T.R. And The “Nature Fakers”

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Addressing himself to the tale of Wayeeses , the President noted that Long had declared, “Every incident in this wolfs life … is based squarely upon my own observation and that of my Indians.” In examining the episode already mentioned in which a wolf killed a caribou with “a quick snap under the stag’s chest just behind the forelegs where the heart lay,” Roosevelt undertook to disprove the feat by anatomy, by the laws of mechanics (“The wolf’s jaws would not gape right”), by the fact that only alligators and sharks attack in that manner, and by his own observations. And he had an “Indian” on his side, too, George Shiras III, well known as a photographer of wild animals in their native habitats. Roosevelt also discussed the measurements of a wolf’s fangs. The bite, he concluded, would require not the teeth that nature had given wolves, but something on the order of a walrus’ tusks; it could not have been accomplished by any land carnivore that has existed since the saber-toothed tiger became extinct.

When the reporters descended upon the author of Wayeeses to get his reaction to the Roosevelt article, they found a disconcerted but not defeated man. Though he must have felt, Mark Sullivan surmised, “like a dove shot at by an elephant gun,” the pastor was frank, articulate, able to absorb punishment and to inflict it.

In his own defense Long put into evidence a statement that he obtained from “a full-blooded Sioux Indian who is studying theology.” The Indian declared that the wolves of Newfoundland, the scene of the disputed wolf attack, were indeed known to go for a horse or a caribou in the chest, and Long insisted that he himself had come upon the remains of a deer slain in this manner. In rebuttal Shiras, the photographer, said that there hadn’t been a sign of wolves in Newfoundland for the last ten years.

 

Long’s most effective response was to drop the biological issue and raise the question of President Roosevelt’s motives (vanity and sensitivity to his reputation as a ruthless hunter—a topic on which Long had made some remarks) and the propriety of using the high office of the Presidency to jump on a private citizen. He described Roosevelt as less the lover of nature than a game butcher who “hides behind a tree and kills three bull elks in succession, leaving their carcasses to rot in the woods … in itself … incomprehensible to sportsmen.”

“Who is he to write, ‘I don’t believe that some of these nature-writers know the heart of the wild things’?” Long said in an open letter to the President that received national attention. “I find after carefully reading two of his big books that every time he gets near the heart of a wild thing he invariably puts a bullet through it.” The beleaguered author had carefully assembled from Theodore Roosevelt’s own books about his hunting exploits instances of “a full thousand hearts which he has known thus intimately! In one chapter alone I find that he violently gained knowledge of eleven noble elk hearts in a few days,” and with a swarm of witnesses, too, since Roosevelt “goes into the wilderness with dogs, horses, guides, followers, men servants, reporters, and cameramen.”

Long succeeded in placing Roosevelt in a dubious light with many people who were not too clear about the details of the argument but still wondered why Teddy didn’t pick on someone his own size. The President’s enemies had a field day. One newspaper suggested that Long ought to get the Carnegie Medal. Another, the New York Sun , antipathetic to Roosevelt on various grounds, was happy to reprint the rhymed opinion of the British Humanitarian League:

Hail, blustering statesman, butcher of big game, Less President than Prince in pride of will, Whose pastime is the princely sport, to kill, Whose murderous feats unnumbered fools acclaim!

 

Which view was right? Was T. R. the conservationist and preserver of the wilderness that he appeared to be, or simply an insensitive hunter? Son of an incorporator and charter trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt in his boyhood developed a consuming interest in the natural world. Despite his frail body, his spectacles and asthma, “Teedie” studied the songbirds of Long Island, New York, with nature book and shotgun and took lessons in taxidermy before he reached his teens. It was a craft in which he reached great proficiency. A snowy owl collected and mounted by the young Roosevelt was displayed at the American Museum of Natural History.