Tomorrow (22 March 2013), I’m going to give a conference paper at the History of Technology and Science Days 2013 being held in Umeå. My talk puts a theoretical spin on the history of beavers at the zoological garden at Skansen.

I’m going to frame the activities at Skansen as an obligatory passage point for the beaver’s return to Sweden. Those familiar with Science and Technology Studies (STS) will be very familiar with obligatory passage points. For those who aren’t, an obligatory passage point is a necessary element in the formation of a network of actors and the program of action they undertake. As discussed by Michael Callon in his work on the scallops of St Brieuc Bay, the obligatory passage point forces the actors to converge on a specific question or action from their various perspectives. Interactions and understanding of the problem and its solutions are mediated through the obligatory passage point.

I was inspired to think about the way STS theories and methods can be useful in environmental history while working as a post-doc in an STS department at NTNU, Norway. This led me down some new paths, including co-editing a volume with Finn Arne Jørgensen and Sara Pritchard titled New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies that will be published this summer with University of Pittsburgh Press. In that volume, my essay uses Annmarie Mol’s idea of multiple enactments to understand the history of an environmental controversy. Because I found that STS concept so useful, I’ve been open to the possibility that other STS-based ideas might help in understanding reintroduction history.

In this case, Skansen and the zoological gardens director Alarik Behm became the obligatory passage point through which beaver reintroduction happened to two ways: knowledge and practicalities.

Knowledge

Logo of Sweden’s 2nd Cultural Fair (kulturmässan) held in Östersund in 1920.

Logo of Sweden’s 2nd Cultural Fair (kulturmässan) held in Östersund in 1920.

On the knowledge front, Behm became the focal point for understanding how to reintroduce beavers. In many ways, the first effort in Jämtland was spurred on by Behm’s understanding of the loss of beaver in Sweden. It turns out that he gave a speech in 1920 at the at Sweden’s 2nd Cultural Fair (kulturmässan) in Östersund sponsored by the Jämtland and Härjedalen Nature Conservation Association (the group that would end up bringing the first beavers back). His talk titled “Naturskydd, särskilt i Jämtland” included a section on the beaver. He claimed that beaver had been hunted down because it had been thought of as a forest devastator, but it held out longer in Jämtland than anywhere else in Sweden – the last one being killed in 1871. He argued that beavers and people were not so incompatible – beaver in Germany, France, and even Norway seemed to get along fine with the locals. Although he didn’t say directly that beaver should be reintroduced in the speech, the call for funds for a reintroduction project was made the next year by Erik Festin, who was the Secretary of the Jämtland and Härjedalen Nature Conservation Association.

After the successful 1922 reintroduction in Jämtland and one in 1924 in Västerbotten in which Behm was involved, organizations and individuals all over the country all wrote letters to Behm as the Director of Skansen’s zoo asking for advice on how to acquire beavers for reintroduction and how much the efforts cost based on his experience. Skansen served as a clearing house for knowledge.

Practicalities

Two practical issues also placed  Skansen into the role of obligatory passage point for the beaver reintroduction efforts.

One of the first beaver pair overwintering at Skansen before their reintroduction to Jämtland in 1922. Photo from A. Behm, Nordiska Däggdjur (1922)

One of the first beaver pair overwintering at Skansen before their reintroduction to Jämtland in 1922. Photo from A. Behm, Nordiska Däggdjur (1922)

First, beavers are monogamous pairs, so it is best to trap them in the autumn when they are in their dens with their families and take the family group or pair together. It’s also one way of assuring that you have a male and a female, since beaver genitalia are not visible externally. Although that is a great catch strategy, beavers can’t be released into a new site in the fall because there will not be enough time to get the den ready for the Scandinavian winter. Therefore, they need to be captured in the autumn but released the following summer. This makes their care during these in-between holding months critical. Skansen, as the zoological park in the capital city, was the perfect place to serve as a holding area for beavers arriving by either boat or train.

Second, not just anybody was allowed to capture and export beavers from Norway. In 1918, the hunting law in Norway limited beaver hunts to 14 days, 15-31 October, and in 1924, even that was abolished. Scientific causes and “to improve the species’ population spread” were grounds for getting special hunting permits. Skansen as a zoological institution thus had the perfect position for obtaining licenses to capture beavers.

For these practical reasons, it was actually Behm/Skansen who bought the first pair of beavers trapped in Aamli, Norway in autumn 1921 and then kept them at the zoo until they could be taken to the release site in July 1922. Skansen did the same for four of the beavers bought on behalf of the Västerbotten project.

Telegram sent by Axel Sylvén to Alarik Behm to tell him about the release in July 1924 of a beaver that had overwintered in Skansen. Item in the Nordiska Museet archive.

Telegram sent by Axel Sylvén to Alarik Behm to tell him about the release in July 1924 of a beaver that had overwintered in Skansen. Item in the Nordiska Museet archive.

In these ways, Skansen’s zoological garden drew-in and redistributed beavers, knowledge, money/resources, and people in the reintroduction effort, becoming an obligatory passage point in the process. It become the narrow passageway through which beavers returned to Sweden.