A couple of weeks ago, Robert Brook posted some lovely photos from what turned out to be the Horniman Museum. I loved his photos, because I find old taxidermied animals rather compelling. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer to see animals alive and well and in their natural habitats. But stuffed animals hover interestingly in that uncanny valley between alive and not alive, and I’ve always been fascinated by them.
When I was young, my Mum used to take my brother and I to London to visit the museums during the holidays. I was more interested in animals and natural history (I started young), while my brother who is two years younger than me preferred the Science museum with all its exciting machines (he’s now an engineer, and also started young). So — in a move that absolutely horrifies her now — Mum used to leave me at the Natural History Museum, while she and my brother popped next door to the Science Museum. Whenever we remember this, she covers her face with her hands and says “How could I do that!“, but it was absolutely fine. It was a simpler time, and I was a very sensible kid, as well as extremely shy. I would never have gone off with anyone, and spent the time pottering around and feeling perfectly safe and content.
I loved everything about the Natural History museum, but I remember spending most of my time wandering around the cases of stuffed animals, sketching subjects that took my fancy. I wasn’t a morbid child, and I loved live animals more than anything else in the world, but I liked the taxidermy exhibits because I could get so close and really look at them. Even though the fur or feathers were often rather faded and the poses odd, you could get a sense of the physical presence of the animal. I devoured encyclopedias of animals voraciously, but they didn’t give an impression of the size of an animal as vividly as peering at tiny hummingbird or gazing up at a polar bear in a glass case. I could study every hair and feather, the line of a snout or the spread of a paw and take my time to do so. It’s funny, because while I was absolutely terrified of shop window dummies as a child, and my parents never even attempted to take me to Madame Tussaud’s because they knew I would run out of there with a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, I was never frightened of the stuffed animals at all. I can’t explain that, because they are somewhat creepy. They are life-like but clearly not alive, gazing out of their frozen time with their dull, glassy eyes.
On our trips to Brazil, the hotel we stayed at had a dining room that had windows on two sides. The windows were covered by insect screens (vital in the wet season against mosquitoes), but despite this, small birds regularly flew straight into the windows and stunned themselves. We would be sitting eating breakfast and hear a surprisingly loud bang, then go outside to find a small bundle of feathers on the boardwalk. On our last visit, a cardinal hit the window1. I went outside and picked it up gently — it seemed tiny, even in my small hands, but oddly heavy for its size. It was stunned rather than dead, and I could feel the tiny movement of its breathing. The weather was rather cool, so I cupped it in my hands so that their warmth would transfer to the cardinal’s tiny body. Gradually, it started to move a little so I adjusted the position of my hands so that its feet were underneath it. The tiny, delicate feet started to grip my palm and push against it, and it felt instantly lighter. I opened my hands slowly, and after a brief pause, it launched itself into the air and flew off.
I’ve had that experience a few times, caring for injured animals, and less happily when they slip in the other direction, from life to death2. It always surprises me how short the distance between life and death is, but also how much difference it makes to the physical presence of the animal in your hands. That all sounds unpleasantly mystical and airy-fairy and I don’t mean it to. The way that a live animal feels in your hands is just a result of sound and movement and muscles opposing gravity. It’s just that the sum of those things is startlingly tangible as life: something that stuffed animals definitely don’t have, however life-like they may appear.