Some of my older colleagues lament that the zoology students of today know everything about molecular genetics, DNA hybridization, enzymes, amino acid sequencing, etc. and nothing about animals. Exaggerated as this may be, the truth of the matter is that older traditional courses have had to give way to more modern, popular, and expanding fields like molecular genetics and biotechnology. The emphasis has certainly shifted to what is seen as applied research.
One of the classes which I still had to take, but which is now virtually extinct at universities, was titled “Exercises in Taxidermy”. In that course, the zoology students learned how best to preserve soft-bodied, invertebrate creatures, how to kill, dry, pin, stretch and arrange insect specimens, and how to skin, stuff and display birds and mammals in as life-like a stance as possible. Few of the visitors to a zoological museum can imagine the care and skill that goes into each preparation, for it is not just the technical expertise that matters, but also the precise knowledge of what the animal’s posture would have been, when still alive.
I remember that for my bird preparation I had to do a crow (which because of its tough skin is easier than for example, a pigeon or a blackbird). The lecturer gave instructions on how to skin the bird and warned us not to cut under any circumstances the inward-projecting tail-feather bases (because then the feathers would all fall out). One difficulty for us students was to free the thin and delicate skin of the head and neck region of the bird and to leave the right amount of skull bone in the preparation undamaged. The brain had to be removed and then replaced with some kind of clay. Every trace of skin fat had to be removed carefully before the preparation was thoroughly brushed with arsenic and borax. But wings and legs still needed to be done and that too was anything but easy.
The most exciting part came when the bird skin was to become a bird again, a bird with wood shavings, wires and cotton wool inside its body. Sewing skills came in handy for the final stitches. What was left to be done after the sewing was completed, was to insert the “invisible” wires into the legs to allow the stuffed bird to be fastened to a branch. Our next task was to prepare a rat (mine, by the way, turned out looking more like a stuffed sausage and I left it in our neighbour’s letterbox – a bit of a prank). Anyway, to demonstrate more clearly what needed to be done when preparing a mammal, our teacher had decided to use a bigger animal than a rat, namely a dead cat. When he inserted the knife into the old pussy, he bent his head slightly to the side and emitted an audible (but concealed) “meow”. One of the students fainted, two students suddenly felt sick, but the lecturer himself, he laughed heartily after his prank and exclaimed cheerfully: “I’m looking forward to this part of the course every year!” It’s this kind of education that the zoology students of today just won’t get any more (and some may not even be sorry about it!).
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2019.
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