Book Review: Painting the Cows and Adventures in Conservation

Painting the CowsPainting the Cows: Twenty Years of Wildlife Conservation in California and the West, by T.A. Roberts, John Daniel & Company (, 1998, 176 pages, $14.95

Adventures in Conservation: Painting the Cows and Other Tales, by T.A. Roberts, Stone Wall Press, Inc., 1989, 174 pages, $12.95

I first discovered the work of Thomas A. Roberts several years after I settled in as a wildlife biologist. I can’t remember how I came by Painting the Cows, but I still recall my delight as I devoured and relished his writing. Later, when I loaned my copy out, I did so reluctantly – eager to share with friends a new author, concerned the book would get lost in circulation (… it did). Even though it gathered dust on a friend’s shelf for several years, upon its return Painting the Cows reassumed its rightful place with the other formative books in my personal natural history library – titles like Song of the WhaleMind of the Raven, and Never Cry Wolf that first breathed life into the job title ‘wildlife biologist’ long before I ever set foot in the field.

Roberts, wearing the hat of both wildlife biologist and forest ranger in Adventures in Conservation and its successor, Painting the Cows, revisits his years in the field with wonder, humility, and self-effacing honesty. Whether he’s setting controlled burns or smothering tempers (sometimes his own), driving a desk or driving a pickup, Roberts’ ruminations on the field of wildlife conservation are tempered by his insight into Nature and the human condition. In each story about the wild outdoors, Roberts lets slip how too often his battles are fought in the untamed wildland-urban interface of town hall meetings and written reports.

Roberts’ crisp writing is both evocative and grounded, describing a treed mountain lion “yawning improbable ten-penny fangs,” or decrying Idaho’s Snake River as a “century-long experiment to turn southern Idaho into a soil/fertilizer/pesticide slurry” such that “the state had gained world-class potatoes and a motto for its license plates, and lost the kind of locale National Geographic does specials about.” Subjecting himself to the same raw scrutiny, Roberts describes his participation in a mountain lion capture as “the kind of thing I wanted [my son] to think I did for a living,” or admits his personnel management style “was to delegate as much as possible, since I learned so much better from other people’s mistakes than I did from my own.”

AdventuresinConservationAmong the gems in Adventures in Conservation and Painting the Cows are “The Great Mule Deer Smorgasbord,” detailing Roberts’ Rube Goldberg attempts to catch a deer;  “Playing God in Montana,” in which wildlife becomes a straw man for a community’s concerns about the development of a proposed church headquarters along the Yellowstone River; and “Moment of Truth,” where Roberts’ mettle as a biologist is put to the test when the businessman side of the business asks too much of him. But don’t be mistaken. Although those stories stand out, each story in these anthologies is outstanding, making either book an upstanding gift for anyone with a hankering for wildlife biology.

And if you find yourself enchanted with Roberts’ writing, don’t overlook his fiction, an oeuvre of mysteries published over the years (Shy Moon, the Edgar Award-nominated The Heart of the Dog, and Beyond Saru) that peaks with his latest installment, Drake’s Bay, set in the San Francisco Bay Area (reviewed here).


(Disclaimer: Reviewer Matthew Bettelheim and Thomas A. Roberts have recently joined forces as co-editors of The Wildlife Confessional, an upcoming anthology of short stories by wildlife professionals to be published through The Wildlife Society. This collaborative effort was inspired by Mr. Roberts’ original anthologies, but has in no way biased the content of this review.)

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