The Authentic Animal: Final Outtake

[Thanks to anyone who’s been reading these outtakes the past eight weeks. I thought I’d finish this series by posting the very first thing I wrote about taxidermy, way back in the spring of 2004. This was the beginning of an essay for a nature writing class taught by the biologist and writer John Janovy. It’s hard, exactly, to say how this became the seed of a book, but instead of going into it I thought I’d just give you the seed itself.

Again, thanks for reading and everyone’s excitement and support. If you haven’t yet done so, you can still pre-order The Authentic Animal on Those of you who’ve got a copy coming already, thank you. I hope you like it.]

The east end of the fifth floor of Nebraska Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus is maybe half-den, half-museum. It’s here that the tens of thousands of specimens that the university owns are kept in storage for study by students and scientists. But it’s also here that much of the Elgin Gates Collection hangs, lining the halls with animal heads in a way you may have experienced in certain nightmares. Dr. John Janovy, professor of biology, lets me in through the security door, and a bison head looms immediately to our left. Ahead of us is a row of oryxes, with their tall, ribbed horns and long, sad faces. There’s something peculiar about these animals, a kind of deadness that extends beyond the obvious. It’s another moment or two of staring and note-taking before I realize it’s the eyes. Instead of plastic or glass facsimiles, the eye sockets of these oryxes—all of them—have been filled with opaque, black spheres. They might be wooden, but I can’t be sure. I’m afraid to touch them. It’s like looking into a well, or a telescope with the lens cap on.

Ahead and to the left, Dr. Trish Freeman, curator of zoology for the State History Museum and professor of biology at UNL, sits at a wide desk in a good-sized office. Good-sized such that there’s room enough for a severed hook-lipped rhinoceros head to extend like an untrustworthy cloud over half of her workspace. Behind her hang two walrus heads, Pacific Walrus on the left and Atlantic Walrus on the right, staring together like long-lost brothers. All of these, including the warthogs behind me, are part of the Gates collection that UNL has inherited. I find it hard to believe that such varied animals as I’ve seen so far were all killed by the same person, but Dr. Freeman assures me this is so.

“[Gates] was a collector,” she says. “Whenever he traveled, he always had a particular species in mind, and he tried to get the best representation of that species he could. This is why the collection is so valuable.”

She hands me a small catalogue of the 150 specimens in the collection and starts telling me the story behind it. Elgin T. Gates was a classic sportsman, safariing across the world for his specimens (he got two penguins from Antarctica, to give you a sense of the extent of his travels) and displaying them at his home in California. In the 1960s, E. John Brandeis of the old Brandeis department stores bought the collection from him, and gave it to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. (To me, this seems a kind of shame. Sure, the collection went to the Educational Building, but it’s a bit of a gyp to go to a zoo and look at taxidermied [sic…this was before I learned the vernacular] animals.) In 19XX [I never did make the phone call to find this date], the Zoo shared the collection with the State Museum, and those specimens not on exhibit are stored here, right in and outside Dr. Freeman’s office.

But it’s the story behind the story that makes the Gates collection even more special. Gates took his specimens to Jonas Brothers Taxidermy, in Seattle, for all his stuffing and mounting needs (however, few of the specimens are mounted; most heads are without a backing plaque, making their extension from the flat surface of these walls all the more creepy). These Jonas brothers were the grandsons of the original Jonas, who founded the company, and this Jonas, the ur-Jonas, was a student of Carl Akeley, whom Dr. Freeman calls, “The Father of Modern Taxidermy.” Akeley’s contribution was to abandon the straw-and-sawdust method of stuffing animal skins and create a plastic manikin over which the skin could be fashioned. This moved taxidermy closer to art, closer to sculpture, and allowed taxidermists more control in creating the illusion of motion in the still specimen by giving them the ability to sculpt muscle tone that would be visible under the overlaying skin.**

So the moral, in a sense, of the Gates collection is how it began as a typical exercise in imperialistic derring-do and ended up as a kind of archive in a university and museum setting. Here above our heads on the fifth floor of Nebraska Hall, these animals could almost speak of the two-edged benefits of taxidermy. Stuffed as trophies, preserved as artifacts.

But as specimens, they’re a bit inferior to the vast collections found across the hall. Dr. Freeman leads us into the vertebrate collection, housed in a room about the size of restaurant kitchens with white metal cabinets everywhere containing drawers and drawers of dead animals. She pulls open a thin drawer almost at random; it’s filled with about three-dozen moles. As in the blind kind that dig around in backyards. They lie laterally in three rows, right up next to each other as if for warmth, each in the same prone position with paws pulled straight out, front and back. She picks one up and hands it to me. It’s unbelievably lightweight, almost lighter than a wad of cotton the same size—which, it turns out, this mole is stuffed with. What purpose these drawered specimens are serving is as “study skins”—what’s important here is size, color, texture, shape. The showing of musculature and the stop-motion effects of taxidermy aren’t necessary. But why is it necessary for there to be over thirty specimens of the same species?

Dr. Freeman turns to me with a line that seems rehearsed, or at least recited numerous times. Nonetheless, it does the job. “Well,” she says, “are you the ideal human specimen?”

I’m speechless and struck dumb. Dr. Janovy, next to me, chuckles knowingly. It’s the best dressing-down I’ve received in ages.

Not only are Dr. Freeman and the biology department interested in collecting multiple species specimens, but they’re always interested. They’re constantly collecting. As Dr. Freeman shows me a drawer of yellow warblers, a small bird that looks colorful enough but perhaps a bit too plain-featured to be a pet (some specimens of which date back to 1892), Dr. Janovy comes over with a shrew skin in his hand and a proud little beam on his face. “Here, David,” he says. “Here’s the shrew I collected just last year.” The shrew is smaller and lighter than the mole, and the doctors take the moment to point this out to me, as one of the chief differentiating characteristics of the Insectivora order of mammals. This shrew’s also got tiny external ears. It’s extremely delicate and I’m worried about somehow breaking the thing. “I found it in my garage,” Dr. Janovy continues. “It had drowned in a bucket of water, and when I found it I went inside and grabbed my GPS unit and got the coordinates.”

I ask if this is required for all specimens in the collection, and both doctors nod in the stern affirmative. “We get specific data on each specimen,” Dr. Freeman says. “We need to know who caught it; where it was caught—for something local, the town it was found in is okay, but the coordinates are best—and when it was caught. This is another reason the Gates collection is so good. Every specimen has these three data attached to it. Without the data, that collection and this one have less value.”

The rest of my time in the collections, Dr. Freeman shows off some of the more interesting specimens, including both mounted and study-skin ducks, a snow leopard, a Malaysian sun bear, and a twelve-foot-tall African elephant head with plastic tusks about as long (the real ones are at the Henry Doorly Zoo). In some places, the collection—like all good ones, perhaps—is messy and scattered and in a process someplace between acquisition and cataloguing. Near the elephant head is a meat freezer with a skunk, a parrot, and a tiger skin inside (among other things), each wrapped up in clear plastic. All specimens of each fish and amphibian species are tossed together in a single jar of 60-70 percent alcohol solution, and shelved in a system I’m too much of a layman to make heads or tails of. At one point, Dr. Freeman shows me a drawer of bats, which she’s currently researching. I hold a couple. It’s all both exciting and disorienting; everything’s fake but not fake enough. Real, actually, just lifeless, but somehow still affecting. And I can’t figure out how it’s affecting, or really what the effect is until we move into the preparation room, where Dr. Freeman and student assistants receive dead animals and prepare them for study.

The process is surprising. Each carcass gets a single incision along the belly (or whatever corporeal analogue makes sense), and the skin is peeled away from the bones. “Like a T-shirt,” Dr. Freeman says, which actually helps with the image. Then the bones and “guts” as she calls them are removed, and the former is placed in a plastic case full of carpet beetles to be cleaned.

Isn’t there a simple solution that can remove the meat, some kind of acid that can do the job without the beetles?

Dr. Freeman looks surprised I even thought of this as a possibility and opens the cabinet that houses the beetles to show me. Inside, several hundred beetles swarm on top of one another, crawling in a way I want to call menacing. I have recurring nightmares involving insects and their crawling on and near my body. The simple locomotion of six wire-thin legs—even the thought of this, even the typing of this sentence—is almost enough to send me screaming from a room. I look beyond the main pile of beetles at the front of the cage and see the skeleton of some small animal lying there, the larvae of these beetles eating off the flesh. The whole thing ranks among the more gruesome sights of my life, but I can’t help but find the process interesting. When they’re done, and the skeleton is bone dry (sorry), Dr. Freeman removes it and soaks it in alcohol to remove any traces. And when I think about it, there’s a kind of grand justice in all this. Archival taxidermy is a process that, simply put, takes something from nature and makes it lifeless and almost formless, that turns an animal into a specimen. But before any part of this transformation can happen, the scientist has to hire out the services of Nature herself, in the form of carpet beetles.

But what helps me finally understand the allure of dead animals, the strange affecting quality they hold, is this exchange between Drs. Freeman and Janovy, right before the latter ducks out to teach his graduate parasitology seminar. We’re (thankfully) at the other end of the room from the carpet beetles, looking at a couple of skeletons drying on paper towels. There are four or five on the shelf; most of them are typical small animals. Rodents and such. Dr. Freeman grabs a shallow box from the back and says, “This one’s actually kind of interesting.” She roots around and pulls out a skull, a little smaller and slimmer than a chicken egg lying on its side, the bottom jaw missing somewhere in the pile of ribs and vertebrae, each of which is numbered carefully for later study. I can see some sharp teeth poking down. The thing almost looks like it’s snarling at us.

“What is that?” Dr. Janovy asks. “Some kind of weasel?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Just came in the other day.

He reaches out to hold it. “Look at that,” he says. “That is darling.”

“It is,” she says. “It is darling.”

It’s a weasel skull. In the list of objects that come to mind when most of us hear the word “darling,” it ranks somewhere between a concrete mixer and a canker sore. But this kind of taxonomy doesn’t work for the biologist. When your reverence for nature is so great that you make the decision to devote your life to it, the fact that this weasel is dead, skinned, and devoured by insects isn’t going to ruin the effect of being near it. Of seeing it close-up. Of holding the darling little thing in your hand.

** Contemporary scholar Karen Wonders has since found that the manikin innovation should actually be credited to William T. Hornaday—a colleague of Akeley’s at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, N.Y.—whose method of constructing a clay-covered manikin for specimens predated Akeley’s by several years. Though less adequate in the long run than Akeley’s plastic manikins, the overall idea to move from stuffing to forming belongs to Hornaday.

2 thoughts on “The Authentic Animal: Final Outtake”

  1. This is my favorite outtake — not many people “get” the passion biologists have for their species, or the dedication of the museum folks who catalog and preserve these little snapshots of life on earth. You clearly do, and that same understanding and respect toward taxidermy and its practitioners is what makes TAA such a great book.

  2. Aww, thanks, Katie. Glad you liked it. Little bits of this I think made it into the final MS, so hopefully it transmits. That bit about the skull being “darling”—it’s too good not to include.

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