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JACK SMITH

Special Delivery : Nobody Had Any Idea How the Snake Had Gotten Into the Museum

August 03, 1986|JACK SMITH

I didn't believe this at first, but they actually have live wild animals at the Natural History Museum and stuffed animals at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo.

I had always thought that everything in a museum was either dead or inert--except, of course, the help--and that all the animals in a zoo were alive.

Not so.

I came upon this revelation recently at a dinner meeting of the PIRATES, a group of public relations and media people who meet periodically for their mutual enlightenment.

After dinner, a few of us were talking, and Mary Ann Dunn of the Natural History Museum told an anecdote about a mouse that fell into her office.

She explained that she shares an office in the old wing of the museum with a secretary, each having her own desk. There is a little hole around the light fixture in the ceiling, she said, and one day a mouse fell through the hole and dropped on the other woman's desk.

There was instant panic. The mouse ran down a leg of the desk to the floor and scampered for cover. The notion that women are frightened of mice is, of course, a sexist myth, but Mary Ann Dunn said that the two women started screaming, grabbed envelopes (which was very clever) and ran after the little mouse, trying to scoop it up.

"We finally caught it," she said, "and then the question was, 'What to do with it?'

"I'm a pragmatist. I knew we had pet snakes in the building, so I said, 'Why not feed it to a snake?' That's what snakes eat. Mice."

But her colleague was horrified at the idea of feeding their little prisoner to a snake. She refused to be a party to such a hideous and thoroughly coldblooded sacrifice, however practical it might seem to be from other perspectives.

"So," Mary Ann Dunn said, "we put it outside--in Exposition Park--where you know the cats got it."

Dee Harris, who had been listening, shook her head grimly. "You should have fed it to the snake," she said.

Dee Harris is with the zoo and, of course, she knows that snakes have to eat.

In putting the mouse out in the park, she pointed out, they were simply surrendering it to all kinds of predators. But in feeding it to one of their own snakes, they would at least have been cutting down on the overhead.

How did the museum happen to have snakes in the first place?

Mary Ann Dunn explained that wild animals are often accidentally concealed in cargoes shipped to the museum from exotic lands, and suddenly, when something is opened up, they crawl out.

"I went into Vertebrate Paleontology the other day," she said, "and there was a snake running around in the director's office. Nobody had any idea how it got there."

The snake ended up in the herpetology laboratory, where, of course, it is useful as a live exhibit.

"You know we have stuffed animals at the zoo," Dee Harris said.

That statement, so contrary to expectations, naturally astonished everyone again.

She explained that people are always trying to get stuffed animals or animal skins through customs; when the animals are endangered species, importing them is illegal, so customs confiscates them and sends them to the zoo, not knowing what else to do with them; allowing them to be imported would simply encourage more poaching, thus hastening their extinction.

What does the zoo do with stuffed animals?

"We put them on exhibition in our education department. You know you can't get up close to a live tiger, but you can get close to a stuffed tiger, or a tiger skin, and you can learn about tigers that way. It works wonderfully."

It seemed to me, though, that the zoo and the museum would be better off if they swapped specimens, the zoo giving the museum its stuffed animals and the museum giving the zoo its live ones.

Then a third party was heard from. A man who had been standing by quietly interjected, "Well, I'm from the La Brea tar pits, and you wouldn't believe the things that people send to us."

He didn't explain, but I had visions of stuffed saber-toothed tigers and giant tree sloths.

By the way, I was once reproached for referring to one of the animals on exhibition at the museum as a stuffed elephant.

"Animals are not stuffed ," a woman in ornithology wrote me. "They are mounted . How would you go about stuffing an elephant?"

Easy. First you get an elephant and skin it. Then you have your wife climb a ladder and hold the elephant up by its ears. Then, when the elephant's mouth falls open, you stuff it.

All things considered, I think it might have been more interesting if they'd stuffed the mouse.

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