A few days ago, a copy of Wild Animals of North America landed on my desk. This National Geographic book from 1918 contains 119 “animal biographies” written by naturalist Edward W. Nelson for National Geographic articles that ran in the magazine in 1916 and 1918. It covers a wide array of species — everything from the nine-banded armadillo to the Texan wildcat.
Wild Animals is full of scientific details, including illustrations of animal tracks by Ernest Thompson Seton so meticulously rendered they’re almost as good as photographs. The book also has plenty of those old-fashioned, whimsical touches you no longer find in natural histories. In addition to including facts about diet, habitat, and appearance, Nelson also tries to endow each animal with its own personality. These are the best parts. Take his description of the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus obesus):
The walruses, or “sea horses” of the old navigators, are the strangest and most grotesque of all sea mammals. Their large, rugged heads, armed with two long ivory tusks, and their huge swollen bodies, covered with hairless, wrinkled, and warty skin, gives them a formidable appearance unlike that of any other mammal. . . . Occasionally an old walrus is unusually vindictive and, after forcing a hunter to take refuge on the ice, will remain patrolling the vicinity for a long time, roaring and menacing the object of her anger.
While it may be true that not every observation in these biographies is strictly and scientifically objective, Nelson’s occasional, anthropomorphic flourishes do add color to the cameos and make for entertaining reading. Also adding color are the drawings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes that are sprinkled throughout the book. These illustrations, Gilbert Grosvenor noted in the book’s introduction, were “among the most effective and lifelike examples of color printing ever produced in this country.”
If you can’t find this book at your local library, you can still read it in black and white. The book has been digitized by Google and the full-text is available online here.