Sunday, November 25, 2012 | Categories: Features
What is it that compels us to preserve the bodies of dead animals by stuffing them and putting them on display? That's one of the questions I explored last week with Rachel Poliquin, author of The Breathless Zoo about the science and art of taxidermy.
This is from Valentina Gal of Toronto:
"I am visually impaired and could never have known what real animals look like, had I not been taken to natural history museums and given the opportunity to touch a "stuffed animal," as they were known when I was a child.
"I was totally mesmerized by the fox's pointed face and
the sharp teeth of a four-foot shark. I was in complete awe of a
pheasant's wings, which were positioned in full flight. The smoothness
of the feathers of many birds and the softness of a baby seal's fur are
still memories that I treasure, especially as there was no way I could
actually see them.
"One of my teachers had a large display
that had samples of real fur on it so that we could compare the length,
thickness and density of the different furs. We learned where and how
the animals lived. We learned what their fur was used for and that we
should respect their habitat.
"I also remember when my
father's best friend caught a thirty-six inch pike and brought it home
to our bathtub in the inner city, so that my siblings and friends could
see a real fish before it was cleaned and filleted for all of us to
enjoy for supper. I still remember what the slippery, scaly fish felt
"I consider these lessons to be among the spiritual awakening moments of my life. Touching the animals that were so exquisitely preserved allowed me a connection to nature that no picture, regardless of how well it was taken, could ever have facilitated."
Rachel Poliquin and Michael talked about the fact that there is little in the way of human taxidermy. Gérald Beaudoin sent this from Havelock, Quebec:
the early seventies while doing contract work at L'Université de
Montréal, I was asked by one of my co-workers if I would like to see 'Le
Géant Beaupré'. I was escorted to a closet-like room where stood, in a
glass case, the petrified remains of Édouard Beaupré, who was over 8
feet tall. I can still see him in my mind's eye. Apparently at the turn
of the last century, Beaupré's embalmed body was even displayed in shop
windows. Fortunately, his remains were eventually cremated and returned
to his family in Willowbunch, Saskatchewan.
"A couple of years ago, I also had the opportunity to see 'Bodies, the Exhibit'. On one level, it satisfied the curiosity to find out what is inside us and makes us what we are. Yet on another level, it seemed like an intrusion into a private world that we should never see. I am still not sure which one prevails."
And finally ... a bit of levity from David Johnson of Toronto:"Here's one of my old favourites: a burly guy walks into a taxidermy store and proceeds to empty a canvas sack on the counter. Two dead squirrels tumble out. The proprieter asks, 'Would you like them mounted?'. The customer replies, 'Nah, just shakin' hands.'"
The story struck a chord with many of you. Tim Maloney from Cedar Valley, Ontario wrote:
"I was stopped in my tracks by your piece this morning. I have been troubled by the way we lock up people with dementia in our hospitals and in our psychiatric facilities. What a contrast to Denmark, where that is illegal. It seems that in our interest to keep people safe, we strip them of their dignity and self-worth.
"Your piece certainly gives us an alternative that needs to be adopted in Canada. As someone who has some age-related memory loss, I can only hope that I can be accommodated and live out my final years with the level of care and compassion that you found in Denmark."
Margaret Lonsdale in Llloydminster writes:
"I think if I could, I would choose to grow old in Denmark. That elders could expect to enjoy dignity, adventure, and the ability to retain a sense of their own personhood is not only immensely appealing emotionally, it's practical.
"Karin Wells' documentary explored the revolutionary concept that I hope catches on in other civilized parts of the world. Alter the code of helpless homogenization of getting old to a more respectful, practical approach. Life ought to be comprised of those elements that confirm we are still living, still worthy of participating, until, well ... until we surrender to death."
Barrie Richardson in Apsley, Ontario wrote:
"People who are presently in the Eldercare system cannot form a lobby group, apply pressure or give voice to their being victims. The one group that can is the boomer generation, who are entering their golden years with wealth, skills, and enough votes to make change.
"I'd like to be proud of being old, rather than fearing what the last
years of living will offer me. Aboriginal and Asian cultures, and
evidently Denmark, seem to have found a way to give the elderly honour
and respect. Oh, what we could learn from them."
A number of listeners wrote from personal experience. This is from Tom Durrie in Vancouver
"I live in a subsidized seniors' apartment building in Vancouver where pets and bicycles are strictly forbidden. Not even visitors with pets are allowed. Children are regarded with suspicion. We live under the threat of eviction if we don't follow the rules set by the management. Instead of the respect and open-hearted generosity found in Denmark, seniors are treated like convicts or misbehaving children."
L. Jamison in Calgary wrote:
"While I and my family questioned the chemical restraints and negligence my father experienced in one of Canada's veterans' homes, we accepted that some practices like locking people up or forcing them into wheelchairs was necessary for their own protection. What a revelation - even these most widely-accepted practices are largely indefensible. Shame on Canada."
And Genevieve Murray in Toronto says...
"My family struggled deeply with how to care for my grandmother as her
dementia progressed and we were no longer able to care for her. While we
were grateful for the care provided by the staff in the nursing home,
they were often overworked, and there was little room for spontaneity,
or for a dignified, meaningful life.
The simplest things done in Denmark, such as mandating fresh air every day, seem to me like they would make such a difference. Thank you for reigniting my passion in the issue."