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Whether stuffed remains in a museum case, inscribed tombstone, or stone wall perched on a cliff, memorials to extinct animals are timestamps representing human-animal relationships at particular moments in time. This essay analyzes the rhetoric and imagery of historical extinctions as seen in these memorials to understand the ways people struggled to understand the loss. Through examination of memorials to extinct species in U.S. museums, parks, and zoos my research has revealed a continuous struggle to identify the personhood of animals, define human-animal interactions, and locate human responsibility for environmental change.
While each memorial mimics remembrance practices used for humans and human events, they differ in their acknowledgement of the individuality and the agency of its extinction which, in turn, often denies agency to the animal. Steeped as they are in Romantic-era notions of wildness, these memorials can be read as parables of environmentalism, but in their conceptualization of the animal, they instruct us in the varieties of human-animal interactions and representations within the environmental movement at different times and places, making them more complex spaces than their simplicity suggests. While memorials present only a slice of the story, the memories they create and reinforce become part of the cultural ways of dealing with extinction that is often more popular and more poignant than historical narratives documenting their declines. At its core, my research adds to the literature on constructions of Nature in American culture by connecting 19th-century declension narratives with 20th-century extinctions, and problematizes the American ideology of abundance.
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