Book Review: Beloved Beasts—Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction


Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction Michelle Nijhuis. 2021. W.W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 342 pages, with b&w illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, further reading list and index. ISBN 978-1-324-00168-3

No, it’s not a species-by-species rundown of endangered animals—the beloved beasts that (some) humans are fighting to save. Instead, the book is about the humans themselves, the heroes of conservation who are behind the saving, and what they accomplished: From Carl Linnaeus, in 1729 (we can’t protect something until we define it), to Emmanuel Frimpong, current day.

You’ve never heard of Emmanuel Frimpong? From Ghana? For 10 years, he has been observing bluehead chub, mountain redbelly dace and eight other colorful species of small freshwater fish in Toms Creek, a trickle of water that flows through a public park in the state of Virginia. Frimpong belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation faculty at Virginia Polytechnic Institute; as a newcomer on a tight budget, he began studying the chub and their co-inhabitants because they were abundant and right there.

Although they’re hardly charismatic and of no direct interest to the anglers who annually contribute millions of dollars to conservation across the US, these overlooked fish captivated Frimpong because of their spawning behavior. They share their nests across species and cooperatively protect them and keep them free of suffocating silt: “A single nest can be surrounded by hundreds of fish—a motley school ranging from pale blue and pink to brilliant yellow and red.”

As opposed to elephants, tigers, condors and the other apex species that get so much of our attention (and funding), these fish live near the bottom of their ecological heaps—mere food for larger fish, birds, mammals and, finally, for microorganisms. But they contribute to the intricate workings of their ecosystem in ways that Frimpong and his students are teasing out. What effects do these “insignificant” fish have on aquatic vegetation and insect life, or on the makeup of the stream bed itself?

As the author notes, these fish aren’t insignificant at all; they are emblematic: “The larger project of conservation—that of protecting the relationships that support all life on earth—can’t be accomplished with emergency measures alone. It has to start with common species.”

Thus Emmanuel Frimpong’s work isn’t insignificant either. In this context, he belongs at the close of Beloved Beasts as much as Linnaeus does at the beginning. Inbetween, Nijhuis hits critical turning points in modern conservation via the people who initiated them:

William T. Hornaday, the taxidermist who in 1886 “collected” 21 of the American West’s last bison for a diorama at the US National Museum, now the Smithsonian Institution. Although it wasn’t Hornaday’s intent, his work became an example of saving animals (a species, that is) by killing them (individuals, that is)—a troublesome contradiction that lies at the root of today’s furor over hunting. When it opened, in 1888, Hornaday’s bison exhibit became a sensation and focused attention on extinction as not only a threat, but also something that might be thwarted.

Other heroes: Rosalie (Mrs. Charles Noel) Edge, the Manhattan socialite, suffragist, birder and scourge of the National Association of Audubon Societies, which as late as 1929 was still condoning the killing of raptors on behalf of gamebirds. This was in the aftermath of the mass harvesting of birds for their plumage for ladies’ hats, which spurred Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to set aside Pelican Island, in Florida, as that nation’s first bird sanctuary, which in turn led to the US National Wildlife Refuge System. In 1934, Rosalie Edge acquired an exposed ridgetop in eastern Pennsylvania where migrating raptors were being shot by the thousands—today, the internationally famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary that has helped train many ornithologists.

In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold, the forester, early environmental scientist and “dangerously eloquent” author of A Sand County Almanac. Followed by Julian Huxley, the trail-breaking British evolutionary biologist whose grandfather, T.H. Huxley, had been so vociferous in his defense of evolution that he became known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” Rachel Carson, the marine scientist whose 1962 exposé of DDT was first serialized in The New Yorker and then became a best-selling book called Silent Spring. Michael Soulé, who—at an outdoor dinner in 1978 in the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park—proposed a new field of study called conservation biology. Garth Owen-Smith, the sparkplug of Namibia’s renowned community-conservancy program (eulogized in CFL in July 2020).

Some of these heroes knew each other and worked together; all of them built on their predecessors’ efforts. Beloved Beasts makes it clear that no one operates in a vacuum. In turn, the book’s subjects impacted other effective people also, from Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir to Stewart Udall, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Paul Ehrlich, E.O. Wilson and many more, including ultimately the voter on the street. Their work led to the National Park System, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, all in the US, and countless global steps along conservation’s wobbly path such as the founding of the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Conservation is not just a scientific endeavor, it is a political and social process that requires broad, deep and active support from non-scientists.

This is a rousing and opportune book written by a pro who knows the value of research. Her explanations of the timeliness of important ideas make us wonder: Who’s next? Who can turn us away from the destruction that seems to be overtaking our Earth?

Silvio Calabi has been a journalist, author, editor and publisher for 45 years, most recently with Conservation Frontlines. He lives on the coast of Maine and in the mountains of Colorado.