Does Stuffing Animals Help Save Them?

Michael Novacek of the American Museum of Natural History talks about taxidermy and conservation as the sixth extinction rears its head.

As a dedicated conservationist and an avid taxidermist, Theodore Roosevelt both saved and stuffed animals. Mark Twain, one of Roosevelt’s biggest critics, thought this made the president a hypocrite.

But the two practices can coexist, says Michael Novacek, the senior vice president, provost of science, and curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Marrying taxidermy with conservation, he says, can preserve nature’s legacy.

We spoke with Novacek about mitigating the so-called sixth extinction as it threatens to wipe out thousands of species. Unless we act swiftly and effectively, Novacek says, the museum’s animal replicas will be the closest thing we have to their living cousins.

You’ve said that the museum uses taxidermy to encourage a strong bond with nature. Why do you believe that?

What we’re doing is representing animals in their natural environment. So for people who will never see the places that are subject to change, it gives them a sense of the beauty of the creatures. In some ways, the museum’s dioramas are enshrinements of nature. They not only reproduce nature but make you feel as if you’re there.

How does that tie into conservation?

If people don’t feel a connection with nature, they’re hardly going to feel motivated to preserve it or do things that mitigate the kind of destructive actions going on around the planet.

Is it still possible to put the brakes on some of that destruction?

It’s possible to mitigate some of what we see, but i’m afraid this whole trend has a huge amount of momentum. I’m trying to be optimistic, because I think its worth the fight. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard not to be soberly realistic about things that you’ve seen.

I’ve been working in Mongolia now for more 20 years. In the early 90s, we used to see thousands of herds of gazelles running through there. We never see that any more. They have been very much over hunted. We used to see eagles all along the roads leaving the capital city through the steps and down to the desert. Those sightings are much rarer now. There’s been a loss of wildlife that’s appreciable even in a place like Mongolia. And it’s upsetting to see that.

Is there something you’ve seen that’s given you hope?

In the United States, the frequency in which one sees bald eagles is uplifting. The growing herds of bison and the introduction of wild species in Yellowstone was a very progressive move. There’s also a new prairie reserve in eastern Montana and North Dakota, and their aspiration is to have the world’s largest buffalo herd. There’s been some more conservation of prairie dogs because prairie dogs are very important for prairie ecosystems. Those are all good trends, so that’s something to take heart in.

What are some positive actions we can take?

One of the best things we can do is what Teddy Roosevelt started doing by preserving large tracts of natural habitat. And the effort to preserve coastal wetlands is very important. But as you see, a lot of these things are fairly piecemeal. It’s not as if the whole coalition of nations decides to take major conservation actions to stem the tide of extinction. We do not have a truly international effort in this area. And certainly we don’t have one on the scale of urgency that we need it.

Do you think humans need to recognize our own stake in animal conservation?

We’re certainly degrading the quality of lives while we’re living as well as degrading what human life will experience in future generations.  We’re not just talking about some kind of act of charity or spirituality to save nature for its own sake. This is directly related to the quality, experiences and health of our own lives and our children’s.

If you were talking to a classroom of children 40 years from now, what kinds of animals would you tell them about that they might never experience for themselves?

Unfortunately that’s pretty easy. Let’s start with the great white shark. Many species of sharks are hugely endangered. And the Sumatran rhino, which may have already disappeared or may disappear in a few years. The tiger, especially the Siberian tiger. Or one of the many beautiful and brilliant dragonflies from Malaysia or Burma. And as far as the large mammals are concerned, most of these are going to be preserved in glorified zoos. I could go on and on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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