I held it so tight that I lost it
Said the Child of the Butterfly
Of Many a vaster Capture
That is the Elegy—
—Emily Dickinson, “I Held It So Tight That I Lost It”
In the early 1800s, the passenger pigeon made up almost half of the entire bird population in North America. But by the 1900s, only a handful of specimens remained, all in captivity, all kept alive by breeders, scientists, and zookeepers.1 In less than a century, the passenger pigeon went from being an indomitable force of nature to a symbol of nature’s imperilment by the irrepressible onrush of modernity. The story of the passenger pigeon traces in miniature the transition from hunt to capture theorized in this book. In what follows, I use the extinction of the passenger pigeon as a lens both for apprehending the dire consequences of the rise of capture and for glimpsing the ethical imperative that emerges out of this devastation.
Audubon’s 1813 entry on the passenger pigeon famously describes interminable flocks darkening the sky for days at a time. Noting settlers’ mass hunting of the birds, the naturalist reassures his reader that it poses no risk of extinction.2 Just a decade later, however, Cooper devotes an entire chapter of The Pioneers to the settlers’ ruthless “carnage” of a pigeon roost to warn against the transformation of the hunt (as that which targets one object at a time) into something else altogether: an increasingly one-sided, automatic, and indiscriminate slaughter characterized by shooting blindly, killing en masse, and using nets and other unsportsmanlike stratagems. At the end of the chapter, Judge Temple expresses remorse when he belatedly grants his victims the power to return his gaze: “I see nothing but eyes, in every direction, as the innocent sufferers turn their heads in terror. Full one-half of those that have fallen are yet alive; and I think it is time to end the sport, if sport it be.”3
As the passenger pigeon became inextricable from its tragic fate under capture, a new condition of the animal emerged that cast it as essentially elusive. The precipitous decline of the species would usher in a new era of game management and biodiversity conservation laws. The pigeon’s incapacity to reproduce by “natural” means prompted a mutation in the biopolitics of conservation—what Irus Braverman calls a shift “from ‘letting be’ to ‘making be.’”4 But assisted reproduction had no effect on the gregarious animal, which needed large flocks to have viable reproduction rates. Unable to stem the passenger pigeon’s disappearance, conservationist efforts typically framed its demise as a late awakening to the reality of anthropogenic extinction, which could no longer be ignored.5
By 1910, only one specimen remained. Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, named for Martha Washington (the nation’s original First Lady), outlived the rest of her species by four years.6 During these solitary years, Martha was not just the last representative of her species; she was her species, a metonym of herself, the tragic culmination of the move from animals to “the animal.” On September 1, 1914, Martha’s lifeless body was found lying at the bottom of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. For the first time in history, the extinction of a species could be dated with certainty. Upon Martha’s death, her carcass (now safely stored in a drawer at the National Museum of Natural History) was shipped to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where it was photographed, dissected, and taxidermied for display. Of the last photograph taken of Martha while alive (Figure 20), Robert Wilson Shufeldt, the renowned anatomist who autopsied the bird (and incidentally, Audubon’s great-son-in-law), wrote: “It is quite unnecessary to comment on the value of this picture or its uniqueness, as it represents one of those things that can never be repeated.”7
The value of the photograph, as Shufeldt makes clear, lies not in its aesthetic qualities but in the nonreproducibility of its referent. Martha became a celebrity in the last years of her life and a national icon in death. Today, a color hologram of her taxidermied body rotates in a 360-degree animation on the Smithsonian’s website: a flightless pigeon in perpetual motion—a spectral manifestation of the bird caged by the movement of the thaumatrope.
For all the Cincinnati Zoo’s efforts to find Martha a mate, she produced no offspring; although she was infertile, she remained seen through the prism of reproducibility, owing her fame to her inability to perpetuate her species. She had become what Darwin calls a “living fossil.” The practices that encase Martha’s memory for us today—zoo and natural history museum promotional discourses, photography, taxidermy—seek both to stave off and to compensate for nature’s loss. “To make an exact image,” writes Donna Haraway of taxidermy, “is to insure against disappearance, to cannibalize life until it is safely and permanently a specular image, a ghost.”8 Ghostly creatures like Martha—those “living dead” animals that would not live without conservationist efforts9—are the hypervisible counterparts to the billions of “zombie” animals bred to be killed every year behind the closed doors of factory farms.10 This dimension of capture appears to trap the animal in a melancholy narrative that, like the child in Emily Dickinson’s poem, compulsively conjugates preservation with loss: “I held it so tight that I lost it / Said the Child of the Butterfly / Of Many a Vaster Capture / that is the Elegy.”11
But capture does not have to be elegiac. As capture defines a new epoch in the history of animality, it also provides the basis for an ethics of life in capture. In the last chapter of this book, I locate the kernel of this ethics in a strand of twentieth-century ethology invested in a relationship to animals that is not based on shared experience or proximity but predicated on the recognition of an unbridgeable distance between living beings. This approach was most famously theorized in the work of Jakob von Uexküll, a foundational figure for twentieth-century biopolitical thought, who argues that every living subject is enclosed in a milieu fully meaningful only to it—what he calls the Umwelt. Such a view implies a radical change of perspective from the anthropocentric epistemological fervor that fueled the rise of capture in the nineteenth century: a way of looking at animals not as objects to be seen but instead as subjects that see:
We must therefore imagine all the animals that animate Nature around us . . . as having a soap bubble around them, closed on all sides, which closes off their visual space and in which everything visible for the subject is also enclosed. . . . Only when we can vividly imagine this fact will we recognize in our own world the bubble that encloses each and every one of us on all sides.12
Uexküll’s call for a different economy of attention models an epistemology and ethics of cohabitation, a way of inhabiting absolutely enclosed yet irreducibly entangled worlds. This form of attention means being attuned to the semiotic and operative capacities of various living subjects and to the manner in which they experience and configure their milieus, only to discover that what we take to be the world is but a worldview conditioned by the horizons of our own singular perceptual faculties.
What is adumbrated in the structure of capture is a new conception of the disappearing animal. But against capture’s mandate to preserve, secure, and manage animals through mechanisms of enclosure, we find in Uexküll’s ethology a different ethics of relation to this elusive animal: neither at hand nor at large, beyond both restitution and loss. Advocating for an ethics of capture does not mean valorizing the conditions from which capture emerged, which are profoundly entrenched in white settler colonial and biocapitalist histories of exploitation and extermination. Nor does it mean sanctuarizing distance, as with the “setting aside” of nature promoted in most early twentieth-century conservation rhetoric or the dispassionate detachment championed by scientific objectivity. What it does mean is the acknowledgment of distance as the ground for a new ethics of care and knowledge, as the condition for regarding other animals as well as ourselves.