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'A Catastrophic Theft From Humanity': An Author's Mission To Find Stolen Feathers

"The Feather Thief," by Kirk Wallace Johnson. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Feather Thief," by Kirk Wallace Johnson. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Author Kirk Johnson‘s new book “ The Feather Thief” explores the 2009 theft of rare Victorian-era bird feathers from a British museum by American music student Edwin Rist, who was obsessed with using the feathers for exotic fishing lures.

Johnson ( @KirkWJohnson) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the book and his own obsession with Rist’s story, which grew as Johnson tried to escape the pressures of his nonprofit The List Project.

“I felt an obligation to go out and try to hunt these missing birds down because a huge hole had been blown open in the scientific record,” he says. “That’s one thing that you have to understand: These birds hold answers to questions that scientists haven’t even thought to ask yet. And by stealing them, he has — in the words of the director of science for the British museum — this was a catastrophic theft from humanity.”

Interview Highlights

On hearing about the feather heist on a fishing trip

“While I was on a river, my guide in New Mexico mentioned this thing about a museum heist, and he told me that a young kid named Edwin Rist had just broken into the British museum. And when I first heard about it, it all seemed so strange as to be unbelievable. I mean, he said that the kid had stolen these birds in order for the feathers, which he would pluck and use for this sort of arcane Victorian art of salmon fly tying, and that he was hailed as the future of fly tying by this what I kind of tongue-in-cheek called the ‘Feather Underground.’

“And the thing to know about salmon fly tying, which is very different from trout, is that salmon flies are just artistic, extravagant, aesthetic creations. They’re rarely used to actually catch salmon. It’s just mostly grown men following 150-year-old ‘recipes,’ they’re called, that employ feathers from a dozen different species of birds from every forest and rainforest and jungle throughout the world. And they’re really beautiful, stunning things, but this is mainly an art form. You could just as easily catch salmon with a tuft of dog fur tied to a hook. There’s no earthly reason why a salmon in Scotland should be attracted to a feather from a bird of paradise from the highlands of New Guinea.”

On the history of these bird feathers

“These [birds] have the most strangely beautiful feathers you can imagine. Imagine a thin wire coming out of a bird’s tail, and at the very end of that wire is an emerald, iridescent, coin-shaped coil of feathers. That’s how the King Bird of Paradise attracts its mate. It stands in a tree and kind of wobbles these coin-shaped plumes back and forth. And [naturalist Alfred Russel] Wallace … in the 1850s went to impossible lengths over an eight-year expedition throughout the Malay Archipelago and gathered tens of thousands of these birds and beetles and other specimens, and these specimens have been safeguarded and stored in the British Museum for generations. These are not, just so people understand, these are not what you see when you walk into the public display of a museum where the birds have their wings outstretched. These are study specimens, they’re called, and they have been used for countless scientific breakthroughs and insights. I mean, many of them were collected before the word ‘scientist’ was even coined.”

On what he found when he started looking for the feathers

“When I first started poking around and sort of improbably found myself at the International Fly Tying Symposium at the DoubleTree Hotel in Somerset, New Jersey, I asked one fly tier, you know, ‘Where are the missing skins? Like, did you buy any of them?’ And he looked at me, he was in the middle of tying a fly, and he kind of fixed this this glare at me, and he said, ‘I don’t think you want to write that story. I don’t think you should write this book.’ And I asked him why, and he goes, ‘Well, we’re a tight-knit community, and you do not want to mess with us.’ They have a pretty large moral blind spot. They all cherish these feathers, and they feel that they have a right to them because of their passion for fly tying, and many of them are implicated in this because they bought from the feather thief himself. In speaking with Edwin, he had a pretty self-serving, I guess for lack of a better term, ignorance about all of this. He told me that, you know, there’s no more science that’s being done on these birds. That after 100 years you can’t extract any DNA from them, which is, of course, ridiculous. I was animated by a feeling that something really wrong happened here, and no one was trying to fix it.”

On his obsession becoming as strong as that of the feather seekers

“I really thought that this would just be kind of a fun, little side project. … After several years, I realized that I had somehow hitched myself to another unending problem. … For example, I was just at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum getting a tour there. And while I was there, the ornithologist brought me over to a display cabinet and kind of quietly gestured at the framing of the cabinet and showed me the crowbar marks where a thief had broken into their collection. As quirky as this story must sound, in the end, this is a story about human obsession and where it drives us, and the kind of rationalizations that it allows us to make because we want something, and we think it’s pretty, or we think it’s valuable. And so yeah, it is a strange thing that a young man scaled a museum wall, and you know, bashed his way in and stole all of these birds, but it’s also not that uncommon.”

Editor’s Note: The excerpt below contains some explicit language.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Feather Thief’

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

In September 2013 my memoir about the war was published. That same month I fired myself from my nonprofit, which was chronically low on funding. Though over two thousand refugees had made it to the United States through the List Project, many more never would, and it was hard not to feel that I had failed.

I set off on a book tour, speaking on campuses and encouraging students to tackle global problems while trying to mask how burned out I was. When they asked what I was planning to do next— go to Afghanistan? take on Syrian refugees?— I didn’t know how to tell them that I had become obsessed with righting a different kind of injustice and dreamed of chasing down a feather thief.

On a trip to Yale, I visited the Peabody Museum of Natural History to meet with Dr. Richard O. Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology and head curator of vertebrate zoology at the museum. I knew Prum was a MacArthur genius and Guggenheim fellow, head of his own prestigious lab, and the world’s leading expert on Cotingas, which constituted nearly a third of the birds stolen from the Tring. But before I stepped into his cluttered office, I had no idea he had also been trying to solve the mystery of the missing skins.

In 2010, the year before I went to the International Fly Tying Symposium in Somerset, New Jersey, Prum had driven down from New Haven to that year’s symposium, pacing the aisles, talking with vendors, gathering business cards, and identifying the various species of exotic birds for sale.

“I was trying to get Fish and Wildlife to bust these fuckers!” he told me. He’d called the agency in charge of enforcing anti-trafficking statutes, urging them to attend the show, but one of its officers had recently been killed in the line of duty by a drunken deer hunter in Gettysburg; all the agents in the region were headed to the funeral that weekend.

“I’m running around with my hair on fire trying to get somebody interested that these wildlife crimes are happening all around us,” he said. “They’ve got tropical birds from numerous continents for sale in New Jersey, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it!”

Before the demands of his academic life put a stop to it, he’d briefly become obsessed with Edwin Rist, pressing the Tring for details about the affected species and looking for a journalist willing to shine a light on a hobby that he wanted to stigmatize into oblivion.

“I’ve been waiting years for you to walk through the door,” he said as he riffled through his desk, an accretion of many years’ worth of memos and journals, a decommissioned computer monitor, manila interoffice envelopes, large Ziplocs stuffed with Golden Parrot feathers, at least seven coffee mugs, and a Darth Vader bobble head. At last, he uncovered his notes from the symposium.

I recognized most of the names of the dealers— there was John McLain of and Phil Castleman of Castle Arms.

“Nine or ten vendors were displaying tied flies with feathers of non US Neotropical, Asian, or European bird species. Three or four vendors were selling flat skins, scientific skins, or taxidermy mounts of non US tropical birds,” he’d written. The ornithologist had spotted skins of Black-Collared Barbets, Golden Tanagers, Black-Backed Grosbeaks, Bronzed Sunbirds, Bamboo Partridges, Indian Rollers, Eurasian Jackdaws, Dusky Parrots, Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos, and Scarlet Ibises.

“But they all say that their birds are from the Victorian era,” I replied, “before the CITES laws came into effect.”

“All of these birds are protected by laws!” Prum shouted, his indignation palpable. “None of them is importable without special permits. Most of them were prepared in ways that indicated they could not have been nineteenth-century birds that they’d received from Grandma.” In his opinion, the skins were obviously being trafficked, an orgy of conspicuous consumption of the birds he’d spent a lifetime studying.

“This material is criminal,” he said, pausing between each word for emphasis. “You can’t possess it and not have broken numerous laws.”

“Did any of them have biodata labels attached to them?” I asked.

“No. There were no labels, but there were price tags! It’s a fuckin’ outrage!” he thundered.

“Even after all this time,” I said, referring to the many sales I’d seen of protected species, “I don’t understand why they would take such risks in the pursuit of their hobby.”

“People don’t actually fish with this shit, right?!” Prum said. “So what is it about? It’s about this fixation, this obsession with originality. Well, there’s no fuckin’ originality in the world! Who are these guys? They’re dentists from Ohio! What claim do they have to originality in anything?!”

When I told him that one of Edwin’s customers was in fact a dentist, Prum laughed. Calming down a little, he went on. “What I see is a story of the struggle for authenticity . . . to try to make what people are doing meaningful. What they’ve done is enshrined this period where English fishermen were members of a colonial power that ruled the entire globe and could extract fascinating things from it, then sell them in commercial markets.”

“But that dream is extinct,” he said. “That world is gone.”

“When I work on feathers,” he added, “knowledge is a consequence. When I pluck a feather and destroy it, we discover things about the world that nobody knew before.” By contrast, Edwin and the feather underground were a bunch of historical fetishists, practicing a “candy-ass, ridiculous, parasitic activity” that Prum would be glad to see go extinct.

Before I left, he told me he had something for me. Rummaging through his desk drawer, he pulled out a small USB drive.

Out in the parking lot, I got my laptop out of the car and plugged it in, gasping when I discovered that Prum had taken meticulous screenshots of Edwin’s website, seemingly the only record of it in existence.

From THE FEATHER THIEF by Kirk Wallace Johnson, to be published on April 24, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by MJ + KJ, Inc.

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