicious panda bear is not quite the dangerous and difficult quarry that the grizzly is. I could be wrong. I’ve read that the locals considered the panda a sacred animal, were not aware the Roosevelt boys intended to kill it, and that they felt compelled to complete extensive purification rituals after the deed was done.
Readers may take comfort in the fact that their father spared the life of a bear in the U.S. during his presidency. He was escorted on a hunting trip and offered a pre-arranged opportunity to shoot a black bear chained to a tree. He declined. This was the incident that led to the creation of the “Teddy” bear. Was it out of mercy, fair play or fear of bad PR? Maybe all of those considerations factored into his decision to let the bear go. Roosevelt was known for being so attuned to public perception of him he even refused to allow journalists to photograph him playing tennis or any other pastime he felt would compromise the manly, rough and ready image he desired to project. Either way, that’s cold comfort for the panda bears his sons dispatched—not to mention the other bears dispatched by Teddy.
If you want to, you can still visit the ill-fated pandas shot by the Roosevelt brothers. They reside at the Chicago Field Museum, where they remain frozen in time, precociously frolicking and pawing at the air nearly 100 years later.
Bigfoot however, will have to wait.