Weekly Read: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

One of my favorite semi-recent films is David Fincher’s Zodiac, about the lengthy hunt for the Zodiac Killer (made before everybody agreed it’s Ted Cruz). While that’s an apt description of the film, it’s also pretty shallow. What the movie is really about is obsession, about the need to find answers, and what it does to people who dedicate their lives to trying to find them, yet don’t.

I thought a lot about Zodiac while reading The Feather Thief. Not because the crimes involved are in any way similar or because The Feather Thief is a gripping whodunnit. In fact, there’s no doubt whodunnit – on June 24, 2009, an American flautist-in-training (!) named Edwin Rist, studying at the Royal Conservatory in London, travelled to the nearby village of Tring and stole nearly 300 specimens of rare tropical birds from a branch of the Natural History Museum. This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s right there in the prologue. If the story is that simple, why is The Feather Thief worth reading? For several reasons.

First, Kirk Wallace Johnson does a really good job of laying out why anyone would bother to steal a bunch of birds. This starts with a history of these birds themselves, many of which were captured and cataloged by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s rival in developing the theory of natural selection. Then there’s the late-Victorian fashion fad of using rare birds (not just their feathers, either!) as status symbols and the backlash that produced one of the first animal conservation movements. Laws and treaties followed and the birds were generally relegated to becoming museum specimens at places like the Natural History Museum. They were in a small-town outpost in 2009 because they had been relocated there for safekeeping during World War II.

That these kinds of birds were basically illegal to possess, or at the very least sell on the open market, led to them becoming particularly valuable to a particular community – that of expert fly tiers. These are not folks that tie flies in order to use them fishing, but rather out of artistic drive and the desire for historical accuracy. Rist was not only a member of this community, but a leading light of it, even as a teenager. He was, broadly speaking, in the right place at the right time to know the value of these birds and have access to them.

The second thing that makes The Feather Thief compelling is Johnson’s role in this tale. He was once responsible for trying to rebuild parts of Iraq after the war, then transitioned into helping Iraqis who had worked with the United States seek asylum in the US.  Although he wants to know why Rist did it (which is pretty obvious), he’s more interested in trying to right the wrong and locate the birds that hadn’t been recovered via the usual process of Rist’s criminal prosecution (he got no time, thanks to a shaky autism diagnosis by – no shit – Sasha Baron-Cohen’s cousin). This began with a stray comment from a buddy while fly fishing and, well, the rest is history.

This is where the Zodiac connection really comes in. Almost everyone in The Feather Thief is driven by an obsession that border on all-consuming. Wallace spent years in the Asian jungles in pursuit of specimens (while Darwin jumped in front of him with the whole evolution thing). Rist took to fly tying the way an addict-in-waiting takes to heroin. The ecosystem in which he swam online was obsessed with these birds as a means to creating the perfect fly. And, finally, Johnson himself nearly let his life get away from him as he tried to track down all of Rist’s birds.

None of these obsessions really end well, which returns us to Zodiac. There is no happy ending here, except maybe for Rist – yes, he’s a convicted felon, but he got his degree from the Conservatory and is making a living as a professional flautist. Johnson doesn’t find a trove of stolen birds. He can’t make the museum, and science itself, whole. Instead, he has to walk away before it consumes him, unsatisfied that he wasn’t able to make a difference.

The Feather Thief isn’t the knottiest whodunnit. The bad buy here isn’t really that inscrutable (whatever he convinced a court about his motivations). It’s more about the impact of a crime and the need to try and set it right. Along with the realization that, a lot of the time, that’s a hopeless crusade.

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