President Theodore Roosevelt Writes Naturalist John Burroughs, Describing Hunting and the Behavior of Lynx and Bobcats

He describes his previous hunts and relishes in the discussion, before turning his attention to the Panama Canal

“In the course of many expeditions to, and much time spent in regions where our American lynxes of different kind were found – both lucivees and bob cats – and after puzzling over hundreds of their trails in the snow, and watching and sometimes shooting and hounding the animals, have...

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President Theodore Roosevelt Writes Naturalist John Burroughs, Describing Hunting and the Behavior of Lynx and Bobcats

He describes his previous hunts and relishes in the discussion, before turning his attention to the Panama Canal

“In the course of many expeditions to, and much time spent in regions where our American lynxes of different kind were found – both lucivees and bob cats – and after puzzling over hundreds of their trails in the snow, and watching and sometimes shooting and hounding the animals, have never seen anything that remotely suggested courses of conduct like those…I must now return to Panama and kindred subjects and leave lucivees, bob cats, etc., for a year to come.”

No U.S. president is more popularly associated with nature and wildlife than is Theodore Roosevelt – life-long naturalist, prodigious hunter, tireless adventurer, and visionary conservationist. As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. He initiated the U.S. Forest Service, and sat aside 150 national forests; he signed the Antiquities Act and pursuant to it created the first 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods; an ardent ornithologist, he set up the first 51 federal bird reservations; he named five national parks, and added lands to a sixth – Yosemite; by executive order he established the first four national game preserves, including the National Range; and the instituted first 24 reclamation, or federal irrigation, projects. As a naturalist crusader, TR’s impact went far beyond the simple accomplishments; it resulted in changing the way people thought about the need to preserve America’s natural treasures.

Nature was Theodore Roosevelt’s first passion. Long before he considered a career in politics, he had a fascination with the natural world and thought he would be a naturalist. His father, one of the founders of New York City’s Natural History Museum, encouraged his son’s curiosity. It was on a summer trip to the country that five year old TR began to hunt for plants and animals to study. At the age of seven, he began his career as a zoologist. As he recalled later, it all started when he was walking up Broadway and saw a dead seal which raised questions in the young boy’s mind: Where had it been caught, how long was it, what species of seal was it? He managed to acquire the seal’s skull, the first specimen in what he called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”

Roosevelt was a passionate naturalist and hunter. He loved the outdoors, and the thrill of tracking and chasing game, the skill in marksmanship, the careful and deliberate recording of his observations about each hunt, the demanding preservation of specimens, and the pleasure of capturing in rich and vibrant language this experience so that he could share it with the world. His two best known expeditions, Africa and South America, were both sponsored scientific expeditions that, in addition to affording TR an opportunity to hunt and obtain specimens for his own collection, gathered valuable natural history data for some of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Smithsonian Institution.

Roosevelt was well acquainted with the noted naturalists of the time, particularly John Burroughs. Burroughs contributed to the American understanding of nature through his large literary output, which included works about Henry David Thoreau, and his friend Walt Whitman, whom he admired. In April 1903, the two men toured Yellowstone Park together and Burroughs wrote about it in Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt, published in 1906. In planning the two-week trip to the park, he had written Burroughs, “For the last 18 months I have taken everything as it came, from coal strikes to trolley cars, and I feel I am entitled to a fortnight to myself.”  TR arrived in time to set the Roosevelt Arch’s cornerstone in a grand ceremony. In 1907 Roosevelt publicly entered the nature-fakers controversy when he gave an interview and circulated an article defending Burroughs and stating his own views. Roosevelt esteemed Burroughs and called him Oom John (the Roosevelts were of Dutch extraction), an affectionate term meaning “uncle” in Dutch.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, January 2, 1904, to Burroughs, beginning with the behavior of Lynxes.  “Dear Oom John, Under exceptional and fortuitous circumstances two or three cats of any species might for the moment join in a common assault upon some prey. But in the course of many expeditions to, and much time spent in regions where our American lynxes of different kind were found – both lucivees and bob cats – and after puzzling over hundreds of their trails in the snow, and watching and sometimes shooting and hounding the animals, have never seen anything that remotely suggested courses of conduct like those Long describes. They do not hunt in bands; they hunt separately. They do not follow the trail of game as wolves and foxes do, though they may occasionally follow a fresh trail for a comparatively short distance. They occasionally why lie in wait, but they are much more apt to stalk their prey, rambling about through the woods until they see or smell it and then creeping up to it. I do not believe that a lynx or any other animal of the cat kind ever allured a caribou fawn or any other animal to its death in the way Long describes [in an article on the subject], and I have never seen or known of a trustworthy hunter who did see a party of lynxes act as he describes that party of lynxes acting as they crossed the country. However, I must now return to Panama and kindred subjects and leave lucivees, bob cats, etc., for a year to come.”

In November 1903, the The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, or Canal Treaty, was signed in the newly independent republic of Panama, giving the United States rights to build a canal on the Panamanian isthmus for an annual payment of $250,000. And in March 1904, TR would establish the Isthmian Canal Commission to see through the construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt orders them to “make the dirt fly” — to start work on the canal as soon as possible.

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