Several years ago I read a story about a man who became obsessed with hunting down a wolf. I thought the story was sad but learned that after the wolf was dead, the man greatly regretted what he had done. The wolf’s death changed the man’s life forever. Fast-forward to a few months ago, I unknowingly started watching a documentary about this same man, Ernest Thompson Seton and discovered he had become a writer and helped develop what is now known as the Boy Scouts of America, acting as its first Chief Scout. I have since picked up one of Seton’s book’s Wild Animals I Have Known, and it now seems only fitting that I finished his book while sitting in the shadow of Mount Baden-Powell; dedicated to the man Robert Baden-Powell, who is largely credited with the scouting movement and a friend of Seton’s.
Seton begins Wild Animals I Have Known with a note to the reader ensuring that each story is true, although he explains that some animals and events have been combined for the ease of the reader. He also explains his own thoughts on humans and the rights of wild animals. I felt this was only a touching example of his naturalist side; a vast difference from the obsessed hunter I had learned that he was before. When narrating from his own perspective, Seton often writes that he chooses to admire the wild beauty of an animal. He refuses to participate in the madness that others fall victim too while trying to conquer the wildness in a creature. Knowing Seton’s past, I felt this was a touching way to try to absolve his own mistakes. This explanation or note to the reader I found interesting in another way as well. Later after this book was published, Seton would be targeted for his emotional or humanistic stories which he openly explains his reasonings for in this section.
Once in the first chapter, Wild Animals I Have Known seemed to have an easy flow and I feel it can be compared to that of a children’s chapter book. Seton even provides the reader his own illustrations of his animals another common characteristic of a children’s chapter book. The first story is Lobo: The King of Currumpaw, which felt only right, as this is Seton’s personal story of his obsession with hunting a wolf (Lobo). He seems to try to pay homage to Lobo by sharing of his life story. Within this first telling, I was reminded that it was written in 1898 as some language Seton uses reflects the time. Throughout this book, Seton uses words that seem to have a lost meanings. This verbiage, however, will not take away from the stories being read.
The full book is made up of eight different stories of wild animals and each are written with very human characteristics and the animals often cross over into another’s story. There are many books to date written in this style however it is very obvious that Seton had actually spent enough time in one area, to observe the wildlife there. Having done so, it would not be surprising that he would observe the same crow or rabbit going along its daily habits; their lives all connected. What adds to his childlike stories is the fluff in between that Seton applies to his animals. Much like how we imply on our dog that he feels regret for eating out of the trash; we can tell he feels regret by that “sad look” in his eyes. Seton weaves this same tactic with his stories along with facts, science, and the brutal truths that can be found in nature.
Although I felt as if I was reading a children’s book, Seton does not shy away from the harsh realities of human nature and the cycle of life. When a man is present in his stories so is man’s wild savagery that only seeks to tame or conquer the wild things he encounters. This possibly is a reflection of his own cruel actions, this ruthlessness seems to be an underlying tone of each story where man and wild collide. I was at times sickened by the heartless treatment of animals presented in his stories.
Seton also describes the life cycle for many of his animals along with the realities of life and death. He doesn’t hide the truth that no wild animal lives “happily ever after”. Death is often ignored in storytelling but these are a reminder that death is simply apart of life. These harsh realities described, however, are probably more appropriate and truthful than some media the younger generation takes in. I, however, feel it is something to consider mentioning as I have previously compared this book with that of a children’s book.
Wild Animals I Have Known is a wonderful read and in my opinion a piece of history, not only for humans, but also for the animals Seton writes about. During my reading and now after, I have found myself pausing a little longer when observing some form of wildlife. They are more than just cute little creatures but wild survivors living a life where death can be waiting for them with every step, trod, hop, slither, or flight. Although written with a little fluff for the entertainment and understanding of human readers, I found this book to be an elegant preservation of nature and its wild creatures.
I personally think it would be helpful to do your own research on Ernest Thompson Seton before reading this book. It will help you understand his human characters and his animals, along with his style of writing. It may also give you a better perspective of the underlying meaning of his stories. This is a man who spent his life trying to make up for the death of Lobo, the wolf that seemed to haunt him but motivated him to try to change the mindset towards wild animals. We, humans, are so much the same as our wild brothers and sisters.
You can find Wild Animals I Have Known via Amazon using this link https://amzn.to/2JDigua or check it out at your local library!
Learn more about Ernest Thompson Seton here!
(A Few illustrations As Shown In Seton’s Book)
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