David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Mother birds and extinction: Parshat Ki Tetzei

North American Bison. (Kurt Kaiser, Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
North American Bison. (Kurt Kaiser, Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Usually, I try to write about people who I think are heroes on some level. Sometimes, those people also acted in ways which were not heroic, but that is usually incidental to their greatness.

However, Madison Grant is not like that at all. He was one of the strongest advocates for conservation at the beginning of the 20th century, and due to his efforts American flora and fauna is in a much better place than it would have been without him. But his advocacy for saving the plants and animals of the United States were part of his greater philosophy, which was abhorrent. To give you a sense of how repulsive his views were, Adolph Hitler said of Grants book, “This book is my Bible.”

So, let’s begin at the beginning, bearing in mind that people are complicated, and even people who caused great harm can also do tremendous good.

Grant was born on November 19, 1865, and considered himself to be American aristocracy. His ancestors included some of the first colonists, several men who fought in the war of Independence, signed the Declaration of Independence and his grandfather was an officer in the war of 1812. He grew up in Long Island wealth. He was educated by private tutors, and aged 16 moved to Germany to get a complete classical education. He graduated from Yale and then qualified as a lawyer at Columbia.

Madison Grant in the 1920s. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Although he opened his own law practice near the New York Stock Exchange, that was never his main priority. As he looked out over the streets of New York, he saw a city that had absorbed millions of immigrants over the past few decades. He felt that the newly arrived Irish, Italians, and Jews did not recognize or appreciate Grant’s importance. He considered himself a true American, while many of the newcomers didn’t even speak the language or share the values of his country.

In 1892, with his brother DeForest, Grant helped found the Society of Colonial Wars, whose membership was restricted to men “of good moral character and reputation” whose ancestors had fought in the colonial wars. The society’s gatherings allowed its members to escape from the foreign cultures that were gradually taking over New York City.

He was soon invited to join the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization founded by future president Theodore Roosevelt and named for Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, which offered big game hunters a chance to sit and discuss their adventures and kills. At the time, hunting was an activity for the rich, and since his youth, Grant had been an avid hunter. At the time he met Roosevelt, Grant spent at least four months each year hunting big game all over North America.

Although the rich hunted for sport, game also featured heavily in American cuisine at the time. In his 2009 book, “Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant,” Jonathan Spiro described the foods that were often served:

In those days, all manner of game mammals were commonly found on the American dinner table: skinks and squirrels, beavers and badgers, moose and mules, hares, raccoons, otters, muskrats, woodchucks, opossums, antelopes, porcupines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, hams of bear, haunches of venison, saddles of elk, legs of caribou, tongues of deer, and so forth. In addition… Swans, geese, ducks, robins, grouse, coots, cranes, loons, blackbirds, sparrows, thrushes, warblers, vireos, woodpeckers, seagulls, goldfinches, prairie chickens, and passenger pigeons were all common parts of the American diet.

Grant and other members of the Boone and Crockett Club were upset with the practices used by those supplying the dinner tables of the nation. Because these hunters were killing vast numbers of animals, including females and young, and wiping out whole herds and flocks. Also, because they thought hunting was only for the upper echelons of society and they did not want the riff raff killing “their” animals.

So, ironically, the Boone and Crockett Club became one of the strongest advocacy groups for animal conservation. Its members would lobby to ban many hunting practices, then would go out hunting themselves. A few years later, as president, Roosevelt (who the National Park Service dubs “the conservation president”) established five national parks. It seems strange to us, but there was a very strong line between hunting and conservation.

Conservationist William T. Hornaday, who was the first director of the Bronx Zoo, had Grant in mind when he wrote in his 1913 book, “Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation”:

These men are the very bone and sinew of wild life preservation. These are the men who have red blood in their veins, who annually hear the red gods calling, who love the earth, the mountains, the woods, the waters and the sky… And whenever a species is threatened with extinction, he conscientiously refrains from shooting it.

Grant was at the forefront of this conservation movement. At a time when humans were wiping out one species after another, Grant lobbied to protect the animals. He was fighting against an establishment that did not care about animals, but more fundamentally refused to believe that humans could possibly be destroying the wildlife. One example of this is when the Ohio State Legislature dismissed the idea of protecting the passenger pigeon (once numbered in the billions but by 1914 entirely extinct), proclaiming, “It is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them.”

In January 1894, Grant’s first published article appeared in Century Magazine, entitled, “The Vanishing Moose, and their Extermination in the Adirondacks.” In it, he laments:

It is really appalling to compare the enormous amount of game on this continent at the beginning of the century with the wretched remnant of to-day. At that time the American buffalo roamed the prairies in countless thousands, and was probably the most numerous large animal in the world, and now — but all Americans know the shameful story of its extermination.

Little more than a hundred years ago great herds of elk swarmed in the Kentucky and Illinois hunting-grounds, and even as late as 1820 a few could be found in the district north of the Ohio River. To-day their fast-diminishing bands are confined to the mountains of the Northwest. The same sad story of fast-approaching extinction is true of the other game animals, the antelope, bighorn, mountain goat, and the various kinds of deer; in fact, it is true of all our larger mammals.

With his well-heeled connections, Grant lobbied the New York legislature to protect its animals. Despite huge opposition, and despite the fact that he lived far away from the Adirondacks, he succeeded in having the Adirondack Deer Law passed in 1897. Grant’s friend, George Bird Grinnell congratulated him on the bill’s passage: “Great credit is due you for having accomplished something that I thought two years ago quite impossible.”

This law became the model for similar legislation adopted by most other states. It saved the deer of New York, ultimately the moose returned. Eventually, due to Grant, mass killings of wild animals ended throughout the United States.

Photograph 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Through this and many similar efforts, Grant may have done more to preserve the flora and fauna of the United States than any other individual. He was an active member of the American Bison Society, which established several ranges where buffalo could roam free from threat of hunters. In 1905, when the ABS was founded, there were perhaps fewer than 1,000 wild buffalo in America, down from an estimated 30-60 million 80 years earlier. Today there are about half a million buffalo in the United States, and this is partially due to Grant’s fundraising, advocating for legislation and raising public awareness.

Grant also established the Bronx Zoo. He envisaged a place where city dwellers could encounter species from all over the world, and also a place to preserve the species that were rapidly going extinct. Again, using his network of friends, Grant raised the initial money required, successfully lobbied the state and the city, and oversaw every stage of the zoo’s construction. When it opened on November 8, 1899, it was the largest zoo in the world by area, and in a few years it also had the most specimens of any zoo. Unlike most American zoos of the time, where animals were kept isolated in small cages, Grant’s vision was to have large enclosures with several species interacting as they would in the wild. Grant was secretary of the New York Zoological Society from its inception until 1925 and oversaw the running of the zoo until his death.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Infamously, in 1906, Grant and Hornaday decided to add an African pygmy named Ota Benga to the zoo’s exhibits. People thronged to see this 23-year old who spent his afternoons in the “Monkey House.”

Grant also helped to create Glacier National Park and Denali National Park. He founded the Save the Redwoods League to save the giant trees from logging companies. He did perhaps more critical work for conservation in the United States than anyone else.

But underlying his belief in preserving nature was a strong commitment to racism, eugenics and xenophobia.

In 1916, Grant published his most famous (and once popular) book, “The Passing of the Great Race” in which he laments the changing “stock” of the American population due to immigration. He promoted the idea of a “Nordic race” which he held was racially superior to the Caucasians, the Mongoloids and the Negroids. Although Grant did not invent this idea or these categories, with his huge influence, he popularized them and influenced public policy.

He was concerned that humans were destroying the country due to overpopulation, so he advocated killing those who he considered inferior. He wrote:

Those who read these pages will feel that there is little hope for humanity, but the remedy has been found, and can be quickly and mercifully applied. A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit—in other words, social failures—would solve the whole question in a century, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals and insane asylums.

By 1937, the book had sold 16,000 copies in the United States and many more globally. Unsurprisingly, it was embraced in Germany by the Nazi party, and was the first non-German book reprinted when they took power. Adolf Hitler wrote to Grant saying, “The book is my bible.” At the Nuremberg trials after the Holocaust, Major General Karl Brandt of the Waffen-SS cited the book in his defense. According to Spiro:

In the 1920s and 1930s, it had been quite common for congressmen to read aloud from Grant’s book in the US Capitol to argue for restricting the immigration of the ‘inferior’ non-Nordic races and even to justify the lynching of African Americans.

Grant also worked to restrict immigration to the United States. He served as vice president of the Immigration Restriction League for many years. He worked to convince Congress that when the Emergency Quota Act expired in 1924, it should be replaced with an even more stringent law. Grant’s closest friend, Henry Fairfield Osborn told him that the current law allowed too many “Jews and other undesirables” into the country. “The Passing” was often presented to the House Immigration Committee as evidence.

Grant successfully advocated for forced sterilization of undesirables, although this was not his preference. He wrote in “Passing”:

Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.

However, his influence continued long after his death. From the 1930s to the 1970s, tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized. Justification came partially from Grant, who wrote:

The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of victims of misguided sentimentalism. This is a practical, merciful and inevitable solution of the whole problem and can be applied to an ever-widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased and the insane and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.

Grant worked with southern white racists to ban relationships between people of different ethnic groups and with black nationalists in the north who wanted to repatriate African Americans back to Africa.

In summary, Madison Grant espoused and lobbied for odious ideas. For this reason, he was largely erased from the history books. Except that recently, his name has begun to resurface among some far-right groups.

Yet, the same person was responsible for saving American wildlife from extinction. And it is this which brings me to this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tetzei.

One of the commandments in the portion is the requirement to shoo away the mother bird before taking the chicks or eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

In his commentary on this, Sefer HaChinuch (an anonymous 13th century work) writes:

It is from the roots of this commandment [that it is] to put into our hearts that the providence of God, may He be blessed, is upon all of His creatures – with the human species individually, as it is written (Job 34:21), “For His eyes are upon a man’s ways, etc.”; and upon the other species of animals generally, meaning to say that His desire, may He be blessed, is towards the existence of the [particular] species.

And therefore, no species will ever become extinct from all of the species of creatures, as it is due to the providence of the Living and Existing forever, may He be blessed, that their existence is found. And when a man places his mind to this, he understands the ways of God and he will see that the continuous preservation of the species in the world – that not one of all of them became extinct and lost from the day they were created, “from the lice’s eggs to the aurochs’ horns” – is all from His statement and His will about this.

An aurochs was a large species of wild cattle which is the ancestor of modern domestic cattle. Sadly, in 1627, the last recorded aurochs died in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland.

But Sefer HaChinuch was not the only medieval rabbi to believe that extinction was impossible. His quote about the aurochs and lice eggs comes from the Talmud (Shabbat 107b), though there it does not explicitly discuss extinction. Until relatively recently, nobody believed in extinction.

For example, Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) wrote (on Genesis 1:12):

‘And God saw that it was good’— The survival of species forever.

Rambam (Maimonides 1138-1204) wrote (Guide for the Perplexed 2:28):

The fact that the works of God are perfect, admitting of no addition or diminution, has already been mentioned by Moses, the wisest of all men, in the words: “The rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32:14).

Perhaps the strongest anti-extinction statement comes from the sixth century Bereishit Rabba (11:3):

Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Chanina, said: Every day that has a lack [the Torah] says “blessing” and nothing is lacking. On the fifth day [of creation] the birds and fish were created. People slaughter and eat the birds and trap and eat the fish, but [the verse] says “blessing” and there is nothing lacking. On the sixth day [of creation] people and animals were created. People slaughter and eat the animals, and people die. But it says “blessing” and there is nothing lacking.

It was not only rabbis who held this. Since Aristotle and Plato the entire Western world had believed that every species would continue forever. As late as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote (Notes on the State of Virginia):

Every race of animals seems to have received from their Maker certain laws of extension at the time of their formation. … It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.

It was only with the great French naturalist, Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) that extinction was established as a fact. He used fossil evidence to demonstrate clearly that certain species had become extinct. In fact, the reason Jefferson mentioned mammoths was because that was one of Cuvier’s strongest proofs.

Today, we all know that the vast majority of creatures to have ever lived are now extinct. Furthermore, we know that humans are the foremost cause of modern extinctions. There are more than one million species currently on the brink of extinction, as humans take over their environments, introduce pests that kill them, pollute nature and cause climate catastrophe.

The one biblical creature who was concerned about human extinction of its species was the raven. When Noah wanted to see if the floodwaters had subsided, he first sent a raven. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) records this statement of Reish Lakish:

The raven gave Noah a winning argument. It said to him, ‘Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master hates me — [since He commanded] seven [pairs to be taken] of the kosher animals, but only two of the non-kosher. You hate me — seeing that you leave the species of which there are seven and send one of which there are only two. Should the angel of heat or of cold smite me, would the world not lack one creature?

The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:13) gives a clear instruction that it is humankind’s responsibility to look after the world:

When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: ‘See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are. Everything I created, I created for you. Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you.

I would argue that part of the commandment to shoo away the mother bird is to teach us care and concern for all living things. The Mishna (Berachot 5:3) which says, “Anyone who says ‘Your mercy extends to the birds nest’ should be silenced.” However, almost all the medieval rabbis explain this in ways that still imply that we should care about the birds.

Until recently, we did not know that our actions were wiping out the plants and animals of our planet. But now we know that we are causing the Holocene extinction, the widespread devastation of life around us. Grant’s beliefs were abhorrent, but he worked to save the planet. Each of us has a responsibility, as the descendants of Adam and Eve, to care for our world, because if we destroy it, there will be nobody to mend it for us.

The next class in my WebYeshiva series entitled “A History of Selichot” is on Tuesday, August 29. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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