National Audubon Society is surveying its membership regarding whether or not to keep the name Audubon because the namesake John James Audubon owned slaves. But National Audubon never chose its name because the man, who died in 1851, once owned slaves. It chose the name to honor the man who illustrated birds so beautifully that public awareness of birds changed.

The whole ideological movement of the anthropocene elevates the importance of people beyond what is supported by biological and other scientific evidence, even by historical evidence.

History provides a human focus, on individuals and groups in the context of their place and time. Historically, slavery existed. Pretending it did not does not provide any social justice. Removing all slavers from view removes slavery from view. That misrepresents our history. Are you going to wipe out all men involved politics before 1920 because women could not participate? Acknowledging that humans — past and present — were and are human is not racist, particularly if we acknowledge any racism and remove opportunities to repeat any racism. But wiping out racism from our history is racist!

Audubon’s slaughter of birds, his hunting as well as his specimen collecting, needs also to be acknowledged. He wrote of the American robin, for example, “their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful.” He continued, “Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating.” National Audubon never celebrated having robins for dinner! In fact, National Audubon grew out of a movement against the slaughter of birds.

In time, Audubon the man became aware of how hunting and other human activities were negatively impacting birds and other wildlife. Then he asked, “Where can I now go and find nature undisturbed?”

He was a flawed person who learned and changed his opinion with newly acquired knowledge. I can appreciate, even celebrate that.

Similarly, we can celebrate George Washington’s leadership in the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence without denying their humanity, including their flaws that included the ownership of slaves, of people.

In using the name Audubon for a national organization or a local chapter, we are recognizing and acknowledging that the man’s beautiful illustrations were an important step in raising the science, the public awareness, the general education, and later the conservation of birds.

To pretend that the modern organization owes nothing to people of the past, albeit imperfect people, is a sham. The Audubon name is a recognition of what we celebrate – the beauty of birds in all their diversity, the scientific as well as aesthetic beauty. The name Audubon is an opportunity to education first and foremost about birds and then also about the people associated with birds in the past, how individuals make decisions in their time and place.

The individual matters in context; for example, membership in Audubon places individuals in the context of people with a shared interest in birds.

All individual humans are flawed. Most of us are lucky enough to be ordinary enough that people do not seek out our flaws for public display. Yet we are lucky that some people were so exceptional in a positive way that the self-appointed “karens” policing society today attack them for being human. Audubon’s legacy is not paternalism, a stick, nor charity, a carrot. It’s a curiosity about and an appreciation of birds!

We are lucky that John James Audubon worked to illustrate birds back then. To pretend otherwise is distort history for a currently popular, albeit certainly not universal, political ideology.

In the classic handbook on decolonialization How to Read Donald Duck (1971), the authors Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart wrote, “Historical experience is a huge treasure chest full of hollowed moral tags and recipes, of the same old standards and doctrines, all defending the same old thesis of domination.”

A name change may be easy, comfortable, and cause for self-congratulations. It presumes that we know what’s best for diverse populations, that we can get away with changing words rather than how we behave in a diverse society.

The National Audubon Society and local chapters should indeed be welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds and identities. But removing the Audubon name is ideological showmanship, presentism, and judgmentalism. It is not a welcome mat.

Bio: Anne Millbrooke is a historian, wilderness and wildlife advocate.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

18 Responses to What’s a name? National Audubon Society By Anne Millbrooke

  1. MK Ray says:

    I would be fine with leaving the Audubon’s name on the organization. But I would like to see the names of birds like Wilson’s warbler or Townsend’s Solitaire not be the names of humans. Name them for what they are, not what we are.

    • Jerry Thiessen says:

      Why limit your like to just birds? How about mammals,reptiles,insects,fish, bacteria,viruses, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, medicine etc. Lewis and Clark deserve to have their names scientifically associated with animals that were described first on their trek to the Pacific.

      • MK Ray says:

        Actually, I would love to get human names out of taxonomy for ALL species. That’s a great idea! Lewis and Clark are remembered by history apart from their animal naming. They are in no danger of being forgotten. Appending their name to a living creature that existed in the biotic community long before that expedition ‘found’ them as if they owned it either then or now all these years later doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Scientific names could be used. How would you feel about it?

      • MK Ray says:

        Those have human names in them too.

      • Anne Millbrooke says:

        Some scientific names include the name of the collector, describer, or other person; for example, Townsend’s warbler is Setophaga (genus) townsendi (species). But scientific naming at least follows standardized international rules. My problem is that I don’t know how to pronounce many of the Latin words. I could learn. And someone or group could post a pronunciation guide to scientific names online to help us learn.

    • Anne Millbrooke says:

      I like your explicit shifting focus from us human to them birds and by extension wildlife in general. That is the basically why I reject the anthropocene ideology with people as the center of all discussions, as if people weren’t part of the biological world in the context of a physical world. We humans have agency, but we are not the only agents.

  2. Ruth Berge says:

    Your thoughts are refreshing. Then you used the slanderous word “Karen”. Ironically, you used it to chastise the type of people who made up the word. The local Seattle chapter sent an email that they are changing their name from Audubon for the reasons stated here. Happily, their organization provides no joy to me and I suffer no loss by unsubscribing from their tidings. The hypocrisy of this type of action- the Seattle Audubon changing their name- runs deep, beyond what you have written. Personally, many groups I once supported are now lost forever to me because of this type of behaviour. I am only writing here to thank you for writing this piece.

    • Anne Millbrooke says:

      I used “Karen” for the self-appointed policing individuals, not for all people with different opinions. I love diverse opinions in discussion, but not people trying to shut down discussion by policing what others say.

      • J. Cox says:

        If you want to describe a particular personality then use your power of speech and don’t use a “slang term”. My sister-in-law is named Karen and is a sweet lovely person.

  3. Jerry Thiessen says:

    This is a tricky one. You can’t have the wonderful Audubon Society without the name and you can’t have the name without his history of racism. His name already has an asterisk beside it reflecting his racism and that is good enough for me.

  4. Oscar Mace says:

    I can only atone for my moral acts and I will not pass judgment on people, living or dead, for their moral acts. I have Mr. Audubon’s book of bird illustrations on my bookshelf and it will remain there because of his beautiful and wondrous, scientific and artistic endeavors. When the Sierra Club surveyed members about disassociating the club from John Muir, I asked if we could admit that no human being, past or present, is perfect and realize we will not become better humans by deriding and ostracizing Mr. Muir. The present and tangible priority before humans is how are we going change our relationship with this planet. Future generations suffering in pain and anguish living on a planet with unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and toxic-laced food will judge the immorality of our generation for failing to change our destructive lifestyle. Consequently, the moral imperative to follow should state let us live a quality of life we intend for future generations to live.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      The fact that we are capable of growth and change is what should be kept in mind. Are we going to condemn all women because some in the name of fashion nearly drove some birds to extinction? But it was also women through the Audubon Society who helped stopped this shallow practice.

      While it is unpleasant to think that people had slaves and took joy in mass killings of robins and other creatures, it also gives hope that they did come around to question these practices and try to do better, such as Audubon and Aldo Leopold.

      The cancel culture does nothing but harm and spread ill will, like attacking works of art that we are seeing lately.

      Thank you for this piece!

  5. Jean Brocklebank says:

    Thanks to George for posting Anne Millbrooke’s essay. I agree with Anne. I also concur with this comment posted by Oscar Mace: “The present and tangible priority before humans is how are we going change our relationship with this planet. Future generations suffering in pain and anguish living on a planet with unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and toxic-laced food will judge the immorality of our generation for failing to change our destructive lifestyle.”

    • Anne Millbrooke says:

      Change is constant — in the social, biological, and physical realms. We do our best. We can celebrate past people whose best deeds changed the world for the better, even if their worst behavior we abhor. We don’t need to hide the best or the worst while we celebrate the former and reject the latter. Contradictions, foilbles, and, yes, flaws, are part of human nature. That’s all the more reason to celebrate virtues, high ideals, and positive achievements.

  6. Jannett Heckert says:

    The name is world renowned. It is part of our past. We can’t change history. Let us not forget but must accept. Keep the name.
    Thank you!

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