How to Be a Stuffed Animal

How to Be a Stuffed Animal, on the early days of the American Museum of Natural History, high class taxidermy in America, and obsession with fake nature and fake realness.

An invitation to lead or join an expedition for the museum, thus cashing in the most desirable tag in the hunting world, was indeed flattering. The mammologist Roy Chapman Andrews, famous for his “intensive exploration” methods and, from 1934, director of the museum, was fond of reminding people that “thousands of men have applied for places on my own expeditions, saying that they are ‘good outdoor men’ but have no special training. They would be expensive luxuries. Every…man must do either a technical or a scientific job.” Newly bestowed with the gravitas of “specialists,” armed with large-bore guns made by Holland & Holland and permits obtained for them by the museum, outfitted in Abercrombie Camp, the blue bloods of American capitalism set off into the wilderness to atone for their fortunes (which had played a prominent part in endangering it) and find their inner Crocketts and Boones.

Presiding over the whole enterprise was the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent supporter of the museum until his death in 1919, and a major donor of specimens, including the large cow elephant displayed in “The Alarm” (Kermit, his son, shot the calf). Roosevelt self-consciously positioned himself in the tradition of Daniel Boone, the buckskin-clad hunter and frontiersman who helped settle Kentucky in the late eighteenth century, revering him as an indigenous (white) American who, like Davy Crockett, thrived in a free, egalitarian wilderness. These were “nature’s noblemen,” rugged libertarians and premier symbols of democratic manhood. Their descendants were the guides who accompanied the president—or general or railroad baron—and taught him the codes of the wilderness. Sharing a blanket with one of these guides was to enter an unrestrained, “uncontaminated” state where the social order was leveled. Roosevelt seriously believed that “no Americans of the outdoor type, fond of nature and the habitants of the wilds, will ever develop Bolshevik tendencies.” The wilderness experience was offered as a direct allegory of social peace, the guarantee of a negotiated tranquility. No matter that behind their backs the guides often mocked the men of fortune as “tenderfoots” or “dudes,” or that they had to defer to them when it came to bagging a trophy. There was equality in theory. In practice, it was a “teddy-bear patriarchy” in which droit du seigneur prevailed.

One of Us

One of Us, discussing some Western concepts of animal consciousness through the ages. Simon was right that I would like Spinoza.

Anguish (1880), by August Friedrich Schenck

Apart from the general point—horses feel horse joy, cats feel cat joy, etc.—Spinoza makes two less familiar but equally significant claims. The first is his lovely definition of the soul: that it is in some way wrapped up with, coextensive with, the “essence” of the creature possessing it. The particular nature in which every creature is able to rejoice precisely by being most entirely itself is the soul. That settles the matter of whether animals have souls. Of course they do. The horse has a horse soul, the fish has a fish soul. The second claim is Spinoza’s radical—but instantly persuasive— statement that one human being’s essence could be unintelligible to another. The drunkard is a different type of human being than the philosopher, but he is also a different creature, full stop. Are we so sure that species identification is proof against the canyons of misapprehension that separate us from, say, the monkey spider? This could be a frightening thought: accepting that no two consciousnesses can ever have transparency, or at any rate can never have certainty about it, leaves us on some level cosmically alone. Spinoza takes the notion in stride. He’d be more prone to say, Well, no doubt we sometimes understand each other.

Suprisingly, perhaps, these thoughts did not lead Spinoza to a recommendation of total empathy with the animal kingdom, as the animal-rights activist in us would hope. He is fairly cold-eyed, even cold-hearted, writing,

It is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason. The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

In order to understand this, we have to know something about Spinoza’s definition of fundamental or natural right, which comes very close to meaning, simply, power. We have the right to do with them “as we please,” just as they have the “right” to eat us, if the meeting happens on ground more favorable to them. Spinoza isn’t trying to argue that we shouldn’t act kindly toward them, when we can, but he does imply that we needn’t feel guilty about it, when we treat them violently. It’s our right. It suits us.

That is a common ex-vegetarian place to end up. Animals are amazing, individual, worthy beings, and also we find their bodies delicious and useful.