Of Dead Animals

Another oil spill in Vancouver's harbour. The media features bedraggled bitumen-laden gulls, terns and other birds dead or dying on sandy beaches to the consternation of the animal rescue crews who are desperately cleaning those still living. A sense of deja vu, then a fully formed image pops into my mental vision of an event more than fifty years ago. The black gobs of coalesced tar-like mounds littering Kitsilano beach from one end to the other, the suffering, suffocating dying sea birds of all descriptions expiring in large numbers as far as the eye could see, all the same. But therein lies a more twisted tale...
By Judy Biggin

Another oil spill in Vancouver’s harbour. The media features bedraggled bitumen-laden gulls, terns and other birds dead or dying on sandy beaches  to the consternation of the animal rescue crews who are desperately cleaning those still living. A sense of deja vu, then a fully formed image pops into my mental vision of an event more than fifty years ago. The black gobs of coalesced tar-like mounds littering Kitsilano beach from one end to the other, the suffering, suffocating dying sea birds of all descriptions expiring in large numbers as far as the eye could see, all the same. But therein lies a more twisted tale…

It was a different time fifty years ago. Nothing about species death, animal rights, environmental degradation or climate change sullied our ears. The genetic code for life through the discovery of DNA had just been unravelled. Floating on the mantle of the earth’s surface, we were informed, were a series of tectonic plates running under each other or over, accounting for mountains uprising, volcanoes and other earth catastrophes. Monumental discoveries at the time, but today, they are part of the fabric of fundamental scientific knowledge.

In the early 1960’s at the University of British Columbia, I am a 4th year Zoology student. The course causing me the most grief is Biology of Mammals and Birds, not the academic part but the lab assignment. This project requires me and all my fellow students to find and stuff five mammals and five birds over the eight months of the course. Yes, we are expected to practice taxidermy on these ten animals. The problem is I know nothing about the ins and outs of taxidermy, and an even bigger problem is where to find these critters, either dead or alive. To locate ten seems insurmountable.

Being young and intrepid, driven by desperation and the vision of a big fat F on my transcript, I scout around the hut I live in.  The “hut” is an old army barrack moved off a nearby military base which forms part of Acadia Camp, a residence located on UBC’s campus.  It is surrounded by a nice little copse of woods.  I run a trap line in the verdant oasis behind my hut. It’s designed to catch small rodents, I hope. How I found out about designing and constructing the trap line, I have no idea, but I was creative, driven and not to be outdone by other biology students. For all I know, they probably had access to guns and other resources, being from the Vancouver area. Coming from Castlegar, , I am referred to as “the little country girl” by lab instructors and fellow students alike from the local brownstone houses and private schools.

Every day, I prowl around the woods through the undergrowth, large firs and cedars, inspecting my trap line. At first, there is nothing, but over time I learn to bait the traps with delectable goodies lifted from the cafeteria. Eventually, the traps are effective and somehow I catch a mouse. Then there is a bigger dilemma. I have no idea how to prepare, preserve and stuff this animal. There is no instruction in the lab on taxidermy. I cannot fathom how to actually go about the process of making the dead animal look natural.  Driven by my success in trapping, I start asking around the Zoology Department about a taxidermist, assuming they have one because every lab wall has preserved animals of all descriptions adorning  glass cases.

Apparently, there is a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Russian invasion who has been hired as a taxidermist. His workplace is in the dingy bowels of the Zoology building. I walk into his lab unannounced and find an older man –maybe in his fifties– sandy grey hair and clothes, looking to me a bit desiccated himself. He’s hunched over a small, dark object on the lab bench. I wonder what unmentionable events he’s seen in his life, escaping from Hungary in the dead of night, then facing a new life, job and language. He looks up at me curiously – a small, cute, pony-tailed female.

“Do you think you can help me learn taxidermy”? I ask. “I’ve been running a trap line. Caught a field mouse today. What do I do with it?”

He glances down at the object on his bench, then raises his eyes to look at me again. He answers kindly,     “Yes, I vill help you learn”. His look is almost grandfather-like. It is a sort of pact we have, an understanding we negotiate in an instant. I don’t know if I’m supposed to ask for his assistance and he doesn’t know if he should give it.

As soon as I can, I bring that dead mouse down to the dusty, drab lab. He deftly shows me how to skin the animal, debone and remove fat from it, then how to prepare the visible skinned layer for preservation. The final step is stuffing it to return the critter to its former shape. All the while, he speaks to me with his heavily-accented English, slowly and precisely imparting his knowledge to me. As he moves onto the stuffing part, his manner is kind and courtly, old European-style. His eyes twinkle sometimes as he looks at me to see if I understand.  He makes me feel special, a bit of an intriguing curiosity in his eyes. I smile a lot to show my appreciation.

The second time, I bring a dead vole I’ve just caught to his lab bench. I’m still not very confident that I know what I’m doing.  Both our heads are bent over my small specimen, head to head though his hands are on it, when the door suddenly opens. My lab instructor Derrick walks in. He sees the two of us bent over the work bench, heads together, looks at me and raises his eyebrows. Then he calmly asks the taxidermist, “Do you have that specimen ready for me?” . The taxidermist slowly rises, using his hands for leverage, and walks to his back office. I quickly gather up my stuffed vole and leave. I feel like I’ve been caught doing something underhanded, sneaky, but I’m not even sure of that. I’m on my own from now on, I think.

I manage to successfully stuff the third critter, a different species of vole, from my trap line though it looks a bit lopsided and scruffy.  I pack the three away in newspaper in my big black steamer trunk, then consider the big problem. Where do I find five birds?

When I return to Castlegar for the Christmas holidays, I have exactly zero bird specimens. I complain  to my brother about the assignment, knowing that he has guns, including BB guns, and he doesn’t mind shooting things. He grudgingly after my insistent entreaties goes out one day and returns with a crow. I don’t know what I did in return but I’m sure something was extracted in repayment. You know how brothers are.

I happily return to UBC by Greyhound bus with my dead bird preserved and stuffed, packed securely into my luggage.

I now have three mammals and one bird tucked into the big trunk my mother gave me.  But what to do about the other six missing critters?  I’ve exhausted my trap line for different species and I have no gun to go out and hunt for birds. My ability with the slingshot is probably not up to the job.  This assignment preys on my mind as I cycle back and forth from the hut to the Zoology Department. It looms large in my nightmares and before I go to sleep at night. Where do I find some more damn birds? I wonder. Then an opportunity arises.

I hear from the campus grapevine that there has been a large oil spill from a leaking tanker in Vancouver harbour. Apparently, there are many dead and dying birds lying on the sand and shores of the local beaches. I hop on my bicycle and ride down to Spanish Banks. Sure enough, the beach is littered with oil-besmirched birds, the shoreline coated with black gobs of a sticky tar-like substance. It looks gross, but I am focussed on dead birds and my assignment. I search the expanse of the shoreline, walking among comatose, dying and dead gulls and terns and other sea bird littering the beach as far as I can see. I’m looking for a truly dead bird or two (the line between those alive and dead being murky) with less black gunk sticking the feathers down in a slick upon its back. I find one bird with less tarry oil gumming it up, the best of a bad lot, and pop it into my plastic bag.  It’s a dead weight as I cycle back, glad that I didn’t pick up two birds.

For two days, sometimes with the help of a friend, that bird is scrubbed vigorously with detergent on the lawn outside the hut. At the end of that herculean effort to clean and remove the tarry black gunk from the feather, beak and eyes, two days later I have made little headway in cleaning up the mess. I give up. No way was I going to make this bird presentable as a stuffed specimen, restored to a semblance of its former majesty.

Then it is as if my good angel decides it’s time to  intervene. The Curator of the museum comes in, sees what I am doing (picking flesh off the bones of that sorry critter) and invites me down to his room, the Preparatory Lab.  I know his wife who runs the hosiery place on campus. They are Hungarian and Catholic and they see me every Sunday at church.  I guess that helps me some. Anyway, between the two of us, the proper equipment and some ethylene to remove the oil, that bird makes an astounding recovery.  Then he gets another bird from Dr. Udvardy, to add to my collection. I am so glad – it’s small and a song sparrow. I might graduate yet! I think.

The end of term is looming. Exams are upon me and my priorities shift.  Thoughts of the six stuffed specimens languish for a time on my anxiety register. But in the back of my mind is the ignominious grade I’m going to get in Biology of the Mammals without the ten stuffed animals handed in to the instructor. Why I don’t hand in the six specimens I do have is beyond me, but I don’t. Maybe it was embarrassment at the incomplete assignment or perhaps a love affair gone wrong that derailed me. Time runs out and the term ends.

A week later, I hear that the grades have been posted in the Zoology basement on the bulletin board. I ride my bike the half mile, walk in to look at the grade postings on the notice board in the Zoology Department, holding my breath as I glance down the list. My name starts with a W so I’m down near the bottom. There. I find my name, following the line out to the exam results, still holding my breath. I let my breath out with a “Huh?” exclamation. The project grade is listed as a “Pass”.

 What the Hell! I mutter to myself. Then I think – perhaps they’ve mixed up the names. I scan the list four or five times, searching for the “fail” grade in the group of fifty students. No, everyone has a pass mark. I walk out of the building stunned. Am I going out of my mind? Did I pass in the 6 stuffed animals and not know it? I think,  then cycle home in a rush to my hut. Racing to the trunk, I throw open the lid and there, staring me in the face are six pairs of accusing eyes in well stuffed bodies. I don’t believe it, but there they all are in their corporeal reality.

Then a moral quandary arises in my mind, exams being safely over. I’ve received a pass mark on a project I didn’t hand in. I don’t know what to feel. Relief is mixed with guilt, an altogether odd feeling. I mull over this ethical dilemma for a few days but I’m getting nowhere with it. The following Sunday, I go to Mass at the Newman Center, the Catholic focus for UBC, deciding that confession in front of priest is the way to wrestle with my conscience.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” I begin, telling him the whole story in detail. He listens carefully, then asks,    “You’re sure everyone had a passing grade?”

“Yes,” I answer. “I couldn’t believe it, so I looked at the list four or five times, checking every line”.

There was a longer pause from behind the wooden grill of the confessional. Then “I think you should get on with your life and forget it. No one else was hurt by it,” he concludes.

I breathe a sigh of relief.

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