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Fancy a spot of whale shit?

This week in TLS, which has lately redesigned its website (beautifully, of course) and begun offering its pieces online, I review an intriguing history of ambergris by Christopher Kemp. I'd also like to direct anyone interested in ambergris to the very readable 2006 paper by Robert Henry Clarke from which Kemp derived much valuable information. If it weren't for Kemp's book, Clarke's definitive study of ambergris, which answered so many important and lingering questions about the stuff, would likely have languished in obscurity. Sadly, Clarke, who died last year at age 92, never got to read it. 
A small lump of ambergis displayed in somebody’s hand



The Everglades Pythons

In the TLS this week I have tried to summarize, in as straightforward a manner as possible, the Burmese python problem in the Florida Everglades, based my reading of two new(ish) books: Dorcas and Willson's "Invasive Pythons in the United States" and Larry Perez's "Snake in the Grass." I will surely be accused of treachery anyway; it's an article of faith in some, but not all, sectors of the reptile community that the python problem has been exaggerated by animal-rights concerns and self-interested scientists as a means of restricting a trade they despise. I have no position on the federal python ban, as it comes too late to do anything, and I agree that animal-rights folks aren't helping matters with their shrill and uninformed editorials, but at heart this is a serious environmental problem affecting one of the United States' most important and imperiled ecosystems. Whether the pythons were deliberately released or not, the fact is that they along with more than half of Florida's 50-plus species of established non-native reptiles are traceable to the trade. Willson, Dorcas, and Perez are all herpers and none advocates for an end to the trade. But, like most reasonable people, they wonder how this could have been prevented, and whether enough is being done to prevent future invasions of similar consequence. 


Oh, and breasts

Reviewed Florence Williams' book on breasts and the various still-legal toxins that threaten breast health every day. It was an enormous research effort crunched into one highly readible volume, full of snappy one-liners. This is not easy to do, and I praised it. I called her writing droll and crisp, which she complained made her feel like a pastry. 




Picked Clean

In the TLS a few months ago I considered whether it was an honor to taxidermize a beloved animal upon its death; in a very interesting new book I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, Bernd Heinrich considers, among other things, whether humans are obliged to forego the chemicals and the sealed caskets and let scavenging animals take over our funerary duties, allowing us to become more generous contributors to the "death-into-life" cycle. Those squeamish to sumbit to the full Zoroastrian sky burial


which is illegal most places anyway, might consider "green burial," by which you just get wrapped in a sheet and buried in a designated wood or meadow, where some handsome Nicrophorus americanus may show up to raise grubs in you. 


Honorably Stuffed 

When poor Knut, the Berlin Zoo's messed-up-in-the-head (but popular) polar bear, died last year, the zoo announced that he was to be taxidermied.


I don't know that a stuffed Knut has been unveiled as of yet, but I did have the chance to write for TLS last month on stuffing in general, thanks to an interesting essay collection edited by J.M.M. Alberti on animals that have earned themselves an "afterlife" as museum specimens. I can't link to TLS pieces but I can reproduce the text:


An Honour to be Stuffed? 

Sir Roger, an Asian elephant, was enjoying his favorite breakfast of a bucket of wet bran when a firing party of four men shot him in the head. As a resident of the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in Glasgow, Sir Roger had entertained menagerie-goers without incident for 16 years, but owing to a bad case of musth, the hormonal surge that can make male elephants menacing and unmanageable, Sir Roger’s owner Edward Henry Bostock decided to dispatch with him. Bostock charged admission to Sir Roger’s “execution” in December 1900, and no sooner was Sir Roger dead than the taxidermists and anatomists arrived to immortalize him. Selected soft parts of Sir Roger were preserved for study, his skeleton saved, and his skin turned into a mounted specimen that looked remarkably good for having taken 10 bullets. He had even been supplied a set of artificial tusks posthumously; the living Sir Roger had none.   

Bostock exhibited Sir Roger for several weeks at the zoo before donating the skin to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, where it was visited by many who had known Sir Roger in life. But after the Second World War, when Sir Roger was only dimly remembered, the skin was repurposed as simply “Elephant, Adult Male”, surrounded by other Indian species in a diorama evoking a forest. Naturalistic displays were by then the fashion, and “[i]magining him being led through the Glasgow streets or pulling a menagerie trailer wouldn’t have worked so well”, conclude Richard Sutcliffe, Mike Rutherford, and Jeanne Robinson, co-authors of one of the many remarkable essays in The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, which traces the careers of several famous and some anonymous museum specimens in life and as artifacts.

For animals like Sir Roger, whose true story is now a prominent part of his Kelvingrove display,


death “is not the event horizon we might assume it to be”, writes Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, the anthology’s editor and contributor of an essay on Maharajah, a Manchester elephant with a career trajectory similar to Sir Roger’s, minus the violent end. To explore the “shifting meaning of singular animals and their remains”, as Alberti describes the authors’ task here, is a great challenge, in part because some of the remains themselves are difficult to trace back to living animals, and also because, over the century-odd period covered in these essays, attitudes toward the exhibition of animals living and dead have changed so dramatically, often without obvious reason. A century ago a visitor to the skeleton of Maharajah the elephant found himself unable to decide whether the shrine-like display constituted “an outlined mockery or a noble monument”, and one might wonder the same today.

To articulate a skeleton or mount the skin of a beloved zoo animal was a gesture of honor from the late 19th century through much of the 20th, when remains were often displayed on the grounds of the zoo where the animal had lived, or in a museum close by. Alfred the Gorilla, of Bristol Zoo, and Chi-Chi the panda, of the London Zoo, were both preserved after their untimely deaths in 1948 and 1972, respectively, but when Guy the Gorilla died in 1978 the public was suddenly incensed at the prospect of “stuffing the Guy”, writes contributor Henry Nicholls, instead of giving him a decent burial. Nicholls cites the increasing popularity of natural history broadcasting in the 1970s as the reason for this sudden distaste for posed dead creatures, which seems plausible. Museums everywhere were shutting down their taxidermy departments in that era.

But then, some 30 years later, a female northern bottlenose whale swam through the Thames barrier, got confused and dehydrated, and died before cameras and thousands of onlookers before it could be rescued. Contributor Richard C. Sabin, curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum, was surprised to be faced with impassioned demands that the Thames whale – one of hundreds of cetaceans to become stranded and die in the U.K. in any given year – be given the taxidermic treatment. Dead whales are customarily dumped in landfills, but Sabin found himself “continually pressed on the stuffing and pickling issue,” until in the end the museum, with the support of donations from readers of The Sun, agreed to clean, articulate, and display the skeleton. Like Guy and Chi-Chi before it, “the Thames whale has become a celebrity specimen,” Sabin concludes, with “detailed, multilayered, and important narratives” attached to it.

Contributor Geoffrey N. Swinney chalks the phenomenon of celebrity specimens up to anthropomorphism. Most, after all, have been large charismatic mammals with names attached. Guy, Chi-Chi and the Thames whale were all, even while alive, “appropriated and reconstructed in our image,” he writes, with the rebuilding of each carcass serving to “divest the animal of those aspects of its animality – its beastliness – which serve to remind us humans of our own biology and the beast within.” By contrast, writes contributor Sophie Everest, the millions of anonymous, desiccated, hollow-eyed study specimens that comprise the bulk of museum holdings are  “absolute in their deadness”, and represent, to some museum curators, an “uncomfortable reminder of a human-animal relationship to which they no longer subscribe.”

So is it still an honor to be stuffed? The clamor over the Thames whale showed that a number of people believe it so, and the amazing thing is that it continues to happen, considering the decline of museum taxidermy in general. These days the vast majority of zoo elephants are either buried or rendered into animal feed when they die. But in 2010 a zoo in Neunkirchen, Germany, hosted an exhibition of animals preserved in plastic. The star of the show was an elephant that had lived and died at the zoo, and the exhibit proved so popular it was held over for months. The same year a nature park in Mumbai proudly unveiled the mounted remains of an elephant that had drowned there three years earlier.

In an essay on Balto, Togo, and Fritz, the sled dogs that in 1925 braved ice floes and blinding snows to bring diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska (and were stuffed after their natural deaths in tribute), contributor Rachel Poliquin finds that quality of an animal’s afterlife depends largely on whether its life is remembered. Balto, the most famous of the dogs, was maintained posthumously in his fluffy glory in Cleveland, Ohio, while Togo disintegrated into a shabby mess in Vermont, and poor Fritz ended up at a tacky amusement park, then in the hands of an antiques dealer who hadn’t the slightest idea who or what he was. “Separated from their heroic deeds, Togo and Fritz were confined to oblivion."