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Ernest Thompson Seton for Children & Teens

Wolves, Bears and Birds: The Ernest Thompson Seton Stories

As part of the exhibit Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe through May 8, 2011, the museum, the Academy for the Love of Learning and the State Library have compiled a set of tools to help you engage children in the love of reading. Seton was a ground-breaking conservationist of his time, an author and artist and co-founder of the Boy Scouts (celebrating its centennial this year). Hired to hunt wolves in New Mexico in 1893, he was transformed by the experience. The book that grew from the experience, Wild Animals I Have Known, has remained continuously in print, inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books, and of all of Seton’s books, is the one now being snapped up at the Museum Shops.

From early readers through high-schoolers, his books offer a timeless appeal – one that also encourages children to connect with nature.

Photo: White-winged Crossbills, oil on board, 1883. Academy for the Love of Learning. Photo by James Hart.

 

Programming Ideas

For children:

For teens:

  • Show the video “The Mother Teal and the Overland Route” and invite a digital artist to demonstrate how to create similar animation (or one of your regular teen patrons who has such experience).
  • Have teens write and illustrate children’s books, and/or lead younger children in a book-making project. Check out http://library.thinkquest.org/J001156/makingbooks/makeown.htm for ideas and directions.
  • Encourage teens to develop an environmental project focused in or around the library, such as creating a bulletin board with water conservation tips, starting a demonstration garden, planting trees or flowers, cleaning up litter, etc.
  • Offer a book discussion group for teens using a few of Seton’s books; use the discussion questions below by David L. Witt, Curator, Academy for the Love of Learning, to start conversation on important themes.
  • Encourage teens raise funds to donate to an environmental cause, using the library as their planning base.

Great for all ages:

  • Encourage your patrons of all ages to visit the Seton exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe through May 8, 2011. Call 505-476-5157 to make a reservation for a special tour. Also, check the Museum’s calendar for several Seton-related programs for children and adults.
  • Check out the Drawing on Nature exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque as well through September 12, 2010. Featuring the work of 33 female artists, including scientists, writers, photographers, designers, teachers, and wilderness guides, Drawing on Nature showcases a stunning collection of nature journals that are as unique and varied as the women themselves. There are also several related programs at the museum that may interest teens; go to http://www.nmnaturalhistory.org/calendar.html for the Museum’s program calendar.
  • Invite the city of Albuquerque’s Zoo to You to your library—it’s free!—to bring its interactive educational program about wildlife conservation with animal bones, pelts, feathers and more
  • Offer nature journaling or scrapbooking workshops
  • Invite storytellers to entertain and inform kids with animal-related tales. Try your favorite local storytellers, or NM favorites such as Sunny Dooley, Nasario Garcia, and Joe Hayes (these three are presenting at the NM History Museum this summer in conjunction with the Seton exhibit)
  • Take your patrons for a nature or bird-watching walk near the library or in a local park
  • Have the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary hold a presentation in your library; they’ll bring a live wolf!
  • Have a wildlife art and/or photography contest for different age groups; all entries get displayed in the library
  • Hold a contest to design bookmarks or the next library card. For bookmarks, have winners in several age groups
  • Hire an art teacher to lead hands-on classes for different age groups on wildlife drawing or sculpture
  • Invite several local environmental and wildlife related organizations one day/evening to your library to display brochures and information to introduce patrons to their work

The Stories and Book Discussion Questions for Teens

by David L. Witt

“Lobo, the King of Currumpaw” is the lead story in Seton’s first best-selling book, Wild Animals I Have Known (1898). It is a first-person narrative about his efforts to trap wolves in Union County, New Mexico during the winter of 1893-94. The story focuses on a remarkable wolf who could not be caught until Seton uses the most extraordinary treachery against him. The wolf is the hero of the story while Seton casts himself as the villain. It is one of the most unusual hunting stories ever written.

Quote from Seton (Lives of the Hunted, 1901): “I have been bitterly denounced, first, for killing Lobo; second, and chiefly, for telling of it, to the distress of many tender hearts.  To this I reply: In what frame of mind are my hearers left with regard to the animal? Are their sympathies quickened toward the man who killed him, or toward the noble creature who, superior to every trial, died as he had lived, dignified, fearless, and steadfast?”

Have teens read the “Lobo” story in a book discussion group. Use these questions to generate conversation:

  1. People have to make a living through honorable undertakings such as cattle ranching. Wolves have to make a living as well, by killing their prey. Land owners have the right to protect their livestock. What rights do wolves have, or what rights should they have?
  2. Lobo proves to be an animal of exceptional cunning. What do you think of him?
  3. Seton uses a trick to trap Blanca. Was he unfair, or was he justified in the measures taken to trap her?
  4. Seton describes Lobo’s last hours in considerable detail, what do you think he might have learned from this experience?
  5. How does the death of the wolf make you feel?

In “Silverspot, The Story of a Crow” Seton moves on to an account of bird life, the subject that began his interest in natural history. Birds, especially large ones such as crows are relatively easy to see. Birds of the Corvidae family (crows, jays and ravens) are known as animals of exceptional intelligence.

Use these questions in discussion of the story.

  1. Seton interprets the calls of crows as a kind of language. Are the crows really speaking to each other?
  2. Crows can reason, plan, and learn. When Silverspot drops bread into a stream entering a tunnel, he knows to wait for its reappearance at the tunnel’s other end. How much are we like them or they like us?
  3. Are there absolute differences between the behavior of crows and of humans?

“Raggylug, The Story of a Cottontail Rabbit” is an entirely different kind of animal from the first two. Seton was one of the first naturalists to develop a scientific-based understanding of animal behavior. He wrote that animals (including rabbits) learn through instinct, but also by watching adults of the same species and through personal experience.

Consider these questions.

  1. Which of Rag’s learning moments falls into which of the three categories (instinct, watching and imitating others, personal experience)?
  2. Time after time, Rag’s mother shows a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice (that is, giving up her own life) to save him. How do you feel about her?

“Bingo, The Story of My Dog.” Most of us have owned or been around dogs. The human-dog bond is unique. Bingo saved Seton’s life at least once, perhaps twice. A different animal, “Wully, The Story of a Yaller Dog” is similarly attached to his master, but that trust is betrayed with terrible results.

Here are some things we might ask about these relationships.

  1. What remarkable experiences have you had with dogs?
  2. What have you learned from dogs?
  3. Do you think they really know what we think and feel?
  4. Is there such a thing as a “bad dog” or are do dogs react to us in developing their own behavior?

“The Springfield Fox.” The fox (or at least one of them) made an appearance in Raggylug’s story as a predator passing through. But here we see that the foxes have families of their own to care for. They react to changing situations with both emotion and intelligence. A fox can consciously chose to resemble a rock in order to escape attention. This suggests they are, at least in some ways, much like us.

Discuss the following ideas.

  1. When people and animals (such as foxes) encounter one another, the result is often tragic for the animal. What steps might we take to avoid or non-violently resolve conflicts with wild animals?
  2. Have you ever seen a fox or other secretive wild animals?

“The Pacing Mustang.” Seton set this story concurrently with his hunt for Lobo. In order to create a sense of drama, he has the Mustang, in its final moment, chose death by suicide over captivity. Most scientists have doubted this could really have happened, but it is clear that animals have an emotional life.

A teen group could discuss these questions.

  1. If we could tune into the feelings of wild horses (or wolves or rabbits), what might we learn?
  2. In the late 1800s, the western United States was lightly populated and thinly fenced. Have you visited areas that were vast and open? What did you experience and how did you feel about that place?

“Redruff, The Story of the Don Valley Partridge.” This is a particularly sad story where harmless animals are relentlessly pursued until they are exterminated. We will let Seton write the first discussion questions for us. In the story he wrote:

  1. “Have the wild things no moral or legal rights? What right has man to inflict such long and fearful agony on a fellow creature, simply because that creature does not speak his language?”
  2. Seton does not apply these questions to the way people treat one another. But do you believe these questions are valid in questioning how all the peoples of the world either do or do not get along?
  3. The back page art in the original edition (and in many editions of the book) shows a man, a wolf, and a bird together. A rising sun comes up behind them (shining its light on all equally). A river or lake flows in front on them (from which all must drink). Swirling lines of energy connect all of them together – in harmony. Was Seton correct in his vision, is it possible that all peoples, animals, and plants can someday achieve some level of harmony?

“Krag, the Kootenay Ram” is set in the Canadian Rockies in Lives of the Hunted (1901). In this story, Seton set out his ideas on environmental consciousness and the complexity of animal behavior. The magnificent bighorn sheep, Krag, finds himself in a lifelong battle against the degenerate hunter Scotty MacDougall. In their final encounter, Scotty’s pursuit is such that he gives Krag no time to graze and the great animal begins to starve. The journey is equally harsh for Scotty, whose physical deterioration soon matches his mental collapse. The story is an allegory about Western civilization’s self-destructive treatment of nature.

Quote from Seton (Lives of the Hunted, 1901): “My chief motive, my most earnest underlying wish, has been to stop the extermination of harmless wild animals; not for their sakes, but for ours, firmly believing that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.” 

Use these suggested questions to generate conversation in the teen discussion group:

  1. What do bighorn sheep have to learn in order to survive in their mountain environment?
  2. What are some of the rule of bighorn sheep life?
  3. Krinklehorn nearly kills Krag by unfair fighting, but pays a terrible price. Do animals have a sense of morality?
  4. Krag must battle against both dogs and wolves. Krag prevails in these encounters, but sometimes the predators must prevail because they too must feed their families. What is the relationship of predator and prey in the wild?
  5. Scotty relentlessly pursues the ram until at last Krag is killed. Do you think Scotty represents something more than himself in this story? If this is an allegory, what lesson is Seton teaching us?

“Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won” is Seton’s remembrance of a wolf hunt he observed in 1897. Published in Animal Heroes (1905), Seton uses the story to explain the natural history of wolves. He invents a life history for this hero wolf who survives the greatest hardships. When the normal prey of wolves (such as bison and antelope) are killed off by human hunters, the wolves of North Dakota, like those of New Mexico, are forced to kill cattle, putting them into conflict with humans. Unlike Lobo, Billy outwits all the hunters. Seton uses Billy to demonstrate the intelligence of wildlife. In addition to instincts, animals learn behavior by watching others of their own kind, and through personal experience. Although these ideas are now accepted among animal behaviorists, when Seton first suggested them, they were highly controversial.

Quote from Seton (Animal Heroes, 1905): “A Hero is an individual of unusual gifts and achievements. Whether it be man or animal, this definition applies; and it is the histories of such that appeal to the imagination and to the hearts of those who hear them.”

Use these suggested questions to generate conversation in the teen discussion group. Special note: the hunt for Billy took place in 1897, three years after the death of Lobo.

  1. Long ago, antelope and buffalo roamed the grasslands of America. Eventually, many of these animals were hunted to near extinction and replaced by cattle. The remaining wolves had nothing left to eat but cattle. Does this change your perception of wolves?
  2. What do mother wolves need to teach their pups?
  3. Why does Billy survive when Lobo did not?
  4. When Billy escapes the dogs, Seton cheers him on. Seton seems very different than three years earlier during his encounter with Lobo. Why do you think he has changed?
  5. What are the attributes of an animal hero? Which of these traits are demonstrated by Billy?

Overall Consideration

Goal: To examine the relation of humankind to nature and its wildlife.

Overall question: Should we preserve wildlife for our sake? For the sake of the animals themselves? Or both?

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