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.
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.
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.
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."
Another piece I did recently for TLS was on Ann Fabian's provocative history of craniometry in America. Skull collecting has long been tainted by scientific racism; it was probably born of it. And yet in "THE SKULL COLLECTORS: Race, science, and America’s unburied dead," Fabian explores not merely the motives of the practicioners but the lives of the people who ended up in their collections.
The Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton owned a collection of human skulls that numbered about a thousand when he died, in 1851. His “American Golgotha,” as his friends liked to call it, was the largest skull collection in the world at the time, and marked Morton’s highest achievement as a naturalist and director of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. The skulls – the most famous of which were Native American -- were plundered from graves by missionaries, doctors, diplomats and soldiers, whom Morton corresponded with and paid.
Morton seldom left Philadelphia, owing to a bad lung. When he was not soliciting skulls he was measuring every angle and protrusion of them with an elaborate adjustable contraption he termed the “facial goniometer”; hiring draftsmen to render them according to his exacting standards; and packing their cavities with mustard seed or buckshot to measure their volume. Cranial volume was a key measurement for Morton, who suspected that a skull’s capacity corresponded with brain size, and consequently with intellect and moral character—and that of the race to which the skull belonged. Morton was fascinated by racial differences and had polygenist leanings, believing that humans divided into five races – Caucasian, American, Malay, Mongolian and Ethiopian – each adapted to a different climate and purpose and likely separately created. In Crania Americana, Morton’s beautifully illustrated 1839 book on his skulls, he ranked these five racial categories by cranial capacity of his available specimens (“Caucasians” came out handily on top, “Ethiopians” on the bottom).
In 1978 Stephen Jay Gould revisited Morton’s rankings, and as Morton had published all his original data, Gould was able to re-evaluate them using modern statistical methods. Gould’s analysis found cranial capacity to be about equal among the groups. He also found that Morton had included or excluded specimens from his catalogue, and rounded figures up or down, to support a priori conclusions. Gould’s paper on Morton became the basis for The Mismeasure of Man, published three years later. Other writers have since painted harsher portraits of Morton still. Louis Menand argued that Morton – who had never supported slavery but had a documented distaste for blacks -- recruited a young and impressionable Louis Agassiz to his racial positions. Morton’s predispositions are obvious in Crania Americana, which is full of racial hearsay Morton selected from travelers’ accounts: the Siamese are presented as “suspicious, vacillating, and cruel”; the Hottentots as “the nearest approximation to the lower animals,” the Germans “marked by decided personal courage.” When Morton is mentioned at all these days, it is usually in the context of scientific racism, though a handful of physical anthropologists today are Morton apologists (a facsimile reprint of Crania Americana, from 2009, contains a lusty defense of Morton as its foreword), who hold Gould in about the same regard as he did their forbear.
The historian Ann Fabian, in The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, re-opens the book on Morton not to render any final verdict on his biases but to contrast his life’s story with intricate and often deeply moving accounts of the people whose remains ended up on his shelves, or the shelves of his intellectual descendants. Fabian’s portrait of Morton is at once subtler and more revealing than Gould’s or Menand’s. Her Morton comes off as mildly pretentious, insecure in his dealings with more accomplished naturalists, and out of his depth as a theorist. He was given to conspicuously contemplating a single skull for weeks at a time until he could “see the individual as in life,” one of his friends recalled, among other displays of wizardry. Morton could also be credulous – he bought women’s skulls sold to him as those of warrior chiefs. This is the sort of person susceptible to believing bad theories and being co-opted by their promulgators, and Morton ended up both, in spite of his strong self-image as a detached empiricist.
In the 1830s Morton entered into a marriage of convenience with the Scottish phrenologist George Combe, who contributed an afterword to Crania Americana and helped promote it. In the 1840s Morton aligned himself with the Egyptologist George Gliddon, one of the seedier regulars on the international lecture circuit of the time, whose best performances involved dramatic unwrappings of mummies. Gliddon’s longtime interest in Egyptian skulls became explicitly racist and polygenist during his years in America, where he became keen to demonstrate, through archaeological and anthropological evidence, that blacks had been “Servants and slaves” from antiquity. Crania Aegyptiaca, the short book Morton produced with Gliddon, became a convenient tool for a group of Southern defenders of slavery, friends and collaborators of Gliddon’s.
Rather than dying with Morton in 1851, American skull collecting entered a half-century-long heyday. Army physicians stationed in the Western states carried on the ethnographic grave-robbing tradition with gusto, resulting in enormous institutional collections still extant today. It is the contrast between the buried and collected dead of this period that intrigues Fabian most. Morton himself, needless to say, was buried with his head still attached. Not so the captured Fiji chief Veidovi, who, Fabian writes, lay dying after his journey to New York with “no friends to give him whales’ teeth to throw at the tree that blocked the path to the regions of the dead. No friends to lament over his corpse. No priest to select two grave diggers and give them mangrove staves to dig beside a stream.” Veidovi’s cranium, chopped off moments after his death, sits in the Smithsonian, the rest of him in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn. Fabian finds similarly bitter ironies in the careful, government-aided handling of the Civil War dead just as Army surgeons lurked, vulture-like, around native burial sites for fresh Indian picks.
Fabian’s ideas on how to rectify these injustices are less nuanced than her narratives of how they occurred. In 1990 the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law, encouraged the return of bones to tribes and families, and the fate of the human collected has attracted great interest and controversy in recent decades in Australia, New Zealand, England, Portugal as well. Fabian cheers the dismantling of European displays that “smacked of colonialism’s underlying racist assumptions, ” just as she advocates for the wholesale reburial of America’s collected dead, finding no way to separate “the distinct history of American race relations” from the remains. A proper funeral, in Fabian’s perspective, is a human right, nonburial a lingering insult. She offers no discussion of any nonburial not resulting from ill-conceived ethnography, such as the friars of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt or the bone shards of sainthood still displayed with great earnestness today.
It appears to be Fabian’s view – as it was Gould’s -- that human remains collections are useful mainly in generating hallucinatory racial theories. But this does not have to be, and there are emerging signs that things are changing. Younger American scholars, who have come of age since the 1990 graves law, appear to see the skulls’ possibilities differently, with no intellectual debt to Morton. This is good, because there are skulls to go around. The graves law has resulted in only a fraction of the reburials envisioned, and the majority of human remains are still in institutions, though treated with far more delicacy than they once were. One Berkeley doctoral candidate recently aided one of the largest repatriations in America, yet pushes for more access to, high-tech study of, and frank discussion about the Smithsonian’s human remains collection, still 30,000 specimens strong. What’s left of Morton’s Golgotha is held by the University of Pennsylvania, where another young scholar recently discerned from a series of 50 slave skulls, hand-labeled by Morton, that their health had been better in Africa, before their heinous journey. Not an earth-shattering conclusion, maybe, but one that shows that the skulls’ value and meaning, both human and scientific, depends largely on who’s wielding the goniometer.