Michelle Nijhuis on “Beloved Beasts” and the History of Conservation

Emily Hughes
Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Michelle Nijhuis | Seed Photography

In her new book, “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” Michelle Nijhuis — a two-time winner of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award — provides a richly reported history of the modern conservation movement, told through the lives and ideas of the scientists, activists and organizations that shaped it. She spoke recently to Emily Hughes of the AAAS Kavli awards program.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: Had I known how difficult it would be to distill the history of conservation into a reasonably sized book, I might not have taken on the challenge, but I’m very glad I did. I’ve been interested in the history of conservation for a long time, since I was just out of college and working as a field assistant on endangered species research projects. I loved following tortoises and other animals around in the desert, but what was most memorable for me was the level of passion around the local political debates over how to protect endangered species.

I was struck by the profound questions that people were arguing about in these town meetings and in coffee shops. We as a society haven’t really answered the questions of why, and how, and even whether we should be protecting these species. That was the beginning of my interest in conservation history—in how conservationists have answered these questions over the past century and a half.

Q: What is the main message you want to convey with the book?

A: One thing I hope people will take away from it is that conservation is not a lost cause. We have learned so much over the last 150 years. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We need to find the will to keep doing it.

Q: Since you do so much environmental reporting, I imagine you had a familiarity with a lot of the figures in “Beloved Beasts.” Did you have many of these characters in mind early on?

A: I had read work by Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and many of the other people who appear in the book. I wanted to use people as guides through the story of conservation, but what was most important to me was to put those famous names in the context of the conservation movement. To show who they were influenced by, who they influenced, and how they worked together. A lot of them knew each other, and they agreed and disagreed and built on each other's ideas, so it was important to me to not only tell the story of those individual people, but tell the story of the larger movement that they were part of and helped to build.

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction | W. W. Norton Company

Q: You tell the “irony-soaked story” of taxidermist William Hornaday, who recurs many times throughout the work. Were you familiar with him before working on this book?

A: I had heard Hornaday's name. He’s ubiquitous in the early conservation movement in North America, and he's probably best known for his work on the bison. I had some sense he was a complicated character, but I had no idea how complicated he was. I say his story is irony-soaked, and it is: he was a taxidermist who became passionate about protecting living animals, a hunter who set out to save the bison by killing some of the last remaining members of the species, and someone who expanded the public’s compassion for other species while at the same time holding very deep prejudices about members of our own species. He sums up a lot of what was good and bad about the early conservation movement, and what continues to be good and bad about the movement today.

Q: You make a point to present both the good and bad sides of these historic figures. What do you think we can learn from recognizing their flaws?

A: It’s in our interest to see any influential historical figures as complex people, because they certainly were all complex people—even those who didn't have glaring flaws like Hornaday had strengths and weaknesses that we can learn from. I think it’s particularly important for the conservation movement to look at these well-known figures and see that they accomplished great things, but that they also had blind spots.

Q: Are there places where modern conservation work suffers from residual racism left from its foundational years?

A: The things that some early conservationists said and did are shocking to us now and rightfully so, but I think those attitudes are still with us today, usually in diluted, less noticeable forms. For example, there are still people in the conservation movement who assume that people in general, or that certain kinds of people, can’t play a constructive role in conservation. Those assumptions may be less toxic than some of the attitudes we read about in history, but they’re still counterproductive.

I think excavating the roots of those attitudes can help us see them for what they are and set them aside. There’s a stereotype that the conservation movement is a movement of wealthy white people, and there’s both historical and present-day truth to that. Recognizing that history, and learning from it, would help the conservation movement expand its reach and accomplish its larger goals.

Q: You highlight some institutional flaws as well—touching on the failure of early Audubon Society to take on the bird feather market, for example. Do you think there's an inevitable tension within conservation movement over those institutional policies and the demands of more outspoken conservationists?

A: I’m not sure it’s inevitable, but it’s certainly a pattern in the history of conservation. Institutions, no matter what their purposes are, have commitments or accumulate commitments to the status quo, and it becomes difficult for them to change their strategies even when there are very good reasons to change. It takes strong voices and a lot of persistence to persuade the people in power to set aside those commitments to the status quo and make meaningful changes.

We’re seeing some systemic change within the conservation movement now, I think. I had an extremely memorable experience in Namibia, where community conservation organizations are returning conservation authority to the local level after centuries of absence. I think sometimes established conservation organizations have trouble incorporating those new models into their work, in part because they require organizations to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves and their members.

Q: During your reporting in Africa, you spoke with John Kasaona, a defender of the trophy hunting under defined circumstances. Did that reporting change your views on trophy hunting?

A: I’m not sure it changed my views dramatically, but my reporting in Namibia was a huge learning experience for me. I had heard about community conservation, in practice and in theory, and I had read a lot about the debates over the role of commercial hunting as a source of income for community conservation efforts. But being present at community meetings, and hearing from people who were nurturing this network of community conservancies, really brought home to me how promising a model it is and how much that broad, grassroots participation in conservation is missing throughout the world. And it was a powerful reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in conservation—it’s easy to say “all trophy hunting is bad,” but the reality is much more complex. What I saw was that in certain situations, commercial hunting can be a useful tool for advancing a larger conservation strategy.

A well-supervised encounter with a captive-raised wolf at Polar Park in northern Norway | Courtesy of Michelle Nijhuis

Q: You also push back against the popular emphasis on saving “charismatic megafauna” such as bald eagles. Did writing this book shift your opinion on that?

A: Well I’m a huge fan of bald eagles. When I was growing up on the East Coast in the 1980s, I never saw a bald eagle, and I see them all the time where I live in Washington state. Whenever I see them, I think about the story of the recovery of the bald eagle. So the bald eagle is an enormously important symbol, and symbols are important to conservation. But I think it’s time for the conservation movement to move beyond its reliance on symbols as a means of communicating its mission to the public.

I think the conservation movement needs to get across the message that conservation is not just about protecting single species in isolation. It’s about protecting relationships among species—including our own species—and relationships between species and their habitats.

Q: Do you think that falls on conservation groups or is there any sort of shared responsibility with science communicators and science journalists?

A: I think we, as science writers and editors, and as photographers and photo editors, can examine our own biases toward very dramatic, charismatic species. We tend to lean on those species as vehicles to tell our stories, knowing that they will grab the public’s attention. We need to challenge ourselves to tell stories about ecological relationships—which might not be quite so charismatic right from the beginning, but are equally fascinating when we figure out the right way to build those stories.

Q: In many ways, the figures you write about in “Beloved Beasts” also spearheaded the field of science communication. How do you think those two disciplines feed into each other?

A: So many conservationists throughout the history of the movement have bridged science and the humanities. Whether they were writers or speakers or activists, they’ve found powerful ways to communicate their ideas to larger audiences. I think one of the challenges of the conservation movement, going forward, is to bridge the gap not only between science and the public, but between biological scientists and social scientists, and the sciences and the humanities. We need all those fields to further the cause of conservation.

When science communicators write about conservation, we have a role to play in making those connections among disciplines, and in explaining and demonstrating those connections to the public through the stories we tell.

Q: Every chapter of your book includes very detailed on-the-ground reporting. Why was it so important for you to physically spend time at these locations?

A: I’m a journalist by training and by inclination, and journalists always want to be on the scene, even if whatever happened on that scene happened 150 years ago. There’s something important about being at the place where these events happened, about being at Aldo Leopold’s shack, or about being at Hawk Mountain, which Rosalie Edge protected as the world's first sanctuary for birds of prey back in the 1930s. It’s important to stand at the top of a bison jump and imagine how Native Americans once hunted bison, or even to go to a little creek in Virginia and stand there with a biologist and understand how what we think of as very common and unremarkable species can be doing remarkable, very ecologically important things. It’s important to see those things firsthand because it’s hard to communicate them to readers without being able to talk about the details of how things looked, and sounded, and smelled, and felt.

Q: You previously lived off the grid in Colorado, and now live in a remote area in Washington, which often appears as part of your writing. What motivated those lifestyle choices?

A: A lot of people romanticize off-the-grid living and small-town living. I suppose I did too, at the beginning, but after doing it for most of my adult life and part of my childhood, what I can say is that it's both better and worse than most people imagine. Small towns can be suffocating, and living off the grid can be isolating. But living off the grid is also easier than people assume. We had all the modern conveniences and a very pleasant life. The low cost of living off the grid and in small towns also allowed me more freedom in my writing.

I also think that as an environmental writer, I’ve learned a lot from living near the sources of things. When I lived in Colorado, I lived along a river that was a tributary of the Colorado River, and I lived in a valley where there was a lot of coal-mining and fruit-growing. I became much more aware of the processes of providing water and power and food, and I saw them happen on a daily basis. That influenced me and my writing in ways I’m still coming to understand.