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Why the Seattle Audubon Society will drop 'Audubon' from its name

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A Seattle Audubon Society by any other name, would be just as birdy.

That's partly the idea behind why the Seattle Audubon Society is dropping "Audubon" from its name, citing an uncomfortable history behind the man the organization is named after.

“Knowing what we now know and hearing from community members how the Audubon name is harmful to our cause, there is no other choice but to change," said Seattle Audubon Society's Executive Director Claire Catania in a statement on the chapter's website.

According to the statement, the Board of Directors voted to drop the "Audubon" from the name on July 14. They have not chosen a new name, and no timeline has been determined for the ultimate title change. According to the statement, the chapter wants to have a "thoughtful and inclusive process" before making the change.

The roots of the Audubon Society go back to the late 1800s, but it was officially incorporated in 1905. It was named after John James Audubon, who died decades before in 1851. Audubon came to North America with a passion to document the region's bird species, and further the science around them. His work was influential, and spurred conservation efforts to save bird populations as they were declining. His name has since been commemorated in street names, parks, counties, cities, and more.

But John James Audubon wasn't just an artistic ornithologist. He also made money buying and selling enslaved African Americans at this general store in Kentucky. He enslaved people himself throughout his life, sold them, and was against abolition. That history is not sitting well with the society that uses his name.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” Catania said. “Our members, volunteers, and staff are focused on a future where the perspectives and contributions of all people are valued—especially those who have been systemically excluded. The challenges facing humans and birds alike demand that we build a radically inclusive coalition to address them."

Other Audubon groups have also chosen to change their names, such as the Audubon Naturalist Society in the Washington DC area. It has been going by "ANS" until its new name is chosen. The Seattle chapter says it is "the first large chapter in the National Audubon Society network to publicly declare its intention to remove 'Audubon' from the organization’s name." The Seattle chapter also notes that ANS is not affiliated with the National Audubon Society.

According to a statement from Andrew Schepers, president of the Seattle Audubon Society's board of directors, the name is not what the organization stands for. It's about birds.

“We are here for the birds, for the people, and for nature, not to defend a harmful legacy. We’ve got too much good work to do to let this continue to stand in our way. Our organization has a bold history of over a century of activism and impactful conservation. Our work will require all hands and voices to more fully serve our communities today and into the future. Complacency towards antiracism is not an option if we are to fulfill our mission.”

Read the full announcement from the Seattle Audubon Society (for now) here.

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