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Can I Keep It?

There's a reason that people refer to the American Museum of Natural History  as The Dead Zoo.  It's as full of dead animals (more full, even) as the zoo is full of live ones.  But I have never seen a kid who is not fascinated by the dioramas of mammoths on the tundra, the mounts of skunks in the forests, or the jars of squid in salty formalin.  Even better, if you have the opportunity, is the "behind-the-scenes" action at these museums.  There, where few folks ever actually go, you will see trays and shelves full of every kind of bird, mammal, reptile, egg, feather, claw, or bone.  There are rooms where dermestid beetles help museum specialists and interns to prepare specimens by picking the bones clean.  There are rooms where specimens are stuffed, cleaned, and set up for display.  Taxidermy, the process of preserving specimens for display, is what these museums do so well.  Some of the techniques used in museums can be used at home, too.

A few years ago, my daughter Libby and I went to a recording studio in NYC to make a CD.  It was a cold rainy day in November, and when we got to the studio, we were soaked.  The engineer sent us up to "the lounge" to dry off and relax before she recorded.  Along the hallway passage to the lounge, hanging on the walls, were boxes with beetles pinned to cards, all carefully labeled.  In the lounge itself were stuffed animals, dried insects (all carefully displayed) and a few large, live spiders.  All of this was amusing, until Libby went into the bathroom, fumbled for the light, only to discover a full-sized human skeleton hanging behind the door.  She screamed so loudly, I thought we'd get a bill for breaking the equipment, but the engineer peeked in and said, "Yeah.  the owner just got married, and his wife wanted all this out of their apartment."  Ah.  That figures. 

A friend of mine, who grew up in South Dakota, told me how he had gone bird hunting when he was 12, and gathered enough bird skins to make his mother a colorful feathery cloak.  His mother was less than delighted with the gift.  Some folks just don't like to keep dead things, no matter how well they are preserved. 

I do, and so do my kids.  In fact, I am much more likely to let them collect and keep dead or discarded specimens than live ones (which often die in captivity anyway).  Collecting beetles, shells, skulls, quills, and other low-maintenance items is a great hobby that requires little effort.  For the dedicated collector, shelves and display cases quickly fill with items from every walk hike or exploration.  To better accommodate our finds (and to, minimize the dusting!), we bought a display table from IKEA several years ago.  It is a coffee table, nearly square, with a glass top over a large drawer.  If it's dead, and does not smell like something dead, it goes in there.  The bruggietales blog has a lovely version of this table that they had made to house their treasures.

If the item is dead, but still smelly, it gets buried outside for a while.  Usually, nature does her work, and the item will become clean rather quickly.  This is especially important for marine life, as so many crab legs are impossible to clean out by hand.  Every crevice and joint can hold some smelly bit of crab flesh, and it can stink!  Similarly, most mammals, birds and other specimens are best kept for their skeletons,   unless they have been prepared by taxidermy.  Small anima taxidermy is an interesting hobby for young folks, and rather easy to learn.  There are several simple guides to taxidermy on the market (my ornithology professor told the class that she learned all her taxidermy from a book, and then showed us how skin and preserve a small bird in an afternoon).

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