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"Opinionatedly Yours"
#11: February 19, 1998
(A Little About) Fur and (A Lot About) Feathers:
The Animal Cruelty No One Talks About ... Or Remembers
By Barry Kent MacKay

If we were to plot on a graph the fur sales in Canada over the last few decades, and draw a line through them, that line would describe a broad and shallow "U" shape, with both sides pulled out into shallow slopes and the right hand side (representing most recent sales) much lower than the left, rather like a reversed "J" with the perpendicular pulled into a shallow decline.

For those of us who are aware of the horrendous abuse the fur industry imposes upon innocent animals, and would like to stop it, that graph contains both good news and bad.

The good news derives from the left hand slide of the graph, showing a decline in fur sales that corresponds quite closely with declines in fur prices or numbers of fur farms or numbers of trappers -- all being indicators of numbers of actual animals abused on fur farms or in traps, many suffering prolonged, hideous suffering that only death can end.

It is my belief that by and large most people really are rather compassionate, and while they accept that suffering is an inevitable component of living, and may provide employment or other things of value to them, they don't feel particularly good about being a part of the cause of suffering. The big triumph of the anti-fur movement has been, in my opinion, the linkage of fur production with cruelty in the interest of a luxury item, the full-length fashionable and expensive fur coat or cape. In the west, at any rate, sales and social acceptance of fashion furs experienced a precipitous decline in recent decades. Thanks to relentless pressure as the "animal rights" movement grew ever stronger, there developed a profound antipathy toward the ostentation and cold-hearted pomposity of being draped in furs for the sake of fashion.

That is cause for celebration; there are huge numbers of animals not suffering who would be had the effort not been made and the results, to date, achieved.

But celebration within the animal protection community is rare because of awareness of those animals not saved; awareness of the continued abuse of animals in the interest of fur production. As well, no one wants to appear indifferent to suffering, or "soft" on the issue. Most importantly of all, we are all acutely aware that not only did the curve not protect those animals below it, the curve is now going up. Volume of suffering is increasing.

That reversal in misfortunes for the fur industry owes everything to the fact that it has responded to the decline in profits by shifting market strategies and aiming at Asian and eastern European markets and at less affluent (hence more numerous) buyers. The fur industry uses marketing ploys that gain sympathy from people, linking furs to "naturalness" and to the needs of aboriginal society (although aboriginal trappers account for a minuscule number of furs and ironically have been put at a greater disadvantage from fur farming than from any "animal rights" endeavors). The overall decline in fur production (inextricably linked to market demand) has halted, and appears to be reversing, as shown on the right hand side of our oversimplified graph. We don't want that line to go any higher; indeed, we want it to go back down to lower than before, right to the very bottom!

The fur industry's turnaround has caused understandable consternation within the animal protection community. Recently I unintentionally exacerbated this angst among a few animal protectionists when I pointed out that even with vegan diets and strict use of non-animal-based products, we still were part of numerous destructive forces that cause animals to suffer, particularly as a function of our increasing population with its need for the same resources required by other species (for a graphic look at our population increase go to www.facingthefuture.org/index2.htm). That pessimistic outlook led a few people to, in effect, throw up their hands and declare "so what's the use; is there nothing we can do to help animals?"

If I thought that I'd quit trying, but in fact there is a lot we have done, are doing and can continue to do. API constantly provides information on current campaigns whose successes move the agenda forward, incrementally, step by step, with some steps bigger than others, but even the smallest of importance.

What I propose to do here, however, is look back, to a time even before the contemporary animal rights movement and most of the literature that inspired it ever existed (or could have been contemplated). I want to look back to a form of institutionalized and world wide animal abuse that, at least within the animal protection community, seems largely forgotten, although it actually only ended within the lifetime of people still around, and we can never be too diligent in guarding against even limited recurrence.

Bringing this particularly widespread, cruel and destructive abuse to a virtual end was an early triumph on behalf of animals, and one that drew upon the talents, skills, values and endeavors of a diversity of people who did not necessarily share the extremes of philosophical and personal commitment that seem to drive so many today. It is also, I believe, a success that flies into the face of the currently popular rubric that unless you can achieve a complete victory, no other victory is worthwhile.

Feathers of a Bird

Sine the 1950s, I've known about the millenary trade that peaked in the 19th and very early 20th centuries. As a young child I was taken by the late T.M. Shortt, surely Canada's most accomplished bird artist and illustrator, into the bird room of the Royal Ontario Museum, and shown tray after tray of stuffed bird skins. They were stored on shallow, sliding shelves in heavily fumigated metal cabinets and arranged in phylogenetic order, row after row. I didn't know it then, but a large percentage of those skins, laying flat on their backs, white cotton for eyes and labels attached to their feet, had been purchased by well known Toronto naturalist, J.H. Fleming (1972-1940). Fleming shot and stuffed a few of the birds in his collection, but he was a man of means ill-suited to foreign travel and most were purchased from far corners of the globe.

When he died Fleming bequeathed to the museum 32,267 specimens representing all 27 orders of extant birds with representatives of 163 of the 166 families and 1074 of the 2,600 genera then recognized, among the 6,300 species then defined by science (that number of bird species would increase in years to come, not only because of some new discoveries, but because of more sophisticated means were developed to distinguish species from races.)

Among the skins I examined on that first of countless visits to the museum's bird room were some surrealistically beautiful birds-of-paradise. "This," said Terry Shortt, handling a bundle of feathers of glorious hues "is a trade skin." The bird-of-paradise had been rather crudely stuffed; really little more than a skin wrapped around a stick, the head shrunken, exaggerating the fullness of the great flow of yellow-gold plumes from the lower body. There was, on the label, no information about the bird's origin beyond "New Guinea." This was in contrast to the well-prepared skins, each tagged as to time and place of collection, sex of the bird and other information of potential value in learning about the birds, themselves, particularly in days preceding modern optics, bird guides, camera technology and other means of learning about nature.

That venerable stuffed bird skin was my first introduction to the deadly and destructive feather trade of the 18th, 19th and very early 20th century. It was a trade in animal skins that rivaled and in some ways exceeded the current trade in skins of reptiles and fur-bearing mammals.

"That," said Terry, pointing to the specimen's lack of feet, "is why it originally was called a bird-of-paradise." The early feather collectors, caring little for science or esthetics, simply cut the unfeathered feet off in order to more easily and quickly skin the bird and pack it for export. When the first regular trade routes that penetrated as far as New Guinea began to bring these skins into the European markets, there was belief among some of the naturalists who first saw them, that the birds, lacking feet, remained forever airborne. It was easy to believe of birds with such ethereal beauty, and so they became known as birds-of-paradise.

A Bird in the Hand ...

For much of what follows I'm particularly indebted to a new book, The Bird Collectors, by Barbara and Richard Mearns (Academic Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-12-487440-1). It provides a brief summary of a degree of devastation directed against fauna in general that has largely gone unnoticed, at least in comparison to similar degrees of assault made against large mammals such as American bison, the great whales, and, most recently, elephants.

The development of modern fowling pieces (as they were quaintly called), in conjunction with more traditional aboriginal methods of killing birds (nets, snares, cage-traps, bird-lime -- which is sticky stuff that glues birds to perches -- blow guns, sling-shots, bows and arrows, hunting clubs and so on) created wanton destruction of some of the world's most beautiful and vulnerable wildlife.

There was sometimes a disturbing blend of science, profiteering, sport and downright curiosity behind the motives of the early collectors. This was a time when there was little or no understanding of ecological principles and the role of predators; the concept of sustainability was unthinkable; the assumption that living resources were essentially limitless in numbers was the norm; suitable alternatives to food or clothing products derived from animals often did not exist and strict social stratification placed many people at extreme disadvantage while others had much time for the pursuit of leisure. Additionally, it was a time of exploration into regions of the world where any moment may produce a startling new and exotic discovery in the field of natural history and the most basics of law and protection we now take for granted did not exist. The wilderness was seen as an enemy -- a realm of chaos to be brought under control, with "Man" very much the center of it all. "Rights," however we perceive them or for whomever, were often little more than a quaint concept, if that.

None of which necessarily excuses excesses of destruction, but puts them into a context in which they were at least the norm and broadly socially acceptable.

It was during the long Victorian era that it was so very fashionable to display "curios" gleaned from exotic lands with strange names, many accessible only at great risk taken by intrepid explorers, hunters and merchants. And you may have seen old photographs of famous actresses and singers adorned with "aigrettes," those long, white plumes that are part of the breeding display of several species of egrets, including the now commonplace great and snowy egrets of North America.

Hummingbirds, with their tiny forms and gem-like, iridescent plumes, made particularly attractive ornaments. French naturalist Adolphe Boucard spent more than forty years killing hummingbirds for science and for the fashion trade. With less than perfect English he wrote, in 1894:

Now-a-days that the mania of collecting is spread among all classes of society, and that everyone possess, either a gallery of pictures, aquarels, drawings, or a fine library, an album of postage stamps, a collection of embroideries, laces, fans, shoes, sticks, pipes, ethnological curios, arms, prints, handbills, watches, bronzes, buttons, and such like, a collection of humming-birds should be the one selected by ladies. It is as beautiful and much more varied than a collection of precious stones and costs much less ...

Many, if not most, parlors had their glass cabinets filled with mounted birds on fake vegetation, often jammed in with dried butterflies, pretty stones, sea shells, dead beetles, birds' eggs and nests, stuffed frogs or whatever other natural history oddities came to hand. Still life paintings often contained similar admixtures of plant and animal species with no concern for the incongruities of juxtaposing that so often occurred.

Freshly killed dead game, all limply displayed "after the chase" like so many bouquets, were a popular subject of artists at the time. In those days relatively few artists made the attempt to portray animals as living creatures, beautiful not as decorations, trophies, curios or mementos, but as beings in their own right, vital and alive. In fact, that legacy of "human-centered" art lingers even to this day. In spite of the widespread popularity of "wildlife art," artists specializing in it are seldom featured in national galleries. Canada's National Gallery has featured "art" consisting of a dress made out of rotting beef, but not the paintings of Robert Bateman, surely one of the country's best known artists, but one who usually paints wild animals.

During the Victorian era, stuffed birds or parts of them were sewn into large hats that were the fashion of the day. In 1866 the great ornithologist, Frank Chapman, conducted an odd kind of bird census. He took a couple of afternoon walks through an uptown shopping district of New York City, and counted the birds he found on 700 ladies' hats. Three out of four contained feathers, and Chapman was able to identify no less than 160 North American species, including the American robin, scarlet tanager, blackburnian warbler, cedar waxing, bobolink, blue jay, scissor-tailed flycatcher, red-headed woodpecker, northern saw-whet owl, snow bunting and pine grosbeak. As Mearns and Means say, "The unrestrained slaughter of thousands of millions of birds for the millinery trade year after year for more than a century and a half, was the peak of western man's direct impact on wild birds (as distinct from the destruction of habitat) and it was so catastrophic that it led to the birth of the modern conservation movement."

That the feathers of birds -- particularly tropical species with their oddly shaped and often quite astoundingly beautiful plumes -- had great ornamental quality was certainly recognized by people who lived in those tropical countries where such birds are most to be found, and still is. In 1957 Sir David Attenborough took a Chapman-like survey of 500 native dancers attending ceremonies in New Guinea, and estimated that over 10,000 birds had been slaughtered to provide the feathers used to decorate headdresses. These included King of Saxony's, Princess Stephanie's, Lesser, Count Raggi's and Magnificent birds-of-paradise, plus feathers from parrots and other birds. Many birds-of-paradise are now considered rare or endangered and all international trade for "primarily commercial purposes" has been stopped under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Back in Toronto, not only is the new bird room of the Royal Ontario Museum itself now under lock and key, so are several of the specimen cabinets, including those containing that old trade skin of a greater bird-of-paradise that was my first inkling that there had once been a massive, world-wide trade in birdskins and feathers.

In 1913 Albert Meek, who was collecting birds for science, often relying on the hunting skills of New Guinea natives, estimated that one chief's headdress required the killing of no less than 23 birds to provide the plumes that were in the middle.

Mearns and Mearns report:

On Hawaii the kings and princes wore brilliantly coloured capes, cloaks and helmets of feathers woven into coarse netting. Two endemic species particularly prized for their yellow plumage were the Hawaii Oo and the Mamo. It is estimated that the most famous cloak of all, that worn by King Kamehameha I, required the sacrifice of 80,000 Mamos; it was gradually added to during the reigns of eight monarchs before he inherited it ... Both the Hawaii Oo and the Mamo are extinct -- probably not because of the depredations of the trappers, but like so many other Hawaiian species, through disease and forest destruction.

In balance, the depredations of "aboriginal" people (who, on islands, were only aboriginal in the sense that they arrived some generations before Europeans), although leading to some early extinctions of species now only known by subfossil remains (including the great moas of New Zealand and the towering "elephant birds" of Madagascar, plus numerous species in Hawaii) paled to insignificance compared to the demands placed by the western market during the Victorian era. Feathers, wings, heads, partial or complete bodies were worn as nothing more than unnecessary ornaments.

Mearns and Mearns report:

In Britain the plumage industry was an important part of the national economy and it has been estimated that from 1870 to 1920 twenty thousand tons of ornamental plumage entered the country each year. The most popular species were herons and egrets (for 'osprey' plumes), birds of paradise, cock o' the rocks, parrots, toucans, trogons and hummingbirds. In London, which was the centre of the trade, one dealer sold two million wild bird skins in just one year."

When you consider that plumage is ... well ... as light as feathers, twenty thousand tons represents many millions of birds.

There is that school of animal protectionist thought that loves to focus on statistics, arguing that the more the actual numbers of individual animals abused by this or that form of institutionalized cruelty, the more attention should be paid. While I believe that too often a disproportionate amount of time is spent focusing on a minimal number of "charismatic" animals, I have reservations about the numbers game. Apart from the sheer volume of animals involved I'm not sure too much statistical comparison could be made between the feather trade and the fur trade. Both were sometimes interrelated. The human population reached one billion just after 1800, when the feather trade was just getting started. By 1930, as the bulk of the feather trade was ending, humans numbered two billion. We add about a billion people every 12 years, each a potential market. There is no doubt that had the bulk of the feather trade not ended when it did, most species of birds involved would be endangered or extinct in response to such burgeoning markets. And, as will be explored in a future Opinionatedly Yours column, the indirect pressures of our continued population growth and our demands on the environment are still a threat that is wiping out a great many species of all kinds of animals.

My point is that the trade in skins and feathers of birds was probably at least proportionate to that of furbearing mammals. In fact the latter now draws most heavily upon captive reared mammals. Wild fur trapping has diminished and at least in some jurisdictions is well enough regulated to be sustainable, which is of no consolation to the animals who endure the agonies of trapping. Nor should we cease in our efforts to eliminate demands that cause so many millions of animals to be caged in fur farms.

"Penguins" and Penguins

Feathers were not only used for decoration.

In his inimitable style Farley Mowat, in his wonderful but frightening book, Sea of Slaughter (McClelland and Stewart, 1984), wrote of a magnificent bird who once was but is no more and can never be again:

A large and elegant creature, boldly patterned in glossy black above and gleaming white below, it was totally flightless, its wings having metamorphosed into stubby, powerful, feathered fins more suitable to a fish than to a bird. It truth, it could cleave a passage through the deeps with speed and maneuverability surpassing that of most fishes. A sleek undersea projectile torpedoing into dark depths to 300 feet or more, it could remain submerged a quarter of an hour. On the surface, it floated high and proud, flamboyantly visible, having no need to hide itself since it had no airborne enemies.

Paired couples lived dispersed over the endless reaches of the North Atlantic but, on occasion, thousands would congregate to form vast flotillas in especially food-rich regions. Once a year the couples came to land on some isolated rock or desolate islet to rear their single chicks. Ashore, they were impressive figures, standing so tall they might have reached as high as a man's midriff. They walked bolt upright with shambling little steps and the rolling gait of all true sailors. Intensely social during the breeding season, they crowded into rookeries that held hundreds of thousands of rudimentary nests so closely packed that it was difficult for the adult birds to move about.

The birds were called "pinguin," which means "the fat one," by the early Spanish and Portuguese voyagers to northern seas. The name became corrupted, in English, to "pingwen." But while you might be forgiven for thinking that the bird looked like what we now call a "penguin," in fact the species was entirely and completely unrelated to penguins, even though it was the first to bear the name. The accepted English name is "great auk," a member of the family of birds called "Alcids," which includes the puffins, guillemots, aucklets, murres, murrelets and dovekies. The great auk was by far the largest of the Alcids and the only flightless member of the family.

The people who destroyed the species were the people who hunted seals and fish, whales and anything else that could be turned into a profit. Their legacy continues into the presence. The great auk was killed for oil, both fresh and preserved meat, bait, and, from about 900 AD on, for its resilient contour plumage and soft down. Their eggs were a part of the diet of humans from stone-age times until the extinction of the species, by which time they were valuable artifacts purchased for princely sums by wealthy collectors who belatedly realized that the species was doomed.

By the end of the 18th century, most, if not all, of the breeding colonies of great auks off the coast of Britain and Europe, were gone. Still ripe for exploitation, however, were the New World colonies.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, Harold S. Peters and Thomas D. Burleigh, writing in The Birds of Newfoundland (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951), say:

When Newfoundland was colonized the "Penguins" were a source of meat supply for the early settlers, who for years visited the breeding grounds to kill and salt many of them for winter use. This slaughter continued for several centuries. Often they were killed only to secure the soft, downy breast feathers for feather beds and pillows. Men camped on Funk Island throughout the summer to kill and pluck the Great Auks. Stone corrals, or compounds, were constructed and the birds driven into them. As needed, they were thrown into kettles of hot water preparatory to removing the feathers. There was no wood on this barren island so their bodies, covered with a thick layer of fat, were said to have been used as fuel to feed the flames which scalded their companions. This great flightless bird was helpless against such commercial destruction and their numbers dwindled rapidly in the late 1700's. We have no record of when the last Great Auk was taken, or seen, about our Island, but from a compilation of various writers it probably was in the neighborhood of 1800. There is a vague report of one seen on the Grand Banks in 1852 and of one found dead in Trinity Bay in 1853. These seem very unlikely since the last definite record of any Great Auk in the world is of two captured alive on the rocky islet of Eldey, off the southwest coast of Iceland, on June 3, 1844.

The term "penguin" is now restricted to an extremely unusual group of birds endemic to the southern hemisphere. There is much debate as to how long they have been flightless, but certainly they have been for a long time. As with the great auk, their flightlessness rendered them vulnerable. On Macquarie Island royal penguins coming to shore were, in the late 19th and early 20th century, herded into pens to be kept until clubbed to death and then steamed for 12 hours to produce oils for soap and leather dressing. One bird would produce a half liter of fine oil, and each year more than 25,000 birds were killed. In 1919 Tasmania finally ended the slaughter. King penguins were killed on South Georgia Island until 1909. Penguins now receive nearly complete legal protection. Even the practice of taking sled dogs into Antarctica (which is certainly doing the poor dogs no favors) has been discontinued because of incidents of dogs harassing breeding penguins.

Birds have been killed and their feathers harvested for fans, brooms and various ornaments. They have been made into powder puffs. While the fur traders moved across the North American continent, they not only collected and sold the skins of mammals, but of birds. The extirpation of the trumpeter swan, our largest waterfowl, from eastern North America owes at least something to the popularity of pouches made from its skin. Fulmars, a seabird of the high latitudes, provided feathers for the British Army in the previous century. The feathers were much appreciated for their resistance to lice and bed bugs. Large quills used for pens were often taken from wild birds killed for that purpose. Early gold miners hastened the decline of the now critically endangered California condor by shooting them for their wing quills, which could be used to carry gold dust. In the Solomon Islands the feathers of the beautiful cardinal honeycreeper were actually used as money. Up until quite recently, women's fashions included "marabou," although perhaps few people adorned by the soft plumes realized that they originated from around the vent of a the towering marabou stork, of Africa, a scavenger who dines almost exclusively on carrion. The bird would be shot for that small patch of feathers, called the undertail coverts, coveted for their softness for use in boas that were draped over the shoulders of the more fashionable ladies. To this day the demand for eagle and other bird of prey feathers by American Indians, for ceremonial use, has resulted in a black market that derives, in part, from the poaching of otherwise protected raptors. There are also legal exemptions granted to allow the taking of such feathers from birds otherwise protected under state or provincial or federal legislation. In other parts of the world aboriginal people find colorful plumes most decorative, although the take is minuscule compared to other forms of destruction.

Adolphe Boucard

In the embryonic stages of the development of modern life sciences, beginning from before Darwin, there was little hard distinction between the killing of animals in the interest of genuine effort to better understand nature, and collecting for profits. The great naturalist, George Wallace, who co-discovered evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin (some have argued that he did so with superior insight, only to have his rightful role in science occluded by Darwin and his supporters) was certainly a professional hunter who funded his important scientific expedition through sale of preserved specimens of butterflies and other insects, birds, mammals and other fauna.

But collectors like Wallace, or even John James Audubon who, for all his artistic skills and early premonitions about endangerment, called it a poor day when he did not slaughter at least one hundred birds -- a number far in excess of what he could use as specimens for his painting, preserve for science or even eat -- were not part of the millenary trade. Most of the people who methodically trapped or shot birds, usually hummingbirds and other exotic birds, toiled in anonymity, motivated by profits and little noted by history. A curious exception was the famous Aldophe Boucard (1839-1905). He was both a scientific collector and a plume collector, or plumassier, to use the correct name of pliers of this deadly trade; a name which, like the trade, has largely subsided into welcome obscurity.

His early contributions to the science of bird study, a precursor to the modern conservation movement, cannot be denied. But he certainly had no compunction about killing animals. He believed that the supplies of birds were essentially unlimited.

As quoted by Mearns and Mearns, the French naturalist wrote:

It appears that a severe battle has been fought lately against the wearing of beautiful humming birds, and bright birds in general, from sympathy to the poor Innocents ... What are about one million to two millions of birds sent annually to Europe; chiefly from Brazil, Trinidad, Colombia, South America, and from India, as against such numbers of birds as Nature can boast of ... Even supposing that the fashion would continue for ever, it is my opinion that certain species of Birds are so common that it would take hundreds of years before exhausting them ... Besides, it is very probable that in refusing to wear them as ornaments, the result desired will not be obtained, and they would serve as pasture to numerous birds of prey, and other animals which feast on them the year around.

Boucard's scientific specimens, including the 10,000 which wound up in the United States National Museum in Washington, are of lasting value. And his comments about the relative insignificance of the plume trade on wildlife populations have some validity, even though they display an appalling lack of appreciation of the role of natural predators within the ecosystem. But then, of course, most of what we know about the ecosystem had yet to be learned during his lifetime. And to put things in perspective, it's estimated that the combination of motor cars and domestic cats -- neither part of the natural conditions in which wild birds evolved -- kill over a million birds every day, a number still short of billions more killed by meat and sport hunters. Indeed, the plume trade was only one form of assault against nature, as is the fur trade, albeit it that it would be impossible to defend in the climate of contemporary public opinion. That is a fact that gives us cause to hope that some day the same will be said of the practice of wearing furs and leather.

The Severe Battle

Boucard's reference to the "severe battle" to prevent the wearing of hummingbirds as though their vibrant lives were of no value against human whim for a pretty decoration, deserves a second look. Without being complacent I think it could be said in a general way that the battle to end the great plume trade was waged and won before all but the more elderly among us were born, and well prior to the modern concepts and philosophy embraced in the catch-all phrase "animal rights." It was a battle that did, however, correspond with what might be thought of as the modern movement in conservation and environmentalism. It's worth a brief look.

Boucard was right, in theory, that the plume trade, for all its enormity, was still a statistical drop removed from a large bucket. In practice, however, the plume trade was devastating for those species it focused on. Ironically the very beauty of birds was the attraction, and those who were most beautiful were most at risk.

Regrets about Egrets

Outside of mountains, deserts, deep forests or open plains, almost everywhere in the southern mainland U.S., but most particularly in California and in Florida and the adjoining southeastern States, one of the most commonly seen of all non-garden birds is the great egret. This tall, white heron, and its smaller relative, the dainty snowy egret, can be seen standing on dikes, hunting for grasshoppers in open pastures, wading in flooded meadows, probing coastlines or mangrove swamps or flying even over city traffic, their plumage an immaculate white, their long necks held in a tight and graceful curve and their black legs trailing. It has been estimated that they are the single most photographed bird species in the U.S.

But we almost lost them.

The great egret in flight is the logo of the National Audubon Society. That is appropriate, as it was the National Audubon Society, no less than any other organization, that fought the fight that saved the great egret, the snowy egret and so many more birds that were reduced to endangerment by reason of the demand for their feathers. Great egrets, snowy egrets, reddish egrets, tricolored herons, little blue herons, roseate spoonbills and other species were targeted in relentless and bloody slaughter in places where now these birds live in relative peace.

The great egret and the snowy egrets develop long, filmy white plumes on their lower backs during breeding season. Shorter, equally filmy plumes hang from the lower throat and adorn the top of the head, especially in the snowy egret. The plumes, whether gently stirred by a humid breeze or spread in full breeding display, impart an ethereal beauty to these most elegant birds. But, in Victorian times, there was incessant demand for the plumes as decorations for ladies' hats. Like peacock feathers, the graceful flow of the egret's breeding plumes mirrored, or perhaps influenced, the graceful curves and flowing counter curves of art-nouveau.

Plume hunters would enter rookeries where the birds built their bulky nests in the branches of trees and shrubs over shallow water, often in coastal mangroves. The hunters would simply open fire, slaughtering as many of the birds as they could. The patch of skin holding the coveted plumes would be stripped off, feathers attached, and the rest of the bird left to rot.

As its first order of business, the National Audubon Society was focused on ending this particular slaughter. The cause received a boost in a most unfortunate manner when Guy Bradley, an Audubon Society warden, was shot and killed by plume hunters in Florida on July 8, 1905. Shortly after that two other wardens were also murdered by the plume hunters. I recall a quiet moment standing beside a memorial to Bradley, placed where his body had been found, and wishing there was some way I could reach back through all the years that have since passed and let him know that his ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, and that there were egrets all around me where I stood.

And from North Carolina ...

Mearns and Mearns focus on the effort of one man, the famous early American ornithologist from North Carolina, T. Gilbert Pearson (1873-1943), one of several who campaigned tirelessly to end the slaughter of the "plume birds". They write:

At the time [of the murders of the Audubon wardens] Pearson was serving simultaneously as executive officer of the Audubon Society of North Carolina and as special agent and secretary of the National Association of Audubon Societies. He adopted an aggressive style of political maneuvering to better promote the protection of birds, and engaged in an endless round of speaking engagements to counteract the fallacious arguments thrown up by his opponents: killing birds was good for the economy; herons were harmful; only moulted feathers picked up off the ground were used by milliners; and shooting birds must be all right because Audubon had done it!

Through the efforts of Pearson, William Dutcher and many other individuals and groups, the feather bill was at last made law from 1 July 1911, prohibiting the sale of feathers of protected species in New York, which was the centre of the plume trade in the United States. Pearson considered that this state law had "sounded the death-knoll of the wild-bird feather business throughout the civilised world."

But don't expect the animal rights movement to pay tribute to Pearson. The photograph of him in The Bird Collectors shows him leaning against a fence from which hangs the bodies of at least 16 feral cats, which he had presumably shot or trapped. He did not oppose hunting and was himself a collector of birds for scientific study.

It takes all kinds to win a cause.

I mention this because of the tendency I see in the animal protection movement to belittle those who are seen as less committed to the cause by lack of their wholehearted and unquestioning allegiance to what has become very close to, if not quite, a body of dogma. Without for a moment suggesting that the plume trade's virtual end means a complete victory (one need only look at the horrid excesses and cruelty associated with the live bird trade for the exotic pet market, not to mention the horrors visited upon birds and all other wildlife by the massive environmental degradation and proliferation of toxic contamination that has happened in the last few decades, to nullify such contention) I think it does reflect what can happen when both the time is right and the cause is fought. The great auk lived and died before there was the level of concern required to prevent such from happening. And the great auk became extinct in the absence of anyone championing its survival.

When, in February 1998, reports surfaced of a coatimundi being boiled alive in an Asian restaurant in San Francisco, there was a heartfelt cry of disgust, much of it directed toward the "unAmericanism" of the act. The great auks thrown into the boiling cauldrons on Funk Island received no such attention. No culture or society is without causes deserving of condemnation by compassionate people. But there is movement forward, at least in attitude, even as we fight to hold the line against the onslaught of ever greater means of imposing ourselves upon the world.

T. Gilbert Pearson may have been indulging in a harmless touch of American bias in his assessment of the importance of stopping the feather trade in New York City. But that trade did, to all intents and purposes, stop eventually as the conservation movement gained momentum, and as more and more people worked in many different ways to instill appreciation, if not for all we would like, at least for wildlife as something of value inherent to itself.

I'll leave the last quotation to a bird collector who was an overlapping contemporary of us all, Dr. Boonsong Lekagul (1907-1992). As quoted by Mearns and Mearns, the Thai ornithologist wrote:

I fell in love with the animals seen through my gunsights, and I slowly realized that, unless permitted the necessities for life, these wonderful creatures would vanish forever ... With the expansion of vision beyond the gunsight, an entire new world unfolded like the opening of a bud of a most wonderful, beautiful flower. My tight horizons expanded from game to include all living creatures. My old craving gave way in an ever-increasing, overwhelming zeal for conservation -- not only in my own country, but throughout the whole word.

No cause is ever won by a single person, but Dr. Boonsong, who was known throughout southeast Asia as "Mr. Conservation," did more than any one person to save from extinction the open-billed stork The establishment of game laws and national parks provided at least some sanctuary in a region where outside forces have precipitated wholesale destruction of the environment, causing the painful deaths of uncounted and unseen millions of wondrous animals therein. He was the right person at the right time, and we can hope that there are many others, of many stripes, creeds, nationalities, professions, backgrounds, attitudes and philosophies, each working within an atmosphere of changing public attitude that we all can and must influence, without the kind of negativity and divisiveness that too often separates us in our grand endeavors on behalf of the animals.