#StevesLibrary: The Feather Thief
First of all I must congratulate Kirk Wallace Johnson for writing such a thrilling true-crime narrative, that in truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve been aware of the Tring heist executed by Edwin Rist in 2009 for some while, thanks my good friend Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology fame. However I was unaware of the ins and outs of the heist, Johnson’s output is very informative and a book that any natural historian should read. The Feather Thief is the first book in a long time that I read pretty much cover to cover.
It is clear that Johnson has done his homework as the book effortlessly builds a narrative and puts Rist’s crime into both a cultural and historical perspective. Something that shocked me that I was completely unaware of before reading, was the scale of the feather industry and it’s role in avian extinction. It’s crazy to think that birds were slaughtered en masse to satisfy the fashion needs of the rich and famous. If it were to occur today I can imagine that there would be a huge public outcry and backlash that would see the fashion company soon reconsider how it went about operating.
Another side of the story I was completely oblivious to was the salmon fly tying community and their role in the heist, or at least motivation. There are large communities of people around the world who aim to emulate the flies created by the Victorian greats purely as a piece of art. To me this seems very wasteful, it’s like buying an expensive Italian sports care and just housing in a museum as an art exhibit. Yes the Ferrari is a work of art but it also has a function too; to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
The flow and intricate yet easy to read style of the book made it a pleasure to delve into. To someone who understands the importance of natural history collections and how they are always furthering our understanding of the natural world – I was truly captivated. Despite Rist’s crime, he managed to get away with causing a significant loss to the 2nd largest collection to bird specimens in the world. Unfortunately some of the bird skins are still out there and we may never find them.