A. D. McCormick

Life at the Museum

The museum is filled with animals, mostly dead, and people, mostly living. (There are some shrunken human heads of dubious provenance in the anthropology collection.) People are animals, too, of course, and the museum reminds us of this. We step inside and are confronted with our animal relatives. Lizards in tanks do their best to ignore us. Butterflies flutter around. Tropical fish swim among the coral as a submerged diver talks to the crowd via headset. As the diver tells us, in the real world outside, we push many of these animals ever closer toward extinction.

Volunteers prepare the bodies of birds that met unfortunate ends—flew into windows, killed by cats. As we watch, they remove the organs and soft tissue and stuff the little bodies of hummingbirds with cotton. After they dry, they’re carefully tagged and added to the research collection. A taxidermist coaxes a Brewer’s Blackbird into a lifelike pose for the holiday exhibition. Once an old lioness died in the San Francisco Zoo. They skinned it at the museum, in a room next to the loading dock that’s fitted with special ventilation to keep the smell of death from spreading. Its paw was huge and heavy in my hand.

There is a massive fish called an arapaima in the flooded Amazon rainforest exhibit. Its gills gleam like a gilded picture frame. It feeds off of the surface of the water in a sneak attack. Its mouth opens so fast that it creates a vacuum. When the air rushes in, it sounds almost like a gunshot. You can buy little ones in pet shops. Freshwater stingrays shed their barbs in the sand below, and the divers collect them. One of the biologists gave me one, but I don’t know where I put it.

All photos copyright California Academy of Sciences.

You can contact me at andrew at admccormick dot com.