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The Stuff of Legends

October 26, 1986|ROBERT W. GIBSON | Robert W. Gibson is the Times' international economics correspondent.

On a staircase landing my wife, Esme, and I passed a quagga, amber and white, standing sort of tiptoe on all four hoofs, and tiny as zebras go, which may be why it is extinct.

Another 10 or 12 steps and we would reach, if Heaven had compassion, the floor of our quarry, Snow Leopard, a stuffed Dalmatian.

This was the last of our British Sundays, which had tended to be dismal experiences during the 12 weeks we spent in England while I was a guest journalist at a British newspaper.

We were in Tring, a 45-minute train ride from London's Paddington Station. A few days earlier, we had never heard of Snow Leopard or Tring. In fact, we didn't know that people stuffed dogs.

Out of ignorance, we had contrived what I thought was a fine agenda, considering the day of the week. Exhausted from excursions and social events on top of work, we had decided to incubate in our London flat. The plan disintegrated on Thursday with the delivery of a delayed letter from Esme's father, Alfred E. Treen, a Milwaukee fancier and former breeder of Dalmatians.

Al had asked Esme, a photographer, to take a portrait of Snow Leopard, a renowned British competitor before the animal died in 1936 at the age of 10. After half a century, Snow Leopard is in the Tring museum and revered by Dalmatian lovers.

My wife and I enjoy but do not revere Dalmatians.

"Are you sure they allow pictures?" I asked. My wife telephoned. The museum contained 84 dogs and permitted photography.

British Rail delivered us at 12:55 p.m. and quickly left. Oddly, I thought, there was no town. A rare day for England--it was bright, very warm and humid.

The station stood empty except for a youthful ticket taker squinting damply from the top of the platform steps. All was quiet. On either side stretched gently rolling hills.

"Two miles along the road," the ticket taker said, "you'll find the town."

We hit the road, which climbed. I removed my jacket at our first halt to shift and re-hoist camera case, tripod, flash pack and auxiliary bag, but my shirt was already clinging. At a canal, we smashed at swarming green insects.

After trudging through a leafy little suburb, we reached the town center. The few people who were about seemed pleased to direct us to their museum. Arriving early, we plunked down our gear and waited on a low stone wall. At 2 p.m. sharp, a guard opened the door and we entered. This was no ordinary museum.

It had been a private sanctuary of the second Baron Rothschild, a collector with immense wealth who was obsessed with wildlife. Upon his death in 1937, Lord Rothschild bequeathed vast accumulations of mounted birds, wild animals, insects, fish and reptiles to the public. Canines were not Lord Rothschild's business.

Later, after the British Museum had declared the Rothschild bequest to be a zoological annex of the Natural History Museum of London, the stuffed dogs were moved in.

Clearly, the baron was a jungle, swamp and veldt man. The museum overflows with specimens from all over the world--some now extinct--such as the quagga, a South African zebra that disappeared in the 1860s. British Sunday was looking up.

But in the museum's musty upper levels the air seemed used. Esme and I were alone in the corridors, but we didn't feel alone. On both sides, inanimate creatures of the wild were staring from behind glass. For no reason, we spoke in whispers. "I've never seen so many dead things," Esme said. I told her that I had, but at least they hadn't been pretending to be alive.

Then we hit a stopper.

We came upon the gorilla chamber. A great ape, mouth fixed in a snarl about two feet from the visitor's nose, looked enraged, entrapped and intent upon escape, eyes glaring and arms bent menacingly behind thin glass.

Faintly, from another floor, a voice echoed. The sound faded, but we knew that visitors had passed the guard station on the ground floor. Picking up the pace, we made more discoveries: a monstrous ground sloth from prehistoric times in skeletal form, a giant tortoise, an inane-looking Komodo dragon and endless oddities from diverse places and ages. I was fascinated at every step.

Esme went ahead and found the dogs. Breeds ranging from dachshunds to Afghan hounds peered vigilantly from a case the length of a gallery. They dated from 1843.

If Snow Leopard had barked, he could not have been more conspicuous. His pure white coat with black spots glistened under the display light, and the noble bearing of his head, in formal pose, proclaimed aloofness from the pack. In front of him was a smaller Dalmatian, a bitch, Rugby Brunette, 1900-1909.

Like many Tring dogs, Snow Leopard was a champion.

By the time he was born, Dalmatians were called firehouse dogs. Before fire engines, they were called coach dogs. Bred and trained to escort carriages, they ran alongside or under the front axle behind the horses' hoofs, my in-laws have informed me.

For Esme, Snow Leopard presented a problem. How through a glass case do you photograph a Dalmatian crammed between a huge Irish wolfhound on the left, a towering bloodhound on the right and another Dalmatian (also a champion) in front?

As Esme calculated lighting, exposure and angles, I inched along the row--close enough to assist if needed but far enough to take in a Tibetan mastiff, a Great Dane, Tibetan terriers and a Doberman.

What I really wanted was to finish with Snow Leopard and examine the crocodiles, sea lions, hippos and fishes of the world.

I couldn't believe that I wanted to stay.

In some ways, the zoological museum beat any zoo I had seen. You could get close; it was almost cozy, and Baron Rothschild had picked prizes. Of course, you had to dismiss the notion that you were in a crypt.

By the time Esme had captured Snow Leopard, it was time to go.

When we got back to London, it was still daylight. Summer days are long in Britain, especially on Sunday.

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