This text was written for a mock funeral performance I did in collaboration with artist Elizabeth Demaray on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It took place on Lost Species Remembrance Day (Nov. 30) in 2019. I read it along with many other pieces written by other artists and scientists who contributed to the memorial both virtually and in person.
Eulogy for Caracara lutosa
The Guadalupe caracara once lived on the picturesque volcanic island of its namesake, several hundred miles off the coast of Baja, California. An island which, ironically, is now a major tourist destination for those who wish to swim with great white sharks. The irony here is that both species have been the victim of human superstition, folklore, and misinformation. The difference between them is that one managed to live long enough to see its name somewhat cleared, while the other succumbed to our overactive imaginations and dark beliefs about the unknown and unfamiliar. The first European and Russian seal trappers were attracted to the island of Guadalupe in the 18th century because of the fur and elephant seals breeding there by the thousands. As it went with so many islands in the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans, these settlers introduced goats, the animals they used as food, to the island in such great numbers that they completely overwhelmed the native species, both animal and plant. Even as their animal crop thrived, the farmers defended it from perceived predators.
When I think about the fate of this caracara, I try to imagine myself as one of the settlers trying to survive on this island. In my head, I’m alone or in a small group of other travelers and I’ve arrived on an island that seems so incredibly wild. With a rocky coast and an unusually tall and dark forest comprised of many foreign tree species completely unique to this island, it must have appeared to be a magical and quite possibly sinister place. I can imagine trying to drift off to sleep at night and hearing a strange call that sounds a bit like someone quickly dragging a stick along a wooden fence. I can hear something rustling around in the trees and it sounds big. In the morning, maybe one of my sick or baby goats lies dead and half-eaten. There are striking, black and white barred feathers around the body. I talk to some of my neighbors and they describe seeing groups of large, hawk-like creatures with barred chests, long legs, and bright orange faces with blue beaks. They don’t look like any of the Eurasian raptor species that we’re used to seeing. Soon, we’re discussing how best to protect ourselves
from what must be dangerous and evil spirits. A hunting and poisoning campaign begins and when it’s all over, one of the first recorded, intentional eradications of a species is complete. In a period of about 20 years, the once common scavenger (not a predator like the farmers believed) was completely wiped out. In 1901 the naturalist A.W. Anthony commented about the island that “It is directly due to the despised Billy-goat that many interesting species of plants formerly abundant are now extinct, and also that one or more of the birds peculiar to the island has disappeared, and others are following rapidly.” The caracara was not the only casualty of human colonization, but it was the only intentional one as far as I can tell. For me, this adds another layer of emotion to her loss, like a murder charge instead of manslaughter. And the massacre didn’t stop with the farmers. Of the last group of 11 caracaras ever witnessed, the naturalist Rollo Beck managed to shoot and kill nine of them, bringing them back to be stuffed and stared at by Americans and Europeans for generations to come.
Another name for the Guadalupe caracara is the mourning caracara. We don’t know why exactly... it could be that it had a call that to some human ear mimicked the haunting sounds of the mourning dove. But as an artist I can’t help but imagine a slightly more poetic reason. My mind wanders to an idealistic young biologist in a cubicle somewhere in a dusty museum with a giant, stuffed specimen collected by some self-important explorer-naturalist who shot and preserved it not in spite of its rarity, but in fact because of it. Viewing the accounts of superstitious farmers on the island through the less myopic lens of someone who benefits from education, time, and empathy, the biologist names the species with the only feeling he can muster. The name doesn’t stick, of course, because we don’t like to be reminded of our mistakes. The more on-the-nose name becomes the official one, burying the story of the Guadalupe caracara into a past we are doomed to repeat unless we are able to learn to coexist with those we perceive as threats.