The Beaver Should Be America’s National Mammal

Forget the bison. The beaver has a uniquely American spirit, and it’s about time we recognized it.

A beaver in front of an American flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

I’m here to convince you that the beaver should be America’s national mammal.

I’m no beaver-come-lately. I’ve believed in this cause for a long time. And trust me, I’ve paid my dues. If you’re an irony-challenged gay guy who loves to talk about beavers—about how beavers are just awesome and how they’ve been your favorite critter ever since you were a little kid and how, when you first saw the movie The Naked Gun, you agreed with Leslie Nielsen that yes, that really was a nice beaver—then you have to accept that some folks will just snicker.

But a few people will share your enthusiasm for this remarkable rodent. A good friend might even give you the book Lily Pond by the naturalist Hope Ryden, who spent four years quietly observing the life and times of a beaver family.

This book, which “entranced” and “enriched” none other than Jane Goodall, taught me some of the most marvelous facts I’ve learned about any animal. I was blown away by Ryden’s descriptions of beavers’ quasi-human combination of socialness and engineering talent, such as how beavers walk upright in order to free their forepaws, dig canals in order to easily transport the wood they fell, and replaster the interior walls of their lodges just before the birth of kits. Since reading Lily Pond, I’ve never walked a winter wood without looking out for the beaver-exhaled bubbles that can gather in lines beneath the frozen surface of a pond, allowing hot chocolate–sipping humans on the water’s edge to gaze out on a busy-as-a-you-know-what map of swimming routes beneath the ice.

Lily Pond was published in 1989. Now, nearly 30 years later, a different friend has given me a book that’s a worthy successor to it. This new book is called Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, and it’s written by Ben Goldfarb, an environmental journalist. Eager deserves the high praise it’s received in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. It’s a lovely book, as fine a piece of nature writing as we could ask for.

Yet despite the lighthearted chapter titles—“California Streaming,” “Realm of the Dammed”—Goldfarb’s book is more than a peaceful meditation on the aqua-hobbit folksiness of beavers. Goldfarb wants to show us what beavers did for us once and what they could do for us now. Indeed, his case for the beaver’s importance to America’s past, present, and future is so strong that his book’s publication is the perfect opportunity for America’s beaver lovers to stand up and let their call echo from pond to shining pond: The humble beaver should be our national mammal.

Ben Goldfarb and the cover of his book Eager.
Photos by Terray Sylvester, Chelsea Green Publishing.

But what’s that, you say, about the beaver already being an official “symbol of the sovereignty of Canada” and even bearing a perfidious reference to that country in its scientific name, Castor canadensis? Pshaw. Our beavers will kick their sorry socialist beavers back to the North Pole. And what’s that about Obama having signed a bill that bestowed national mammal status upon the bison, not the beaver, in 2016? An error, perhaps the most grievous of Obama’s presidency. There’s no doubt in my mind that Trump would happily reverse it.

First, though, if this beaver-as-national-mammal campaign is going to take off, there are a few PR issues that campaigners need to get out ahead of. Specifically: Yes, beavers eat their own poop. As Goldfarb notes, beavers consume their own “pudding-like excretions to extract every last iota of nutrition; by the time their feces reemerge a day later, they’re nearly sawdust.” But I doubt James Carville or Karl Rove could improve on Goldfarb’s spin on this habit: That’s beavers for you, “thrifty as ever.”

It’s also true that beavers challenge once-commonplace stereotypes about gender, which is awesome, though I readily admit it isn’t a topic that has the best track record of bringing Americans together. But it should, because it’s fascinating. For one thing, it’s hard to even distinguish between male and female beavers. Not because today’s young beavers are rebelling against inherited, patriarchal notions of dress and deportment, but because their genitals are hidden behind “fleshy vents” that “do triple duty in the departments of urine disposal, scent secretion, and reproduction.” (Fun facts: Goldfarb notes that the Castor part of the beaver’s scientific name is related to castratum, which male beavers may appear to be, and which may have given rise to a lesser-known fable of Aesop’s, “The Beaver and His Testicles.”)

Beavers might also divide Americans on religious grounds. The Catholic Church once determined that beavers are fish, so they don’t count as meat for those who observe Lent.
It’s a ruling that isn’t so unreasonable when you consider beavers’ scaly tails, atypical sexual organs, and aquatic lifestyles, but it nevertheless has the makings of a doctrinal fissure. And then there’s the tendency of beavers to go around spraying a mix of castoreum (a “musky, vanilla-tinged oil”—sounds nice, right?) and urine across our homeland, behavior that challenges most every established moral code. Goldfarb, however, describes this as the beaver equivalent of erecting “picket fences around property lines,” which essentially frames it as a habit we humans could come to appreciate.

That’s about it for the potentially polarizing aspects of beaverdom. Now, among the many positives, let’s start with the ways in which beavers embody a diverse set of aspirations for American society. Above all, in this moment of national self-doubt, it’s important to remember that at various points in our past, we Americans have been world-renowned for our eagerness, humility, and ingenuity. Sounds like a rodent you know, right?

Beavers also have family lives that are easy for humans to appreciate. They are “generally” monogamous and exhibit great devotion to kin. As Goldfarb noted in an email to me, female and male beavers divide child rearing, arboriculture (i.e., tree cutting), and civil engineering (i.e., dam work) roughly equally. Juvenile beavers work on the family’s lodge and dams for a couple of years before they leave home to “find their own fortune.” Indeed, a beaver pond resembles that most widely beloved of American institutions: a small family business.

In addition, much like Americans abroad, beavers enjoy a reputation for both excellent teeth and a strong work ethic. In a classroom at a wildlife sanctuary near my hometown where I once attended nature camp, there was a beaver skull that was said to highlight how important it was for beavers to keep, you know, busy: Without wood to work on, the beaver’s teeth had kept growing and curling back until the beaver’s very inactivity presumably caused its own gruesome demise. Metaphor-wise, it’s difficult to imagine a greater gift for conservatives. Yet beavers also seem to straddle the work-to-live vs. live-to-work divide better than many humans. In his email to me, Goldfarb referenced the naturalist Enos Mills, who wrote that a beaver’s “life is full of industry and is rich in repose.” Is there a better summary of the goals of the labor movement?

I’m fine, as should be obvious by now, with essentially unlimited levels of beaver anthropomorphizing. But even without such unscientific indulgences, the case for the beaver as our national mammal is—forgive me—watertight.

Perhaps the best reason to honor the beaver is the breathtaking scale of its presence in pre-Columbian North America. The upper end of one estimate that Goldfarb quotes of North America’s pre-European-contact beaver population is 400 million (a current estimate is around 15 million). Even more remarkable is how dramatically these creatures once sculpted our treasured landscapes. The traditional range of beavers encompassed portions of every state but Hawaii. I was floored by Goldfarb’s rough estimate of the area of North America that was once submerged by beaver-engineered bodies of water: 234,000 square miles, or more than the combined area of Nevada and Arizona.

Beavers and their dams altered not just our continent, but the lives and the evolutionary paths of a veritable Noah’s Ark of North America’s creatures. Indeed, the beaver is perhaps the best example of a keystone species—that is, one on which so many others depend. Songbirds, snow geese, otters, herons, pelicans, snakes, mink, raccoon, northern leopard frogs, sawflies, and trumpeter swans, to start. Even salmon, perhaps the last species you’d expect to benefit from nature’s most famous dam builders, owe a debt to beavers (Goldfarb quoted a bumper sticker: “Beavers taught salmon to jump”). Long before Goldfarb describes the beaver’s teeth as “evolution’s most consequential dental sculptors,” he should have you convinced.

The beaver may not have the soaring majesty of the bald eagle (America’s national animal) or the stateliness of the bison (our national mammal, for now). But in his email to me, Goldfarb pointed out that the bald eagle depends in part on beaver-made habitats that support salmon and other fish. In addition, “as beavers raise water levels in ponds and wetlands, they kill surrounding trees and create ‘snags’—skeletal hunting perches from which eagles and other raptors scope their prey,” which, be honest, is very cool and frankly underrated work. Even our incumbent national mammal traditionally relied on beaver-controlled water supplies. “The Blackfeet and other Northern Plains tribes refused to kill” beavers, Goldfarb wrote to me, “largely because they recognized that beavers helped sustain the bison that they relied upon.”

Much as they sculpted the natural world that a growing nation would subsume, beavers—specifically, their valuable, hat-friendly fur—also helped shape the polities that became the United States. In his book, Goldfarb describes beaver furs, which Pilgrims used to repay their debts in England, as “the wind in the sails of the Mayflower” and quotes the historian James Truslow Adams: “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony.” The acquisition of Manhattan (the “real prizes” were thousands of beaver skins, “the island itself was little more than a pot-sweetener”), the American Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812—Goldfarb argues that more than “any other natural resource, beavers help explain just about every significant American geopolitical event between European arrival and the Civil War.”

The beaver is also a living and (once again) commonplace reminder of some of the most unsavory aspects of America’s history. The fur trade devasted beaver populations and the many species that depended on them. I associate the mammal so strongly with the part of rural western Massachusetts where I grew up that I was dumbstruck to learn from Goldfarb’s book that beavers were hunted to extinction in my home state by the 18th century. They returned only in the late 1920s. Even in the comparative vastness of New York state, by the 1890s the beaver population had fallen to just five individuals huddled in the Adirondacks. The plunder was continental in scale: In 1843, John James Audubon could journey along more than 2,000 miles of the Missouri River and see not one beaver.

In addition to upending ancient ecological balances, the fur trade also led, of course, to unnumbered human tragedies. Goldfarb describes some of the traditional roles of beavers in certain Native American cultures and notes that the fur trade, in addition to being one of American history’s more reliable vectors for settlement, disease, and conflict, “warped indigenous peoples’ relationship with beaver from subsistence and kinship to extraction.” If we’re brave enough to embrace national symbols that help us confront the contradictions in our past, then the beaver is perhaps our finest candidate.

In short, it’s hard not to look back at America’s cultural, ecological, economic, and political history without seeing Castor canadensis. But even a country that prides itself on looking mostly forward might find lessons in our current relationship with beavers, and reasons to be hopeful about our shared future on this continent.

Goldfarb notes that today America is sprawling deeper into its landscapes even as many of them are re-wilding, two seemingly contradictory trends that are producing more conflicts between us and a natural world that remains one of the greatest joys of living in this country. One consequence is that many Americans have been given new reasons to view beavers as pests. Goldfarb highlights flooded roads, chewed-through fiber optic cables, and disrupted weddings as just some of the fronts in the war that some may perceive beavers to be waging on our republic. I remember a weeks-long period of my western Massachusetts childhood when we had to boil all our drinking water because beavers had unleashed “beaver fever,” or giardiasis, into the town water supply.

I’d urge beaver skeptics, especially those professionally involved in infrastructure and agriculture, to delve into the details of Goldfarb’s book, much of which is devoted to explaining why many such conflicts can be managed with a combination of an open mind and the latest beaver-friendly technologies. Even the most dyed-in-the-fur beaver haters should do so, because Goldfarb describes new approaches to beaver management that may be cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods such as guns, traps, and infrastructure repairs.

Anyway, Goldfarb isn’t out to show only that if we’re a little smarter about beavers, then we might peacefully coexist. He argues that our ever-greater power to shape the course of the natural world comes with ever-greater responsibilities—and that beavers, world shapers themselves, are uniquely poised to help us.

Trying to inexpensively fix damaged streams and restore ecosystems that other species rely on? Beavers “do so easily what you have to work so hard to accomplish,” said one Forest Service biologist to Goldfarb. Aiming to ensure well-watered pastures for livestock and rich streams that draw wildlife, fishermen, and tourists, all of which are of particular importance to an increasingly water-challenged West? Call 1-800-BEAVERS (but maybe don’t do that, exactly).

Then there’s the specter of further climate change. Hoping to mitigate the impact not just on ecosystems, but on water supplies for cities and agriculture? “By slowing, spreading, storing, and sinking meltwater and runoff,” beavers “can help us compensate, to some to-be-determined extent, for vast-vanishing glaciers and snowpack.” Reworking the Alaskan tundra to “help moose, songbirds, and other northward-fleeing species adapt to global warming”? There’s a beaver for that. What about carbon sequestration in pond sediment? “Forget trees: If you want to fight climate change, it’s entirely possible you’re better off planting beavers.”

In short, Goldfarb argues that it makes sense for Americans to reconsider our relationship with the beaver, not just because it’s right for us to let at least some beavers do what beavers will do, and not just because it’s so easy for nature romantics like myself to see in the lives of beavers many of the attributes that we most value. Goldfarb doesn’t need to anthropomorphize beavers because he demonstrates that they really are like us: They’re the only species that approaches our own in their potential to reshape and to steward, actively or inadvertently, the natural world. And our natural world needs some serious stewardship right now.

“Let the rodent do the work.” That’s what a geomorphologist—whose team devised a way for a Walmart in Logan, Utah, to coexist with the beavers in the stream next door, protecting not just the beavers, but fish, waterfowl, and an environment with “just crazy” levels of biodiversity—told Goldfarb. And let Americans, I’d add, read Goldfarb’s book, which makes it so beautifully clear why we should partner with beavers wherever and whenever we can, and why our nation should find a way to honor these creatures for what they are: the most remarkable of our fellow travelers.