What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations from the New World.


240 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 978-1-55420-040-5
DDC 591.97





Reviewed by Janet Arnett

Janet Arnett is the former campus manager of adult education at Ontario’s Georgian College. She is the author of Antiques and Collectibles: Starting Small, The Grange at Knock, and 673 Ways to Save Money.



When wildlife in North America first encountered European explorers and settlers, mayhem reigned, at least for the wildlife. The Europeans loved to kill. They shot anything that looked edible, but didn’t stop there. Snakes were slaughtered because they were snakes. Hummingbirds shot in order to meet the challenge of finding a way to do so. Beavers were massacred because they had fur and edible tails. (“Restraint wasn’t a hallmark of the fur trade.”) Foxes because … well, obviously no creature that intelligent should be allowed to live. Butchery. Cruelty. Ignorance. Greed. In this idiosyncratic work Man gets full credit for all those characteristics: a portrait of Man as predator. To Europeans, North America existed to fulfill their appetites, as a means to have “all they could grasp.”


In contrast to the gravity of her subject, Kirsch’s style is a light dance through historic documents from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. She plays with quaint words and phrases from the historic sources, gleefully spinning parallel passages that mimic their tone. Wit and sarcasm are woven in and out of the labyrinth of academic references and quotations.


The book defies classification. On the surface it is an account of North American wildlife as described by Europeans of the “contact” era: well-researched natural history. It’s also a philosophy, presenting humans as simply one more animal in nature’s zoo, one that excels in its readiness to kill its fellow creatures. “Unity on this earth has proved elusive,” Kirsch laments, as Man persists in considering himself superior to all other beings.


The book is a serious academic study, packed with citations and sources, 20 archival illustrations, extensive quotations from the literature, a glossary, explanations of place names, definitions of terms used in the fur trade, and meticulous references. It’s also a spoof of such academic undertakings. It’s almost natural science, partly anthropology, reminiscent of a history. It’s, well, weird. Or at least arcane. But definitely fun.


Kirsch, Sharon., “What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations from the New World.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/26812.