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Theodore Roosevelt and the Environment

Teddy RooseveltFrom PBS’s American Experience

The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History opened its doors in 1867. Among its first specimens was the skull of a seal that had washed up in New York Harbor, begged from its owner by the museum’s founder, eight year old Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Frail, myopic “Teedie,” as he was known to his family, seemed an unlikely naturalist. But it was his mind, not his body, that made Roosevelt’s precocious entry into the world of natural history anything but child’s play. Inquisitive and single-minded, he would pursue his interests in nature relentlessly for the rest of his life — a pursuit that would impact America’s wild places for decades beyond his death.

Fueled by Theodore’s curiosity, the Roosevelt museum grew. Teedie collected everything within his reach and range of vision, and begged friends and family to bring him any specimens they found. He even paid other children to collect specimens for him. Yet he generously shared his collection. In 1871, he donated several specimens to another fledgling museum — the American Museum of Natural History, which had been co-founded by his father.

The following year, having obtained spectacles to correct his vision and a shotgun to aid in capturing specimens, Theodore traveled with his family to Egypt and Syria, where he collected numerous birds. By then a skilled taxidermist, he skinned and mounted the birds himself. If young Roosevelt’s collection methods seemed bloody and cruel, he merely followed the accepted practices of the leading naturalists of the time. Killing was the only way to make extremely accurate observations about the physical characteristics of unfamiliar animals.

While written in a childish hand, the notebooks in which young Roosevelt logged his studies reflected the zeal with which he pursued Nature. They contained complete descriptions of the animals collected, including size, sex, place and date collected, habits, and even stomach contents. In Vienna, where the family traveled after leaving Egypt, Roosevelt turned his hotel room into a virtual zoological laboratory, much to the dismay of the cousin who shared his lodgings.

At Harvard, where he studied natural history, Roosevelt similarly outfitted his off-campus apartment and continued collecting. In 1882, after being elected to the New York State Legislature, Roosevelt donated the bulk of the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History to the Smithsonian Institution. But his interest in the outdoors did not end with the museum’s closing.

By the mid-1800’s, many of the people closest to nature had come to realize that the wilderness could only suffer so much exploitation. Hunters, miners, and timber cutters threatened not only individual species, but entire ecosystems. Fortunately, forward-thinking sportsmen began to organize for the conservation of game and game habitat. Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, joined the fight. Not surprisingly, the organization he helped to found would be among the most influential.

For the complete article, go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tr-environment/

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