Of Fancy Feathers and the Fly-tying Flautist Who Filched Them
August 13, 2018 1:35 PM   Subscribe

In Kirk Wallace Johnson's new book, The Feather Thief, he writes about a 2009 theft of almost 300 rare and exotic birds from the British Natural History Museum at Tring, and the then 20-year-old flautist who stole them. National Geographic has an excerpt from the book, and This American Life presents the story in this week's episode.
posted by noneuclidean (13 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
We listened to most of this on Saturday, but did not get to hear the last 15 minutes. Even so, if this does not get made into a movie, I shall be VERY disappointed.
posted by blurker at 1:45 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I read the book, which was great, but the story is so infuriating and upsetting.
posted by jeather at 2:09 PM on August 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, anyone who thinks this is an entertaining story should read the Outside piece by an ornithologist.
After Rist’s successful heist, he brings the stolen birds back to his apartment, where he plucks the most colorful feathers from each study skin and cuts parts of each bird into small pieces for illegal online sales. As I read this, my stomach knotted in pain. Each bird had been studied by scientists for decades, a priceless time stamp in the biological record; yet, when Rist finished with them, he tossed each skin into a cardboard box by his closet. More heartbreaking still was that he cut many of the tags off the specimens, rendering them effectively useless without their locality, date, and identifying information.
Note that some of the specimens he destroyed -- to finance a fucking gold flute -- were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace himself. This guy is kin to those who looted the Iraq museums after the war. And of course, he had absolutely no remorse when caught, calling the museum a dusty old dump and blaming his crime on having Asperger's syndrome.
posted by tavella at 4:06 PM on August 13, 2018 [20 favorites]

Also, this dude got off pretty much scot-free for "Asperger's," which uh...does he actually have that?

Also, you're THAT into fly fishing that you have to steal a shit ton of feathers?

Also, I got really tired of the fly fishing "community."
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, this dude got off pretty much scot-free for "Asperger's," which uh...does he actually have that?

Rist practically admits he doesn't in his interview with Johnson, at least according to the TAL episode. From the transcript of the episode:
Also, this unsettling thing happened during the interview. Kirk says Edwin just didn't seem like someone with Asperger's. And after six of their eight hours together, he told him so. Edwin responded that he hadn't exhibited any obvious symptoms of the disorder until he was in the evaluation room, not long before sentencing. He said, I became exactly what I was supposed to be.
posted by noneuclidean at 5:41 PM on August 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the TAL episode does not paint a pretty picture of either the fly fishing lure community or of Rist. The one person who feels guilty is the Vietnamese immigrant in Norway and in the end returns some of the ill-gotten goods. The sadness in his voice as he finds that Rist was not a good friend to him at all.
posted by jadepearl at 6:16 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not that having Asperger's should have any influence on a sentence for burglary in the first place, since it would have absolutely nothing to do with a person being a thief. But yes, Rist is also a lying asshole.
posted by tavella at 7:06 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

This shit was bananas. Infuriating bananas. In a way it kind of made me glad that for whatever reason Rist decided his Thing would be fly-tying and not, idk, skin-suit-wearing.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:14 PM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

God I feel less alone. I listened to TAL today while doing chores and my god it filled me with what I thought was irrational anger. Salmon fly tying with extinct bird feathers has to be the clearest metaphor imaginable for why we are completely screwed i.r.t. climate change. God forbid you feel bad because the feathers aren’t exactly what someone used 100 years ago, you complete and utter self important twat. Fly tying people of this ilk should have a ring of hell just for them, the utter jack-wagons. I’m done now.
posted by hilberseimer at 7:27 PM on August 13, 2018 [10 favorites]

Salmon fly tying with extinct bird feathers has to be the clearest metaphor imaginable for why we are completely screwed i.r.t. climate change.

Flies that are never fished with, just to add that extra metaphorical fillip.
posted by tavella at 7:35 PM on August 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

What an absolute bastard. The "fly-tying community" sound like a bunch of evil wankers as well. It made me feel slightly sick with rage to read this. There have been other robberies from the Tring museum - some half-wit stole replica rhino horns there a few years ago. It's a fascinating little museum, stuffed to the rafters with the fruits of decades Victorian hunting and collecting, including many species that are now extinct. They have a very good thylacine, for example.

The only faint consolation I can draw from this story is that Victorian collectors preserved bird skins by saturating them with arsenic, so I hope he was exposed of it to enough to make him really unwell.
posted by Fuchsoid at 12:33 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm still seething after hearing the TAL. It's so easy for ignorant fuckers to destroy nice things that it's kind of a wonder any are left at all.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:24 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I heard this story a few months back on Mysterious Universe - they focused on the obsession angle for both the "collectors" but yeah, the casual destruction of historical artifacts is pretty rage inducing.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:25 AM on August 14, 2018

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