Book Review: Lost Animals

LostAnimalsk10215Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu), 2014, 240 pages, $29.95

With countless books about species extinction under his belt – titles like Extinct BirdsDodo: From Extinction to Icon, and The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin – artist and writer Errol Fuller has long had his finger on the pulse of vanishing species. With Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, Fuller takes a new look at extinction through the lens of the camera, exploring what in many cases has become the only visual proof of life known for these species.

Rather than recording the natural history of these lost species, Fuller instead examines the history of these species as recorded on film, be it the oft-paraded photograph of Martha, the Cincinnati Zoo’s last passenger pigeon, or the tragicomical series of photographs depicting the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker known as ‘Sonny Boy’ perching like a pet atop a gentleman’s head and shoulders. Where a physical type specimen or stuffed museum mount captures the body of these creatures, these photographs capture their souls – the animus of animals in life, animated in spite of captivity or isolation, naive to the likelihood they might be the last of their kind.

Lost Animals could stand alone as a coffee table book, a poignant photographic memento ‘mori’ of humankind’s foibles and hubris in our capacity as sometimes-stewards of the land. But in reaching beyond the photographs to tell their stories, Fuller gets lost himself in a muddle of awkward sentence constructions, fuzzy logic, and passive voice. Looking at sentences mired in passive voice such as  “…but most zoologists believe that by the time of the coming of Europeans they were…” (p 174) or “Hopes are expressed that birds may still survive…” (p 151), or clunky prose such as “Two years passed, and 21 birds of the species flew into a lighthouse,” the final result comes across unpolished.

Understandably, there is no shortage of uncertainty surrounding these species and the photographic record. But Fuller vacillates instead of authoritatively wrestling fact from fiction, seemingly unwilling to make a clear statement to any effect. Instead of asserting “The photographer is unknown,” he writes: “It has not proved possible to find details of when or how it was taken” (p 149). And several times Fuller makes baseless claims, editorializing unnecessarily about the lastness of a photograph’s subject. For example, he writes that the Kaua ‘i ‘O’o (Moho braccatus) featured in a 1975 photograph “may even have survived for long enough to become the very last” (p 147), a nebulous claim given how little was known about the species at that time, not to mention the fact that a pair of Kaua ‘i ‘O’o was sighted six years later and the last bird was seen in 1985. Or the waffling “…later in the year only a single individual seemed to be present” followed immediately by the groundless concession, “Either this bird, or perhaps another that was living nearby, was captured…” Pushing prose charged with reckless uncertainty, Fuller seems a fickle arbiter of lastness.

And for a book that professes to examine the photographic record, Fuller’s formula is erratic at best. While for most species he recounts the story behind the handful of photos that comprise a species’ “photographic record,” in some cases his pen wanders of course. For the three photographs known of the ‘O’u (Psittirostra psittacea) Hawaiian honeycreeper, not a single one is described in any more detail than the one or two sentences that make up the captions.

That being said, nowhere else will you find so haunting a gallery of ghosts. Whether it’s appropriate to canonize them as angels or deem them the demons of our follies, only time will tell. But by recording these spirits’ celluloid souls between the pages of Lost Animals, perhaps we’ll better remember what we’ve already lost.

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