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The Curious Tale of Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit

The two Peters had somewhat different natures. Potter’s was a beloved rogue with a propensity to become trapped inside watering cans, with chamomile tea as consolation. His family’s encounters with Farmer McGregor had a dark edge, with the farmer threatening to “skin them and cut off their heads.”         

Burgess’ Peter delighted children with the tricks he played on his friends, such as persuading Johnny Chuck to jump on a log which turned out to be a furious Reddy Fox. His schemes often backfired, resulting in gentle morality tales. Beers describes the lovable rabbit as “exactly what we would hope for in a friend—someone who is not perfect, who makes mistakes, but who knows how to be loyal.”

Unlike Potter, Burgess was insistent that Peter display genuine rabbit-like behavior. “Beatrix Potter showed her Peter and animal characters doing things like playing with balloons and wagons,” explains Nancy Titcomb, founder of the Thornton W. Burgess Society. “Burgess’ Peter, though, was a natural rabbit. Burgess always made sure that he was teaching children true facts about nature and the natural world.” Christie Palmer Lowrance, Burgess’ 2013 biographer, puts it this way:

“Peter’s creator strongly believed that nature and wild animals were the educational tools that children could learn best from. … Peter interacted constantly with other wildlife characters from birds and amphibians to mammals and arachnids in a credibly depicted ecosystem. He and his friends were presumably quite unfamiliar with hot chamomile tea.”

In addition to the popularity of the Peter rabbits that Potter and Burgess each created at age 36, and their early love of nature, the authors’ lives followed other parallels: both grew up with little exposure to other children, Potter spending much time with her governess and Burgess with his mother; both battled illness in their twenties, Potter suffering from the “odious low spirits” of depression and Burgess from malaria; and both transcended their storyteller roles to emerge as serious environmentalists, Potter’s efforts resulting in the conservation of one quarter of England’s Lake District in perpetuity as farmland, and Burgess’ in the preservation of millions of acres across the U.S. as bird sanctuaries.

It was Burgess’ newspaper stories on Mrs. Quack the Mallard Duck and the perils of hunting that contributed to the passage of the still-viable Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 between the U.S. and Canada. “Burgess’ obvious passion for wildlife in literature and real life made him a mentor and strong influence on a generation of New England conservationists,” says Mark Madison, historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The treaty has been the primary tool to protect native birds that migrate, [including] iconic protected species such as the snowy egret, sandhill cranes and numerous migratory waterfowl.” Fittingly, Burgess’ efforts garnered the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society’s Wildlife Protection Fund.

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