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Elk signify the ‘promise and practice of conservation’

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There’s something on the lawn in front of Theodore Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay Cove house, Sagamore Hill. A herd of 180 full-scale elk, crafted from tempered aluminum, have taken up residency there, glistening in the sunlight. Word has it that they are waiting for the 26th president to venture out onto his porch so they can thank him for saving them from extinction.

People rarely think of Roosevelt as a conservationist. Instead, they think of him as an avid hunter. But he was responsible for conserving over 230 million acres of public land to provide for the protection, management and appreciation of wildlife. During his 7½ years as president, he created 150 national forests, 51 bird refuges, three game preserves and five national parks.

Nonetheless, on one safari alone in 1909, he shot over 500 large mammals and killed 2,800 birds, insects, reptiles, small mammals and plant specimens.

“Every time we do a tour, people ask how Theodore Roosevelt could love animals when he killed so many,” said Susan Sarna, Sagamore Hill’s curator. But his philosophy changed over the course of his life, she explained, adding, “He evolved from a naturalist to a preservationist to a conservationist.”

Sarna said she hoped that a new exhibit, “Conservation from Here,” at the Old Orchard Museum, where T.R.’s oldest son, Ted, once lived, would clarify who Roosevelt really was.

The expectation is that the elk, which can be seen from the road, will entice the public to stop by and find out why they are there, prompting a visit to the museum.

Why elk? A breed of elk, or wapiti — one of the larges species of the deer family — was named after T.R. by scientist C. Hart Merriam in 1897. But only 12 years later, they were close to extinction, due to logging and mining. “He was president then,” Sarna said, “and used the Antiquities Act to create Mount Olympus and the 615,000 acres surrounding it as a national monument, effectively stopping mining, logging and hunting. The Roosevelt herd is now thriving.”

T.R. actually saw hunters as stewards of the environment. While president, he promoted “fair chase” hunting laws and ethics.

So why did he kill so many animals? He certainly always had a fascination and appreciation for them. When he was 8, he opened his own natural history museum in his home. By 14, he had decided to study animals, taking a trip down the Nile. But back then, without tranquilizers, the only way to study them, beyond field observation, was to kill them and then stuff them using the art of taxidermy, which T.R. did often.

The exhibit at the Old Orchard includes two birds from that trip — a starling and a purple finch — which he stuffed, beginning his lifelong quest to be a naturalist.

As an adult, he went on a safari to Africa to collect specimens for research for the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of Natural History, the latter of which his father helped found. He killed hundreds of specimens — giraffes, hippos, zebras and other animals. Roosevelt thought that many of the species were near extinction and wanted them to be studied to discover ways that they could thrive, Sarna said.

Many of the animals T.R. killed are on display at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, in a wing dedicated to him.

The exhibit offers much information on Roosevelt the naturalist and conservationist, including objects like the pith helmet he wore while on the safari. And one of his guns is there too, which has five etchings of animals engraved on it — a bison, a pronghorn, a deer, a bear and an elk.

What makes the exhibit unique is the artwork by Joseph Rossano, who not only created the aluminum elks, but also a series of five panels depicting the etchings on the gun, crafted on recycled wood from a fallen copper beech tree that had once stood on the grounds of Sagamore Hill.

“What always struck me is, if you look at the guns people use to hunt, many are very beautiful, with engravings,” said Rossano, 54, who now lives in Washington state but lived in Locust Valley until he was 18. “The etchings glorify the animal, show a love for them. That’s why I wanted to use the gun engravings.”

The engravings on T.R.’s gun show his reverence for the animals, a contradiction to the pure hunter, Rossano added.

He contacted Sarna a year and a half ago. He had done an exhibit at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory three years prior on DNA sequencing. Now he wanted to do an exhibit on conservation at Sagamore Hill.

“Conservation is important to me,” Rossano said, sitting in one of the large rocking chairs on the porch of Sagamore Hill. “I wanted this exhibit to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the national parks.”

An outdoorsman and naturalist, he wanted to present an exhibit that explored the state of conservation today. “How do you become a conservationist?” Rossano said. “T.R. developed a love for animals — drew them, taxidermied them and progressed to wanting to possess them. He had a reverence for animals, and realized you have to protect them.”

The elk exhibit, he said, makes a statement on the importance of working together to expose an audience to the importance of conservation. “Everyone who worked on this volunteered,” he said.

Rossano persuaded Alcoa, which is headquartered in Washington state, to donate three tons of tempered aluminum. Then he spent rougly five weeks designing the elk, deciding how they would bend and then making them by using a computerized numerical control router — a computer-controlled cutting machine — and a laser cutter. The herd is positioned to appear to be at rest, in several different ways, with five positions for the bulls, seven for the cows and four for the calves.

“I spent time studying them before making them,” Rossano said. “For example, bulls watch each other, so I positioned them that way. Calves are near the cows, who protect them. Bending the aluminum to make them gives a sense of volume.”

“Elk are the symbol of the promise and practice of conservation,” he added. “I’m telling a story here.”

There is another component to the exhibit at the Oyster Bay Historical Society, where all of the animals from T.R.’s Sagamore Hill Trophy Room are represented. The exhibit, also by Rossano, helps visitors understand how scientists study animals today. “Today it’s easier for everyone to be involved,” Rossano explained. “You no longer have to have a taxidermist, you just need to understand DNA sequencing, and sixth- grade kids can do that.”

Rossano said he hoped the exhibit would eventually travel to other parks. For now, it will remain at Sagamore Hill until next spring.