TR's Wild Side

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ON JUNE 3, 1898, 39 days into the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders arrived in Florida by train, assigned to the U.S. transport Yucatan. But the departure date from Tampa Bay for Cuba kept changing. Just a month earlier, the 39-year-old Teddy had quit his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, taken command of the 1,250-man 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment along with Leonard Wood, and began a mobilization to dislodge the Spanish from Cuba.

Roosevelt worried that if the ship didn’t leave soon, his men’s livers weren’t going to withstand all the booze they were consuming. The first day was incredibly humid, with a hot, glassy atmosphere and scant wind. Anxious for war, Teddy was unperturbed by the omnipresent swarms of chiggers and sandflies. To kill time he studied Florida’s botany, learning to distinguish lignum-vitae (holywood) trees from blue beech and ironwood at a glance.

The very word wild had a smelling-salt-like effect on Theodore Roosevelt. As a Harvard undergraduate he had studied nature from a scientific perspective, full of rigor and objectivity. To Roosevelt wilderness hunting and bird-watching were the ideal bootcamps for a military career. By studying how grizzly bears tracked their prey, he developed warrior skills. First-rate soldiers were best made in America, he believed, by learning to live in the wild. If a soldier understood how to read a meadowlark call or crow squawk, then his chances of battlefield survival were enhanced. An alertness to all things wild was, in Roosevelt’s eyes, a prerequisite for excelling in modern society. Success would fall upon the individual who could outfox a blizzard or survive a heat wave.

Roosevelt possessed in spades the qualities that Harvard naturalist Edward 0. Wilson has called “biophilia”: the desire to affiliate with other forms of life, the same impulse that lifts the heart at a sudden vision of a glorious valley, a red-rock canyon, or a loon scooting across a mud bog at dusk. Wilson suggests that, at heart, humans want to be touched by nature in their daily lives. His hypothesis offers a key to understanding why Roosevelt as president would add over 234 million acres to the public domain between 1901 and 1909. He responded both scientifically and emotively to wilderness. The shopworn academic debate over whether Roosevelt was a preservationist or a conservationist is really moot. He was both, and a passionate hunter to boot, too many sided and paradoxical to be pigeonholed. Even within the crucible of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt managed to acquire exotic pets and to write about the Cuban environment, actions that provide valuable insight into Roosevelt’s developing conservationist attitudes.

While waiting to ship out, he studied the waterfowl along the wharf front and marshy inlets: ibis, herons, and double-crested cormorants, among scores of others. Beneath his cavalry boots on the Tampa beaches were sunrise tellin, wide-mouthed purpura, ground coral, bay mud, and tiny pebbles mixed with barnacles and periwinkles. Writing to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, he turned quasi geobiologist, evoking Florida’s semitropical sun, palm trees, shark-infested shallows, and sandy beaches much like those on the French Riviera. The Gulf of Mexico, the ninth-largest body of water in the world, interested Roosevelt to no end.

Spending those days in Tampa Bay, various conservation historians believe, later influenced Roosevelt’s creation of federal bird sanctuaries along Florida’s coasts. What Roosevelt learned from being stationed on the Gulf Coast was that the market hunters were having a bad effect on Florida’s ecosystem, including the Everglades, Indian River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Ten Thousand Islands. The previous year, his friend the New York-based ornithologist Frank M. Chapman had warned him that tricolor herons and snowy egrets were being slaughtered for their feathers. Now huge mounds were heaped around the Tampa harbor, bird carcasses piled 20 or 30 yards high to rot in the sun. If the slaughter wasn’t stopped, the crowded, beautiful roosts of Florida would vanish and their inhabitants would go the way of the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the Labrador duck.

Even as he shaped his regiment for combat, Roosevelt retained his fascination with animals, an aspect that distinguishes his war memoir The Rough Riders from all other accounts of the 1898 Cuban campaign. And in his 1913 autobiography Roosevelt presented his theory about the role of pets in sustaining morale. Compared with his accounts of military tactics and the toll of yellow fever, such passages can seem frivolous, but they do offer a valuable perspective on Roosevelt as a war leader and as a person.

Largely due to Roosevelt, the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment took three animal mascots with them, all the way from basic training in San Antonio through their port stay in Tampa Bay. For starters, there was a young mountain lion, Josephine, given by trooper Charles Green of Arizona. Roosevelt spent as much time around the cougar cub as he could. Although he wrote in The Rough Riders that Josephine had an “infernal temper,” he adored everything about her: her sand-colored coat, dark rounded ears, white muzzle, and piercing blue eyes, which turned brown as she matured. Eventually Josephine would weigh at least 90 pounds and be able to pull down a 750-pound elk with her powerful jaws. The New York Times reported that she “rejoiced” when her name was uttered and was beloved by all the men. But one time she got loose, climbed into bed with a soldier, and began playfully chewing on his toes. Roosevelt later chuckled in The Rough Riders that “he fled into the darkness with yells, much more unnerved than he would have been by the arrival of any number of Spaniards.”