Nature Fakers Then and Now

The Whitman Publishing Company catalogued Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton with other children’s classics including Robin Hood, Treasure Island, Black Beauty, and Huckleberry Finn.
Contributing Writer

Steve Sorensen

A lifetime ago I received a book for Christmas called Wild Animals I Have Known. Neither my well-meaning parents nor I knew that before becoming a children’s classic, the book ignited a firestorm in the world of natural history. Its author, Ernest Thompson Seton, was a nature faker.

Already, we have two terms you might not be familiar with. What is natural history? And what are nature fakers?

In the late 1800s, natural history was mainly an observational method of scientific study. Most outdoor writers wrote natural history, but nature fakers were the ones who made stuff up while claiming to be eyewitnesses. It’s difficult for outdoor writers to be nature fakers today.

I recently read Wild Animals I Have Known again and was impressed by the quality of the writing. It’s a pleasure to read (more on the reading level of adults than children). If you read it, read with an analytical mind because Seton was at the center of “the nature faker controversy.” In Wild Animals I Have Known he recorded his personal testimony about wild animal behavior he claimed to have observed.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a critic. His problem wasn’t that Seton blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, or that fiction had no place in nature writing. His problem was that Seton claimed in his first sentence, “These stories are true.” Yet he filled his stories with creative assumptions, animals using human-like reasoning, and events he could not possibly have witnessed.

Though Seton’s training was mostly in art, he had credibility because he was appointed Provincial Naturalist for Manitoba. But Seton wasn’t the worst. Another nature faker, William J. Long (a Congregationalist minister), was bold enough to write that he witnessed an American woodcock mend its own broken leg by setting it in a cast made from mud and straw.

At the time respected naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir, along with President Roosevelt and others, were laboring to explain the natural world accurately. They were doing a pretty good job of it until Seton and others stepped into the limelight, robbing truthful writers of their hard-earned reputations as honest outdoorsmen and betraying the trust of the reading public.

It’s bad enough to anthropomorphize animals (to give them human traits), but to embellish fiction and call it accurate natural history is to go far beyond literary license. In 1903 John Burroughs published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Real and Sham Natural History,” vilifying the work of Seton, Long, and their cohorts as “yellow journalism of the woods.”

The controversy lasted only a few years in the public eye, thanks partly to Roosevelt who laid the chief blame on the publishers more than on the writers, but it never went away completely. It continues almost a century and a quarter later, not among outdoor writers, but in highly produced entertainment and educational media. The result is that the public gets its view of wildlife from stories like Disney’s Bambi and other narratives that sentimentalize animal behavior. (Disney, by the way, is remaking Bambi as a computer animated story. The animals will look real and — making a safe bet here — the storyline will be anti-hunting.)

The original nature faker controversy did not convey an anti-hunting message, but the views of today’s nature fakers are often vociferously opposed to hunting. They fail to tell the truth that wildlife conservation is financed by modern regulated hunting, and that hunting is the reason wildlife is abundant and widely accessible to the North American public. Instead, they treat the loss of any individual animal as a profound tragedy. A common thread between nature fakers then and now is Seton’s false statement, “The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.”

We have a need for storytelling, but outdoor writing is much more than storytelling. We must tell the truth. Humor, anecdotes, and even fiction are not out of order, but when hunters and outdoor writers do our homework and present the benefits of hunting, we battle the nature fakers of today.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.