Book Review: Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction by Michelle Nijhuis

Beloved Beasts is a richly informative history of the international conservation movement and the central figures who have played crucial roles in developing conservationism and moving conservation efforts forward. The book is also about the ongoing debates, both philosophical and pragmatic, about “humanity’s proper place on earth” (3). Written by Michelle Nijhuis, an award-winning environmental and science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Scientific American, among other publications, Beloved Beasts is meticulously researched, drawing upon a wide range of primary source documents, while also remaining accessible to even novice readers on conservation. Its fast-paced chapters are broken down into short, readable chunks interspersed with black-and-white photographs.

Exploring the conservation movement from cultural, political, social, economic, and historical perspectives, Beloved Beasts also interrogates conservation’s academic origins, tracing the development of the fields of ecology and conservation biology in scientific and academic contexts. The very term “ecology,” Nijhuis notes, is only about one hundred years old, indicating how nascent our burgeoning understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things still is.  Nijhuis also discusses how other academic as well as historical developments—from the creation of taxonomy, to the invention of DDT, to the end of World War II—helped give rise to newly developing notions of ecology, conservation, and environmentalism.

The ten chapters of Beloved Beasts introduce readers to a surprisingly wide range of people, places, and projects. Nijhuis explains how conservation sites, groups, and laws such as the Smithsonian National Zoo, the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the US Endangered Species Act were created and implemented, as well as how they were championed and resisted.  Readers also learn about the myriad and complex roles that both human individuals and animal species have played in conservation history: Theodore Roosevelt, William Temple Hornaday, Rosalie Edge, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall, and Elinor Ostrom all have important roles in this story, but so, too, do the American bison, the whooping crane, the rhinoceroses of Namibia, and the bluehead chub. The last of these, a small fish whose nests help to support and sustain life for numerous other species in the bodies of water they occupy, serves as a useful reminder of one of the key points made throughout Beloved Beasts, which is that the conservation movement is—or at least, should be—not just about “colorful birds or large, showy mammals,” but also “the tiny, the unknown, the stationary, and even the despised—and, importantly, the relationships among them all.”

A bluehead chub

Though it has lofty aims, including, at its best, the conservation of all creatures great and small, the conservation movement has been mired by difficult questions and debates, corrupt motives, and complex disagreements among competing parties about what to conserve and how to conserve it. Beloved Beasts compellingly traces how the conservation movement has long been intertwined with, and in some cases directly born from, political agendas based upon maintaining colonial power, white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and traditional notions of robust masculinity. Even eugenics has found its way into the conservation movement over the decades.  As such, Beloved Beasts also uses the history of conservation to tell a cautionary tale, reminding us that all too often, efforts to conserve species have had as much to do with maintaining power—over other human beings, other animals, and the land—as with protecting life. 

Yet, even as this book highlights the ways in which human greed and corruption have shaped both the need for and the development of the conservation movement, Nijhuis nonetheless calls for more attention to human complexity—both how humans can corrupt and how they can restore—in order to move conservation efforts forward. She argues that conservation science should involve not just scientists, but also social scientists, economists, historians, political scientists, and ordinary citizens.  Emphasizing the importance of what biologist Dave Ehrenfeld described as “that turbulent and vital area where biology meets the social sciences and humanities,” Nijhuis writes that we cannot “stud[y] plants and animals as if they could be isolated from politics and other human concerns.” She also emphasizes the importance of human compassion for other species as critical to conservation work, writing that “our emotional bonds with other species and their members” are “fundamental to conservation.”  In other words, Beloved Beasts acknowledges that humans are as capable of goodwill, benevolence, and restoration as they are of greed, corruption, and destruction; it is the former set of qualities, Nijhuis writes, which must be harnessed and capitalized upon if conservationists are to successfully get humans to invest more fully in the work of conserving species other than our own.

Nijhuis urges readers to recognize that conservation efforts, however imperfect or flawed they may be, do have the potential to stave off extinctions and population declines—but she also insists that conservation work cannot be done only as emergency or crisis work. When we focus on conserving species, land, and resources that are on the brink of extinction or mass decline, our efforts at conservation are already far too late. Instead, Nijhuis suggests that today’s conservationists ought to heed the advice of early-twentienth-century conservationist Willard Van Name, who warned that “the time to protect a species is while it is still common.”

Our currently existing protections—at local, national, and international levels, in the forms of laws, treaties, and international agreements—while important, are, Nijhuis argues, still not enough to keep common species common or to stave off the sixth mass extinction. As she puts it, “[even] the most powerful species-protection law in the world is not powerful enough to fully protect other species from ourselves.”  Beloved Beasts is not only a history of the conservation movement, then, but also a call to action: an insistence that we all do more to fight for life in an age of extinction.

Melissa Dennihy
Melissa Dennihy, Ph.D., is an English professor at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, where her work focuses in part on ecofiction and environmental humanities. You can find her on Twitter, where she's often tweeting about books: @MelissaDennihy.
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