Fiction · Short Fiction

The Zoological Vertebrate Laboratory

The Zoological Vertebrate Laboratory


Jan listens patiently as I explain the difficulty I’m having trying to turn the body of the black-shouldered kite inside out. She digs her scalpel into a square of foam and places her large, knowing hands over the head of the juvenile bird, smoothing the russet-tipped crown feathers.

‘You’ve done a good job,’ she reassures.

I gesture at the bird’s shoulder. Her words encourage me through the glistening fresh guts and putrefaction, and, as I’m soon to discover, an immense welling of blood. The bird has a fractured skull, killed by vehicle impact, the force producing a trauma that bleeds profusely as we undertake the delicate work of turning the bird inside out to peel the skin of the neck from the red rope of its trachea and vertebrae.

Jan moves her fingers inside the shoulder joint where I’ve been digging and picking with my scalpel–gingerly, carefully, not at all like the high-school student seated to my left, who handles her female Regent’s bowerbird with an unsettling firmness and confidence. I sort of jab and nick, pushing the large tweezers against the skin to separate it from the membranous layers, amazed that no matter how deep behind the shoulder muscle I seem to get, there’s always more skin to divide from tissue.

Now retired, Jan was one of the first female science degree graduates from the University of Queensland. She worked for forty years as a researcher and lecturer in the zoology department. Frail but spry, Jan moves with a sort of shuffle. She’s in her mid-eighties and has trouble with her left shoulder and hip. Recently acknowledged as the longest-serving volunteer at the Queensland Museum, she selects her outfit for each Wednesday’s work in the Avian and Mammalia prep room with care: loose cotton pants over a cotton shirt, comfortable shoes.

It takes me three Wednesdays to complete my black-shouldered kite, including a full day of dousing it in Pantene. I work my fingers in around the feather tracts either side of the slit I’ve made along its abdomen, to try and break up the oily residue that’s leaked onto the belly down. In taxidermy, it’s important not to damage the feathers by over-handling, causing clumps of plumage to drop out, leaving bare patches of leathery skin. Due to lack of experience, I’ve managed to damage the skin in another way. I’ve not cut a hole in it–though I did sever the legs at the wrong joints, the knee rather than the hip; the mistake, I’ve been told, can be repaired with a short length of dowel. I’ve stained the feathers by not using enough paper towel and cotton, to absorb the fluids released by the opened body. The bath in Pantene is to remove the ropy, gluggy residue. Once I’m done washing the feathery skin, I’m instructed to plug in the hair-dryer. All afternoon I switch between blow-waving and fluffing the feathers out with a toothbrush, to rubbing potato flour onto the still-greasy belly to absorb the oil.

TaxidermyFinished grooming the outer skin, I insert a measured length of dowel up through the neck and into the cervical cavity at the base of the skull, around which I wind cotton wool and then Dacron, or mattress-stuffing, which puffs out under the skin, plumping like tissue and giving a lifelike appearance. I then thread a needle and begin to stitch the incision running from clavicle to cloaca–the dual purpose opening through which the bird passes reproductive material and waste. I cross its feet at the ankles and use string to tie them around the dowel rod. A label is attached to the string, identifying the bird by scientific name, location, date, and specimen number, all corresponding to details recorded in the zoological register. Fine surgical gauze is then mummy-wrapped around the bird, beginning at the shoulders and moving down to the tail, to enable it to ‘set’ and dry, a process which takes about three weeks. After this, the specimen will keep its shape and can be stored flat in a collection drawer.

The next bird I’m given to taxidermy is a sooty shearwater. The specimen is near-perfect, picked up by its collector after a squall on North Stradbroke Island. Its plumage is a uniform grey-brown; it has a grey bill and pink feet, not unlike the webbed feet of its close relative, the endangered flesh-footed shearwater. Its feet are a kind of icing pink, a little metallic and frosty, a colour that slowly fades as I spend the next three Wednesdays working to replace its body with cotton and Dacron. Its claws are tiny, as if added as an after-thought. If you open the bird’s bill, it has a serrated tongue, so the fish it catches adhere, the scales sticking to the rough sandpaper-surface, like animal Velcro. Shearwaters are members of the tube-nose family, so named for the straw-like protuberance on their bills, which are connected to a gland that removes salt, the briny liquid siphoned along the downward pointing beak in drips. I’ve brought my camera today, with an aim to document my taxidermic progress, although right now the bird looks bedraggled rather than impressive, lying on its newspaper lined mat, its head damp from spending the night defrosting inside a freezer bag. My tools rest in a Chinese takeaway container: new scalpel blade, three different tweezers, including the popular ‘rats’ teeth’, and a toothbrush (for later grooming). Also on the workbench are ice-cream containers of Dacron, cotton and the preservative Borax, trays of needles and twine and string, and rolls of paper towels and bulldog clips.

Moments before I make the first incision, Tony Rice, a Sunshine Coast based sculptor, is introduced to the volunteers by Heather, the head curator. He’s been in contact with the museum about viewing specimens of shearwaters and storm-petrels for an artwork exploring oceanic pollution. Tony’s website, explains Heather, features photographs of huge, lantern like sculptures, constructed out of balsa and wire frames. Trailing through each species intestinal tract is a kind of coil, made from plastic shopping bags dyed fluorescent yellow, symbolic of the impact of human pollution on the everyday lives of seabirds. Tony’s excited by my shearwater specimen. He, too, thinks it looks like a flesh-footed shearwater, one of the species he’s chosen to represent in his artwork, on account of its conservation status.

I tell Tony that I understand his reasoning. For me, this is a convergence of thinking. When I first outlined my research project, I had intended that the birds chosen to narratively frame each chapter capture my readers’ attention. I, too, instinctively understood the appeal of species labelled ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’. Just like Tony, I knew that my work needed to resonate with contemporary readers and audiences, using birds with charismatic qualities, such as rarity, elusiveness or some other iconic cultural status. My potential readership would, I assumed, possess different degrees of expertise, experience and interest in Australian birds, my narrative specialty.

I initially decided to frame the chapters by selecting species that had been scientifically described by John Gould, another resonant parameter. However, I’ve since changed this idea to include birds that were painted, drawn or lithographed by Elizabeth Gould, my point of view narrator and the focus of my research and writing. The last eighteen months’ of reading have raised important questions about the authorship of several pelagic plates in the Birds of Australia, including species represented in the genii of shearwaters and storm-petrels. John Gould captured and preserved some thirty pelagic bird species during his voyage to Australia, an unknown number of which Elizabeth sketched and painted. During Gould’s period in Hobart, he sailed around North Bruny Island and D’Entrecasteaux Channel, where he obtained such magnificent species as giant northern petrel and the Tasmanian endemic, shy albatross.

Elizabeth’s pelagic bird paintings have become an essential area of enquiry in my studies, because they present a mystery of scholarship and documentation. John Gould refers to Elizabeth’s completion of such drawings in the Handbook to the Birds of Australia (1859). Evidence also exists to support Elizabeth having made fine watercolours of at least twelve pelagic species, all represented in hand-coloured lithographic plates in the Birds of Australia (Ralph Ellis Collection, Piccadilly Notes). However, in the legend at the bottom of each plate, John Gould and the artist, HC Richter (employed to complete Elizabeth’s work after her sudden death), are recorded as the designers and lithographers of the plates. Gould was never an expert on pelagic species. In fact, he was so uninterested in the orders of seabirds that he didn’t begin to publish prints of these birds until 1846, five years after Elizabeth’s death. Her paintings and sketches were filed until Gould was ready to give them attention, his energy focused on specimens that he found more interesting, charismatic, and scientifically pressing. Genii about which he had collected impressive field observations and knowledge: for example, the megapodes, honeyeaters, parrots, fairy wrens, pardalotes and raptors. Nevertheless, in true Gouldian style, John negotiated heartily with the pelagic ornithologist he employed to classify the cache of thirty or so seabirds, convincing him to append the name ‘Gould’, rather than his own, to a significant number of the newly described species.

By now I’ve explained my project to Tony and he says he doesn’t mind I if watch him make studies and sketches of the Storm-petrels. I help to hold my sooty shearwater, while he takes measurements of its bill length, wingspan and body thickness. These are similar recordings to the ones taxidermists make when first investigating a specimen. Colours of soft parts–cere, feet, and facial wattles are noted–as well as the field details accompanying the specimen, GPS readings, weather conditions and cause of death. A few weeks later, when the painter Emma Lindsay sits beside me to taxidermy her first wing, detached from the body of a tawny frogmouth, she peppers Heather with questions about the species’ vulnerability to pesticides, its mottled plumage, the reticules or bristles, around its beak, the yellow colour of its gape, its eye-colour and mating call.

‘I’m an artist,’ Emma apologises with a shrug, ‘I have to have all that detail.’ Emma paints in a realistic style and her subjects are dead birds. They’re shown flat on their backs, heads thrown back, feet curled, wings tucked in, alone on in organised rows, with no foreground or background decoration, just their diagnostic features and plumage. She represents the birds as you would find them catalogued and stored, say you were to open one of the museum’s humidified drawers to inspect a hundred-year old collection of Gouldian finches. Emma’s works of art provoke reflection and discussion about ornithology’s treatment of living and dead specimens, about historical and ongoing practices of institutional collecting.

I couldn’t help wonder, thinking about my own flurried processes of gathering information, of attempting to increase my limited knowledge base–to the extent that I was prepared to be taught taxidermy–that people working in the creative arts, be them artists or writers, share more with scientists than is commonly given credit. We, too, wish to be precise, to make faithful representations. I didn’t seek out training in taxidermy. Just as I didn’t intend to join Margaret Cameron’s band of first-pop Saturday-morning bird atlassers, who gather behind telescopes and binoculars at the edges of Bundamba Lake, to make a monthly survey of local adult and juvenile waterfowl. Although my project had aesthetic considerations, its content needed to be verifiable, an accurate depiction of the concerns and practices of nineteenth century ornithology and print-making. Was it any coincidence, with regard to my decision to volunteer, that on my first day, a simple tour of the collection rooms of the Queensland Museum, renowned Australian artist Fiona Hall was sitting at the taxidermy table, manipulating long coils of wire, twisting them into magnified frames to represent the exoskeletons of endangered Mexican tarantulas? Her workspace was surrounded by field books, photographs, notes, a box of pliers, clippers and other hardy tools, which she applied to the wire with the dexterity of an electrician. One of my favourite Fiona Hall installations is Tender, a series of birds’ nests, constructed from American dollar bills, which accurately reflect the homes of their avian subjects. The nests of weaverbirds, sparrows, magpies, flowerpeckers, wrens, pardalotes and robins all hanging by the most delicate of frames. Just as Hall was on that day inspecting the museum’s collection of tarantulas, to compose Tender, she had interacted with actual birds’ nests resulting in the creation of an arresting and iconic work of art. Just like Tony and Emma, Fiona depicts birds to invite us to reflect upon our treatment of the environment, drawing attention to the achievements, beauty and vulnerability of these wild creatures.

And so what was supposed to be a tour, became my first day on the job. Like the gallows humour of students in practical anatomy, the taxidermy room is no place for the weak-minded. While intrigued about the procedure–I’d been reading accounts of nineteenth century preserving methods–I had reservations as to the strength of my gag reflex. Miraculously, I survived the first morning with just one rush outside for fresh air–there was a whiffy, sand-encased gannet to my right–only to have to deal with the bizarre ritual of morning tea.

Many people are involved in the volunteer program that helps maintain and preserve Queensland Museum’s vertebrae collections: former curators of collections who continue to oversee and check their particular speciality, PhD students, visual artists, and community volunteers. Jobs range from making stands, cabinets, cases and housing for the mounted specimens, to cutting up great swathes of Styrofoam bedding, in which eggs, nests, wings and beaks are displayed and stored. Inventories are updated, ageing specimens repaired, wings and tails are donated to the discovery centre for visitors from all walks of life to feel and touch–of course they’re destroyed in no time.

You’d think we’d leave the room to eat morning tea. Instead, our blue gloves are removed and we all troop to the tap and wash our hands. Coffee and tea are handed out in mugs, and we stand around trays of homemade cakes and biscuits, chatting and swapping stories, while a few metres away, under paper towelling and plastic, lie the opened bodies of tree kangaroos, torresian crows and ring-tailed possums. Despite some wicked-looking cake, I passed eating on that first day. When I returned home to make dinner, I found I was unable to deal with the chicken fillets my husband had taken from the freezer and had to ask that he cook dinner. I’m better now, I’ve learned not to bring meat for lunch when I work at the museum, and to pay no attention to the fact that my food feels a little lumpy going down.

Anyhow, there’s always a great story being told that makes me forget the strangeness of my surroundings. If a particularly putrid specimen arrives, the rounds of friendly one-upmanship begin–the adult humpback whale washed up on North Stradbroke Island, curing in a field while the museum figures out if it wants to make a skeleton of its body or not, the reticulated Burmese python from Australia Zoo, its rolled skin, looking just like a hallway carpet, in the downstairs freezer, again, waiting if the Zoo is prepared to spring funds to have it pickled and preserved. The roadkill fox, in three pieces, that Shirley scooped up from the Warrego Highway and put into the boot of her car, to make into a puppet that her children’s book illustrator friend could take with her on trips to help tell and sell her Australian animal stories to school children. Tyrone, a PhD researcher, tells of his field trips in the Solomon Islands to gather species of native bat. On one of the islands the staple diet is a type of green banana, fried up in pig fat, which gave him extraordinary stomach cramps. Last time he flew into Brisbane, he spent the night in the RBH, afflicted with an unidentified tropical virus. Lisa, the retired head of a medically-focused family, pipes up with a tale of the rat she’s taxidermied for her med-student daughter as a Christmas gift. She prepared it at home, dressed it in a little white coat, put a scalpel made out of a bobby pin in its hand, and wound a tiny stethoscope around its neck. She couldn’t understand why her daughter didn’t want to display her mother’s home-craft in her Hobart share-house, leaving it in the Brisbane bedroom of her girlhood, still bedded in its shoebox wrapping.

Since then I’ve become fairly immune, like anyone who works with death, to bodily stenches. The other morning I was enjoying a piece of Black Forest cake, when Jan wandered over. She laid an inside-out fairy penguin over the tap at one of the sinks. It looked just like a rubber cleaning glove. I didn’t blink, thirsty for coffee, hungry after the physical effort involved in stuffing. Anyhow, Emma was telling a great story about sketching and photographing puffins in Iceland. At my worktable, several metres to my left, was an alcohol-filled tube that contained the tongue of the barn owl I was working on, another with a liver sample, and a third, a piece of breast tissue, all ready for DNA testing. I was making great progress. The legs and wings were off, and my next job was to put the body under the microscope for sexing. Most birds’ testes and ovaries are contained inside their bodies, and unless their plumage is dimorphic, sexing is an expert process.

‘Melissa,’ whispered Jan, patting the fairy penguin skin with a paper towel.

I wandered towards the sink.

‘I was at my book club the other night, and you’ll never guess, but a member of our group, Jenny Crawford, is married to a descendant of Elizabeth Gould.’

‘You’re joking,’ I said, in disbelief.

Elizabeth Gould’s brother, Charles Coxen, was a founding member of the Queensland Museum and I was aware that he was buried in the Bulimba cemetery. However, he’d married late and left no descendants. Maybe the connection was through William Coxen, the fourteen year old nephew Elizabeth brought with her to Australia on the Parsee. He’d moved to the Darling Downs in midlife, becoming a successful pastoralist. I couldn’t recall the ancestry of Elizabeth’s other Australian link, her elder brother Stephen Coxen, who’d taken poison at forty-four and died. I remembered he’d had two sons, but I hadn’t taken in their history, be it achievements or demise.

‘He’d like to meet you,’ said Jan, hands washed, penguin for now on hold.

‘When?’ I asked, not thinking through my reply.

‘Whenever you like,’ said Jan, popping a piece of Black Forest cake into her mouth and giving a delighted grin.


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