Folks who love teddy bears and their friends are collectors of stuffed animals. Though that phrase is often considered sort of lowly — people conjure up visions of half-price critters in a bargain-store basement bin — the world of soft-art collectibles is a celebration of stuffed animals, plush toys, and huggable original works of personal expression.
Now, even though “stuffed animal” might mean a cuddly cub that was bought at a gift shop, or a beaming, big-eyed bunny found at a big-box store, there is a whole other nuance to the “stuffed animal” phrase. Mainly, I’m talking about taxidermist creations — critters that had actually once been alive and are now deceased but perennially posed in a realistic posture or stance.
I’m thinking about the two distinct versions of stuffed animals because I just got home from a Washington, DC, journey, which meant some time spent at the Smithsonian Institution. Trying to do all of the museums in a four-day span is a daunting task, and so some attractions (and buildings) had to be completely overlooked. (That’s what plans for tomorrow are for, after all!) At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, there is an enormous exhibition honoring the interconnection of mammals.
Housed in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, there are nearly 250 different examples of the diversity of mammals. What is staggering is how many of these once-living animals are seen in aggressive, anatomically lifelike vignettes. Wandering through the marble rooms and echoing corridors, a visitor needs to look upward, to the side, around a corner, and in every direction, because a beast doing something harrowing, surprising, or awe-inspiring is waiting to make eye contact with you at every bend.
The thing that occurred to me as I saw leopards perched above on tree limbs, lionesses attacking a huge potential “meal,” and wolves craning necks forward, voicelessly howling, these figures appeared to be studying our progression past them. However, the truth is that these incredible moments in the life of an animal only came about due to the deaths of these very same creatures.
These aren’t “stuffed animals,” the way we arctophiles and collectors fancy our belongings to be. Nope, these are ANIMALS that have been STUFFED. It raises an ethical issue as attendees file in and out of the massive building. Yes, these opportunities allow us to garner a glimpse at a lion pride’s takedown of an enormous foe; yes, it allows us to see how wildlife relaxes when no prying eyes are around; yes, it permits us to walk among predators and feel safe and secure. (Maybe even superior to them? After all, we’re studying them, and not vice versa.) But, you should ask yourself, “At what cost?”
Sadly, these are not animals that had lived long lives and then expired after reaching a solid age of maturity. This isn’t a hall built from the bodies of animals that have expired naturally and peacefully. No, I realized as I walked among these “stuffed animals,” these were creatures that were shot and killed — the bounty provided by big-game hunters. In fact, the Behring gentleman who financed the renovated hall (and gave them tens of millions of dollars to do so) was a fabulously wealthy businessman and hunting enthusiast. He shot many animals during his safaris in Africa and some of them have ended up in the natural history museum.
When one views the assembled players in this still-life setting, it is rather jarring to realize these are corpses that have been propped up to approximate their moments of animalistic glory. Okay, this sounds very heavy and very militaristic for The Plush Life blog, but it’s important to consider how these unwilling participants got to the natural history museum.
In the back of one’s mind, I’m sure the reality is always there, sort of simmering and not really bubbling forth. However, when hit with hundreds upon hundreds of animals that have ceased to be, it becomes slightly overwhelming. On the outskirts of this exhibition hall, there is a Mammal Museum Gift Shop. Within the walls of this store there are the traditional stuffed animals: plush pals from Fiesta, Aurora, Wild Republic, Folkmanis, Douglas, etc. These are the furry friends that young toddlers first learn to love and to embrace.
Looking at the cuddly array of souvenirs that can be purchased and brought home as a memento of a day at the museum, it is a total disconnect. Here children (and some adults, too, I hasten to add) are connecting to these miniature versions of tigers and lions, wolves and fox, eagles and whales — they are personally selecting their animal companions, trying out their softness, seeing how they fit and feel in their arms. They are choosing the confidant that will share their naptime and will snuggle with them in bed.
Meanwhile, the exhibition outside is populated by the remnants of majestic beasts that were stopped in midpounce, dropped in midsnarl, killed in midmovement. There is no way to escape the reality of the situation. Though these carefully constructed carcasses have been used over the decades for educational purposes — opening up discussions on animal habitats and similarities among the species — did they have to sacrifice their lives to do so? A century ago, at the dawn of these museum halls of science — perhaps these animal tableaux encouraged curious minds to consider a career in conservation or veterinary sciences. Today, with the Internet at our fingertips — offering up actual videos of actual animals in motion, showing off their grace and grandeur — do these silent and still creatures serve an inspirational mission? Did their deaths serve a higher purpose?
This is something I am going to meditate upon. I did the walk beneath the leopard above, beside the lionesses to my left, and the giant rodents to my right. I saw their stuffed corpses; I saw their skeletons arranged to show off the differences in height, width, and weight.
It was chilling and it was sobering. I think I much prefer the happy versions of cuddly tiger cubs and jolly snow leopards that I can buy at the museum gift store. Perhaps one day super, realistic manufacturer HANSA will get a contract to produce the noble beasts that will reside in the museums of natural history worldwide. That would be a wondrous accomplishment. If only one day, the stuffed animals that replicate nature’s great predators and unfortunate prey were showcased by a realistic manufacturer. I think it would serve the same purpose, and wouldn’t raise the hackles of discomfort, disdain, and despair.
What do you think? Should these deceased animals continue to be displayed, giving their deaths a reason, a final purpose? Or should they be retired, given a burial, and be replaced with manufactured replicas, maybe even mobile automatons? I’d like to know your views.