From Ernest Harold Baynes’ beloved birds and buffalo to Clark’s famous bears to North Conway’s Spunky the Frog, animals have been movers and shakers of our history and culture for as long as we’ve been a state.
Animals in our midst remind us of something important about ourselves: where we came from and what we want to be. The obvious intelligence and emotional lives of our wildlife, pets and agricultural beasts pull us out of our human comfort zones and suggest that the center of the universe might be somewhere other than inside our own heads.
And, as psychologists and parents know, the way a person treats animals tell you a lot about how they treat other people. The immortal storyteller Mark Twain once wrote, “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” Twain enjoyed summering in Dublin, New Hampshire, beneath the shadow of Mount Monadnock, and during one protracted stay even felt compelled to “rent” two kittens, named Sackcloth and Ashes, for companionship.
One of the first things I learned about Granite Staters — back when I was living in the South courting the daughter of two natives — was the excitement that accompanied the mere sighting of a wild animal here. A bear’s visit to the bird feeders would merit a couple of paragraphs in a letter.
When visiting the family of my bride-to-be, we would hear about the moose tracks on the dirt road leading up to the family camp or the number of trout that were caught in the pond and being fried up for breakfast. An encounter with a fisher or a bobcat would create a mild
ecstasy in the observer that could be transferred in small doses to friends and guests for weeks. Having a family of turkeys make nests in the nearby woods and occasionally traipse across the yard was considered a mark of honor.
Although New Hampshire was once dubbed “Cow Hampshire” for the roadside farms that tourists would pass on their way to North County attractions, the diversity of terrain (rivers deep, mountains high, forests primeval) made sure the factory farming and monoculture of the Midwest states could never take root here, so our farming has remained more hands-on and livestock-centered.
The Granite State is famously a haven for wildlife of all kinds, giving birth to cautionary bumper stickers that declare “Brake for Moose: It Might Save Your Life” and “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire.”
And on that note, Clark’s Bears with its slow-moving, semi-trained bruins going through their paces and eating ice cream has been a folksy attraction in Lincoln for decades. On the other hand, there’s also Ben Kilham’s work with rehabilitating bears and cubs on his acres in Lyme while conducting serious research into their behavior and health. Meanwhile, Spunky the Frog welcomed and entertained an entire generation of kids from his glass bowl in North Conway’s Toy Chest until his death at the age of 28 in 2016.
The story of Ernest Harold Baynes is harder to summarize, but here goes. Sometimes called “America’s Dr. Dolittle,” Baynes was famous for raising, domesticating and seemingly holding long conversations with wild animals of all kinds in and around his home in Meriden.
Born in Calcutta, India, Baynes eventually migrated to New England. Without any degrees in science or biology, he settled on the study of animal nature as his true calling, ultimately becoming a wildlife showman and spokesman. He was hired as a conservator at railroad tycoon Austin Corbin’s wildlife preserve and hunting club in the Cornish region and took an interest in Corbin’s herd of wild buffalo, feeding some by hand and taming others well enough to pull a wagon. Baynes’ letters to President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of the buffalo were integral to establishing the American Bison Society and reversing the path to extinction for these quintessentially American beasts.
Baynes was particularly fond of songbirds, popularizing home feeders with his 1915 book “Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them,” and founding the Meriden Bird Club — the first bird club in America and one that still meets regularly.
So, if the way people treat animals says a lot about how they treat other people, then New Hampshire must be a pretty harmonious place to live. The amazing animal-human collaborations featured in our Hero Animals story suggest that this is, indeed, the doggone truth.