Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton

Guest Post by Ernest Marshall

Editor's Note: This book is available online through The Baldwin Project.

Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) wrote mostly for young readers, and it was when I was around 8-10 years old that I discovered him.  I read Lives of the Hunted, Biography of a Grizzly, and many of his other stories, devouring as many as I could lay my hands on.  Yet Wild Animals I have Known remained my favorite.

Among the stories in Wild Animals I have Known  are those of a crow called Silverspot, named for a silver spot at the base of its beak, a partridge named Redruff, a cottontail rabbit named Raggylug, and best of all, the story of Lobo the wolf, King of the Currampaw.  

Ernest Thompson Seton grew up in the wilds of Canada, hunting and camping, a rugged man of the out of doors.  As a young man, he hunted wolves for bounty in New Mexico.  Lobo was his biggest challenge, leader of a band of wolves plundering cattle herds, and smart enough to outwit Seton at every turn.  He finally captured Lobo by killing Bianca, his mate, and staking out her carcass.  They caught and chained Lobo to a post, and found him dead the next morning – of a broken heart.

Seton was an accomplished wildlife artist and his books are wonderfully illustrated by him.  He was a prolific author, producing 60 books and nearly 400 magazine articles and short stories. He also wrote the first Boy Scout Official Handbook.  He was admired, as a writer by Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy.

Seton is a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, associate of Lord Baden Powell, and founder of scouting in England. He gave scouting its original emphasis on woodcraft skills and exploring the out of doors.  (This interest of Seton’s apparently originated when he introduced some wayward teenagers who had vandalized his property to nature and woodcraft as part of their “rehabilitation.")  Among his best known books for youngsters on woodcraft are The Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft Indians and Two Little Savages.

I have to give Seton credit for putting some wonderful stories in my hands, but also for much of my interest in nature.  Scouting captured my interest as an adolescent, shortly before I got my first whiff of perfume and got hold of the keys to the family Plymouth.  The elements Seton put into scouting that appealed to me, learning how to fend for yourself in the wild, building a lean to of pine boughs for the night’s shelter, gathering cattail tubers, and gigging a frog or fish for supper.  All of this was followed by the savory mystery of sitting around your campfire at night, surrounded by night sounds and solitude and learning the to distinguish the call of Great Horned and Barred Owl.

I think his engaging and charming stories are well worth reading at any age, despite the fact that some might find them a bit “corny."  This led to a dispute between Seton and John Burroughs, a famous naturalist of the day.  Burroughs objected to Seton’s “anthropomorphizing” nature, attributing human-like thoughts, emotions, and motivations to animals, which he saw as sentimental and unscientific.  Seton was a self-taught naturalist and such a close observer of nature that he commonly got to know individual animals and followed their daily rounds.  He gave them names and told their stories in very “personal” terms, more or less from the perspective of the animal.

I am well aware of the issue here.  In scriptwriting for the series of National Wildlife Refuge films produced by STRS Productions, Blake and Emily Scott and I have had this sort of debate, the Seton-Burroughs debate, shall we say, with U. S. Fish and Wildlife biologists.  They were concerned about objectivity and accuracy.  We were too, but also with telling an interesting story for our audience.

Photo by F. Eugene Hester. Copyright © 1996

For example, in a scene in one of the films, an Eastern Gray Squirrel sitting in a pine tree is barking at a flock of Wild Turkeys foraging below. The squirrel is “upset” that the turkeys are “stealing” acorns it has cached at the foot of the tree.  In another scene, a Black-crowned Night Heron tries to sleep as a Double-crested Cormorant splashes about below fishing for lunch.  Frustrated and annoyed at having its nap disturbed, the heron finally flies away.  Does the squirrel actually feel wronged or worried, and does the heron feel vexed and irritated?  That’s an interesting philosophical question, but probably an unnecessary encumbrance to sharing the dynamic life of a National Wildlife Refuge.
As to the philosophical question, one needs to walk a fine line here, but I think it is a disservice to animals and humans alike to not grant animals the intelligence and feeling they have, although that they are not human in kind.

Seton was an important voice for conservation in his day, an acquaintance of President Teddy Roosevelt, the “conservation President” who established the National Wildlife Refuge System and the National Park Service.  Through his art, writings, and life, he left a vibrant echo of his unique voice for the love of wildlife and appreciation of nature.


  1. Great review! Books like this, that tell engaging stories about nature instead of being pedantic, are great "living science" or "living nature" resources for homeschoolers and unschoolers. As a rule, we're a tribe who would rather have a sharp stick in the eye than learn with textbooks. ;-)

    This reminds me of the Thornton Burgess books which I bought for the older kids when they were young. Also available online through The Baldwin Project.

  2. And thanks again for the great guest posts on our blog. :-)


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