All I ever wanted to be when I was growing up was a person who studied giraffe. I saw my first giraffe at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago where I was visiting with my mother from Toronto when I was a toddler. Something frightened the few animals as I gazed at them so that they cantered across their cage. I was entranced. I immediately began collecting pictures of them and drawing them. For my birthdays I received small toy giraffe.
When I was 12 and incarcerated in the Riverdale Isolation Hospital for a month with scarlet fever, before the use of antibiotics, my mother sent me a stuffed giraffe she had made with a pink ribbon around its neck. I was aghast when the nurse said she would have to destroy it when I went home because it would be infectious. I wrote my mother this on one of the blank postcards (no letters) we were allowed to write and she selflessly made two more, an adult with a blue ribbon and a young. The nurse, too, had taken pity on me and had arranged against the rules for the first giraffe to be sterilized so I could keep it after all. So when I finally arrived home by ambulance, since we had no car, I was the happy owner of three stuffed giraffe, obviously a family (a misapprehension which I would realize only much later when I went to Africa). These giraffe and other toy animals were the stars of a grade 8 too long presentation made by my best friend and next door neighbour, Mary Williamson, and me on the habits of five mammals.
I grew up in a middle class family, youngest of four children, with a professor of economic history for a father and a writer/homemaker for a mother. My father seemed to me perfect never angry, full of jokes, but so engrossed in his academic work that he had little time for home life. For Christmas he went into Albert Britnell's bookstore on Yonge Street and bought everyone books as presents; mine were always about animals.
My mother, Mary Quayle Innis, took child raising seriously, arranging all sorts of cultural activities such as original plays, the making of puppets from paper maché, photography experiments, and piano lessons for the two girls, which I suffered ungraciously, but not for the boys. She resented having to spend so much time on housework when she considered herself a writer. However, such work and her children inspired many of the articles she wrote for Saturday Night and later the United Church Observer. Her only novel, Stand on a Rainbow (1943), was a classic in its depiction of middle class family life in Canada. Although she was an English major from the University of Chicago, urged on by my father she published An Economic History of Canada in 1936 because he needed a basic text for courses he was teaching.
There has often been confusion in naming biological species, as over the years splitters and lumpers have both had their say. One of the most extreme examples of confusion is that of the naming of the North American brown bear. In 1918 there were considered to be 77 different species of brown bears in North America; now there is thought to be only one. The original proliferation of species appears to have been stimulated by idiosyncratic personal considerations that had nothing to do with bears and little to do with science. The present understanding that there is only one species represents the victory of scientific reasoning over decades of spurious classification. The genesis of error was mainly the product of one individual, Clinton Hart Merriam, and his authoritative position as chief of the Biological Survey of the United States for twenty-five years.
During my university career in the 1950s, I wrote a paper on the grizzly bear, a creature as renowned as any in North America. I rounded up books and articles that described its size and behaviour in detail, but found only contradictory information about its name. For example, the Boone and Crockett Club, a riflemen's group which kept records of big game, had established arbitrarily that any Alaskan brown bear killed within seventy-five miles of tidewater was to be called a brown bear (Kaniut, 1983, 6). The bears that lived farther inland were grizzlies. This was startling. What if a grizzly decided to wander west of its border? Was it no longer a grizzly? What if a hunter shot a bear from the boundary area - how could a zoologist classify it since surely it would resemble the other bears in the area?
My curiosity led me in 1959 to a new book by E. Raymond Hall and Keith R. Kelson, The Mammals of North America. In over 1100 pages it described and named all the species and subspecies of mammals living on the continent. It was generally a boon to all of us who studied mammals, but not to those specifically involved with grizzlies and brown bears. To these zoologists, the information it offered was unbelievably complicated - eighty-seven different kinds, all but ten of them full species. Was it really possible that there were seventy-seven species of brown bear (including the grizzly) from North America? Five of the species came from Admiralty Island in south eastern Alaska. This island, five miles from the mainland, is only ninety miles long and thirty-five wide, a wilderness with a few coastal settlements focused on lumbering and fishing and many bears in the interior. It seemed impossible that these five species, difficult to tell apart as individuals let alone species, stuck to their own kind among the trees, never mating with a bear from one of the other four species despite the limited area they all inhabited.
The problem of naming bears slipped to the back of my mind until recently, when I've taken several trips in the west and encountered grizzlies in the wild. When I checked their current status in recent books, The Mammals of Canada, A World List of Mammalian Species and Wild Mammals of North America, I found that brown bears and grizzlies are now considered to belong to a single species, Ursus arctos. This was the name given to the first grizzlies studied scientifically in North America in 1815 (Craighead and Mitchell, 1982). This paper considers why so many different kinds of bears had been described in the years between then and now.
Until at least 1900, mammalogy was not considered a scientific discipline in its own right. Much information on mammals had been collected over the centuries by people who had explored and lived in Canada, but this information was scattered and sometimes incorrect. Aboriginal people of Canada knew infinitely more about Canadian wildlife, including mammals, than did Europeans, but they had no written record of their knowledge. The history of mammalogy in Canada begins with four hundred years of sporadic observations supplanted in this century first by extensive data collection on the distribution of species (often made by specially commissioned collecting expeditions) and then by extensive research projects on all aspects of mammals. This research blossomed with the founding in 1919 of the quarterly Journal of Mammalogy as will be discussed later.
Mammals played a decisive role in the exploration and settlement of Canada by Europeans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Native Peoples had always used mammal hides and furs for a variety of necessities from shelters, bedding and clothing to hand towels of rabbit pelts. The early explorers to eastern Canada, disappointed at not finding precious metals or jewels in the New World, also recognized the value of the native fur bearers such as beaver (Castor canadensis) for the manufacture of men's stylish high hats ("beavers"), and the pelts of mink (Mustela vison), marten (Martes americana), fisher (Martes pennanti), ermine (Mustela erminea), fox (Vulpes vulpes), and lynx (Lynx canadensis - now [L. lynx?]) for popular fur collars and cloaks. Many of these species were representatives of holarctic species, or had closely related species in Europe which were seriously over exploited at that time. The larger game species were also valuable as a source of meat.
From the first landfall of John Cabot in 1497 and for the next 400 years thereafter, virtually all European visitors or settlers who wrote of their experiences in what is now Canada mentioned native mammals, not because they were especially interested in this part of the fauna but because mammals were an obvious aspect of this vast unknown land. Some of the earliest observations about mammals in Canada came from the Jesuits, who worked in this country between 1611 and 1789 in an effort to convert and help the native peoples. They sent home each year long reports of their experiences which are now published as The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, and they also kept brief records of day to day events, now collected as the Journal des Jesuites. Father Paul Le Jeune, for example, described three mammals which were new to him because they did not exist in France (Kenton, 1965: 69). What is undoubtedly the woodchuck (Marmota monax) he called the whistler or nightingale because of its shrill alarm call. It was correctly believed to hibernate all winter like the dormouse. The skunk (Mephitis mephitis) was described accurately, but was regarded by Le Jeune as a symbol of sin because of the vile smell it could emit. The third novelty was the flying squirrel (Glaucomys sp.); "Not that they have wings, but they have a certain piece of skin on both sides, which they fold up very neatly against their stomachs when they walk, and spread out when they fly."
Because Aboriginals were vitally involved in the fur trade, the Jesuits became interested in fur bearers too. Indeed, their descriptions were often slanted more toward economics than towards zoology. Thus Father Le C1ercq wrote about 1680, "The Beaver is of the bigness of a water spaniel. Its fur is chestnut, black, and rarely white, but always very soft and suitable for the making of hats" (in Innis, 1956: 3). The Jesuits reached as far west as the prairie provinces during their tenure in Canada, where ather Claude Jean Allouez commented in 1666 on a terrible brown bear (Ursus horribilis, now U. arctos) described by native peoples living near the Assiniboine River (Banfield, 1974: 308).
The following presentation was given at a conference in early 2010.