Bared Teeth, Plucked Feathers, Broken Eggs: Reading Human-Animal Relationships through Audubon

Jacob M Huff

Abstract


In this paper, I study John James Audubon’s famed drawings of wildlife to uncover his perspective on the evolving relationships between humans and animals during the era of American westward expansion.  Using three engravings from Birds of America, along with his accompanying essays, I look beyond the animals in the foreground to examine the human settlements often lurking in the background.  I discover that Audubon portrays three distinct types of human-animal relationships, which I then compare to the human presence shown in two of his later works, the engravings of Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America and their subsequent essays.   This second set of drawings undercuts any attempt to derive an optimistic interpretation of the Birds plates, for they reveal an unsustainable relationship between humans and the animals whose habitats they invade.  I conclude that while Birds and Quadrupeds glorify their animal subjects, rightly qualifying as artistic and scientific triumphs, their depiction of human activity carries a much darker weight, suggesting that human presence in nature necessarily causes damage.  Ultimately, this idea recasts Audubon as a thinker who transcends his historical location and offers a relevant perspective on the environment occupied by the modern reader.

 

Keywords


Audubon, Birds of America, Quadrupeds of North America

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