Dept. of Word Lists

Taxidermy Without the Stuffing

Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly.

Among my early-teenage hobbies were stamp collecting, taxidermy, building model airplanes, bird-watching, sketching animals and keeping tropical fish. Our large basement enabled me to —

Excuse me, Greenman, back up a bit. You lived in Brooklyn, yes? In Brooklyn people don't stuff animals. They stuff sausages. They stuff hot dogs. They stuff kishke.

That is true, sir, and I am an inveterate lover of kishke, that Eastern European Jewish medley of spices, vegetables, beef fat, flour, etc., etc., stuffed into a beef intestine or synthetic casing. (Kishke, pronounced KISH kuh or KISH kee, means intestine.)

medley MED lee
a mixture of things; assortment
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only book they read every day.  —Walter Lippmann, November 1919

About the taxidermy, Greenman.

Ah, yes. In the back pages of Popular Science magazine, I had seen an ad for the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, in Omaha, Nebraska. A series of booklets mailed to me would engage me in the "pleasure and profit" of taxidermy. Pleasure? I don't know about that, as I preferred my creatures flitting and flying, scampering and scurrying. Skinning and stuffing them for pleasure? I don't think so. Profit? My Saturday afternoon job delivering groceries by bicycle gave me all the spending money I needed. In fact, looking back I wonder what did I want out of taxidermy. As I think about it today, what I was about to do, at the age of 14, was nonsensical.

I didn't know anybody who hunted, and outside of a mounted deer head in a hotel lobby I'd never seen stuffed animals except in a museum. I loved visiting the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, certainly the ne plus ultra not only of taxidermy but of museum displays.

ne plus ultra nee pluhs UHL truh
the highest point capable of being reached; the acme; the ultimate: Latin, not more beyond
There are now hundreds of thousands of bloggers, individuals who publish news, commentary, and other content on their own idiosyncratic Web sites. Some boast readerships exceeding those of prestigious print magazines, but most number their faithful in the double and triple digits. Find the one who shares your tastes and leanings, and you'll have attained the ne plus ultra of bespoke media: the ghostly double of yourself.  — William Powers, January/February 2005

The first booklet to arrive in the mail, Lesson One, was how to mount a bird. Step One: procure a bird. Hmm. Had I thought of that, or about how to acquire any creature for Lesson One? Pretty improvident on my part, I'd say. For the bird, I assume the student was expected to shoot one, or obtain one from a hunter  — a pheasant, perhaps, or a quail. A crow, maybe. I personally had no gun, no one I knew had one, and it was, nevertheless, illegal to shoot any creature within New York City. And even if it was legal and I had a gun I would not have shot a bird.

improvident im PRAH vuh duhnt
without regard to the future; not cautious or wise ("improvidently" is the adverb)
The right to strike is of inestimable importance to unions, and it cannot be impaired or weakened without great public danger involving the substitution of the Fascist state for the American system of free government. It is a weapon, however, which should not be used recklessly or improvidently, nor as the result of hot blood generated by acrimonious and unsuccessful negotiations. — George W. Alger, June 1940

But I and my brief partner in stuffology, a teenage friend known to my family as Alfred from Across the Street, came up with a scientific solution: We'd buy a pigeon from our local pigeon store and chloroform it. What, you don't have a neighborhood pigeon store? Hmm, in my youth, Brooklyn had many, catering to pigeon hobbyists who kept anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of racing and homing pigeons in coops on their private home or apartment house roofs, as many do today all over New York City. (Remember Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, in "On the Waterfront"?)

Millions of New Yorkers loathe pigeons — rats with wings, they call them — and consider the people who feed them on streets and in parks odd and lonely souls. In New York City, movie audiences booed the old woman in "Mary Poppins" for feeding the birds tuppence a bag; and when a nervy pigeon in a New York street flies up and away just as it's about to be run over by a car, you can sometimes hear passersby yelling, "Damn! Almost!"

loathe lohth
to feel intense dislike or disgust; abhor
I have loathed fairies ever since the days of Tinker Bell and the mean slyness of the Alcott fairy who gave the bracelet that pricked. Loathed them at first furtively and guiltily, knowing them to be somehow the literary disguise of adult authority, the power and the sermon sneaking in on silly rainbow wings with thin legs and gauzy dresses, all-wise, all-powerful under its fragility, always beautiful (for the fat and forty love the image of themselves in golden hair, barefooted on the flowers), insistent as mosquitoes, preaching at the helpless human child. — Josephine Johnson, September 1953

From whence comes this abhorrence of street pigeons and those who feed them? Truly, their droppings, which dirty everything hapless enough to lie beneath a resting pigeon. But that's only half of the abhorrence. The other half is the belief that pigeon droppings cause disease. But that's a virtual fallacy. The chance of contracting a disease from pigeon droppings is nearly nil, except for people with immune deficiency diseases, and even their chances are slight. Actually, aside from their unlovely droppings, there really isn't anything wrong with pigeons. Like dogs and people, they add charm, atmosphere and animation to some of the world's famous places, like Venice's St. Mark's Square, where, nevertheless, feeding them has been forbidden in an effort to keep the place cleaner.

nil nil
nothing; zero
DO YOU REMEMBER? RADIO'S GREATEST THEMES. Eddie Layton at the Hammond organ; Epic BN-26146 (stereo) and LN-24146. Musically, the value of this record is slight, not to say nil, but nostalgically, ah, that's another question.—Herbert Kupferberg, September 1965

Even pigeon lovers don't want them roosting, nesting and feeding on their apartment terraces and leaving a mess. A plastic owl won't keep pigeons away, but harmless bird-deterrent wire spikes attached wherever pigeons are unwelcome will.

But Alfred and I did not dislike pigeons. We were selecting one out of convenience.

We needed supplies, of course, in particular, tools to cut and remove the pigeon's skin and perform other sanguinary tasks. To save money, though, Alfred and I improvised. From my hobby drawer came an X-Acto knife; from my kitchen drawer came a melon scoop, about a half inch in diameter, which would serve as a taxidermy essential, the brain spoon. To make the necessary separations of leg bones and wing bones from body, my mother's old cuticle snippers would do. 

sanguinary SANG gwi nai ree
accompanied by bloodshed; characterized by slaughter
Our original Thirteen Colonies were badly disunited at the beginning of our War of Independence. If Great Britain had turned us loose in disgust at the very beginning, there would have been sanguinary fighting between our Tories and our extreme revolutionaries. It was the common war against the British and their alien mercenaries that forced us to settle all internal issues as quickly and constructively as possible — with the result that, by the time we had our freedom, civil war was impossible. In spite of the deep-going differences between the slaveholding South and the free North, it took us two generations to work up a civil war. — Owen Lattimore, July 1938

The booklet arrived in the mail with the only supplies I had ordered, a packet of artificial eyes of different sizes and colors. My God, had I actually thought I was going to remove a pigeon's eyes?

Alfred and I read the booklet, then went to our local pharmacy to buy the chloroform. I told Mr. Levitt, our family pharmacist, what we needed it for, and he gave us a tiny bottle of it free. I don't think chloroform is available in your local Walgreens today, but if you'd like to try taxidermy on a pigeon without chloroform, confine it to a small area and play a few Kenny G CDs. They'll have the same effect.

It was time to procure our subject, so off we went to the pigeon store where, for the first time, we saw, close up, the thoroughbreds of the New York City pigeon world, specially bred birds that rooftop hobbyists would train to fly in circles high above their coops, wheeling, diving and swooping like schools of airborne fish. New York Times reporter Alan Feuer once described them as "twinkling in the sky like a handful of falling dimes." 

wheel weel
to turn in a sweeping, circular motion ("wheeling" is the adjective)
Birds are creatures of the sun. No day in the country is really complete without sight or sound of their presence. To have seen a hummingbird in his nuptial flight, a dancing jewel in the sun, as his consort watches demurely from some exposed twig; to watch the wheeling mock battle of pairing eagles high in the sky as they dive and threaten and sail gracefully away, their screams floating down like sudden grace notes to their lovemaking — those experiences are marked in your memory book forever. — Clark C. Van Fleet, July 1963

It really is a lovely sight, but there's a Brooklyn toughness linked to it. If two pigeoneers' flocks fly too close to each other and a bird from one flock gets absorbed into the other and ends up on the wrong roof, fuhgedaboutit — finders keepers.

But I digress. Returning to my home with the purchased objet d'taxidermie, one of us — or perhaps we did it in tandem — pressed chloroform-soaked absorbent cotton over the pigeon's beak until the bird went limp. We felt and behaved clinically, feeling no compunction about the act because we were quite serious in our endeavor.

tandem TAN duhm
one along with the other; together
Respect for the government and respect for the news media have declined in tandem. More and more the two appear to the public to be an undifferentiated establishment — a new Leviathan — composed of rich, famous, powerful people who are divorced from the lives of ordinary people and indifferent to their concerns. — Jonathan Schell, August 1996

compunction kuhm PUNK shuhn
a slight uneasiness or regret about the rightness of an action; sting of conscience
Though I had not come a-hunting, and felt some compunctions about accompanying the hunters, I wished to see a moose near at hand, and was not sorry to learn how the Indian managed to kill one. — Henry David Thoreau, June 1858

We placed the dead bird on its back on a metal Schlitz beer bar tray, and as Alfred spread the breast feathers, I cut into the skin with my X-Acto knife, from below the chin down almost to its tail, following the booklet's directions not to cut into the flesh. As the booklet promised, the procedure was bloodless. Next step, separate the skin from the bird's body by gently pulling apart each side. That, too, went bloodlessly. Now, says the booklet, where the thigh bone joins the pelvis, separate them.

I reached into the pigeon's still warm body, between the skin and the flesh, located the end of the leg bone, and with the cuticle snipper began the snip. But I didn't get very far, for the sound of the snipper crunching the bone seized both Alfred and me with horror and revulsion, and quite spontaneously — and simultaneously — we screamed.


Hands shaking, I dropped the snippers into the bar tray, and without a word between us I picked up the tray and the two of us fled in horror from the house to the corner sewer where I dumped the bird, the tray, the snipper and our taxidermy careers. We hadn't touched the melon spoon. I put it back in the kitchen drawer. 

I would like to think that later that day, having undertaken so unconsidered and slapdash a venture, Alfred and I had mulled over the folly of what we had done. We probably didn't, though. And I can't honestly say that I was chastened by the experience as I should have been, and felt guilty about needlessly killing a pigeon. I'm certain, though, that although I may not have been aware of it on that day in my fourteenth year, I learned to be a more responsible person.

chastened CHAY suhnd
made to see and regret the wrongness of one's ways
When Martha the passenger pigeon shut her eyes at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914, an entire nation was chastened. Martha was the last of an indigenous American species that just a century earlier had numbered between five billion and nine billion; the ornithologist John James Audubon once recorded seeing a flock pass overhead that literally blackened the sky for hours. The birds' utter and unnatural extinction, in such a brief period, must rank as one of history's greatest crimes against nature. Like the Native American, the passenger pigeon was a victim of ruthless expansionism — the birds were killed for food and sport and the protection of nascent corn crops, but mostly, it seems, they were killed because they were an easy target. After her death Martha's carcass was frozen and shipped to Washington, D.C.; there it was stuffed and put on display at the Smithsonian Institution. —Richard Rubin, December 1997

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 21st 2010, 4:24 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Oh, my. What wonderful writing. Tobias Wolff has an account in _A Boy's Life_ that is bone-freezing in its narrative pace, as he succumbs to the temptation to become "a real Westerner" and use his step-father's rifle. Bob Greenman's essay is something like that. The lexicographer's seemingly cool, objectively exemplary quotations break the narrative and enhance it at the same time, slowing us down but moving us forward in suspense, each one apropos but fascinating in its own right (Josephine Johnson on fairies--priceless!). As a child, I and my brothers hacked a snake to pieces with a butcher knife from our mother's kitchen drawer, not an incredibly big deal in rural Mississippi, but the feeling of almost clinical curiosity that grew into blood lust has never left me; I would recognize it again if I felt it, and I never want to feel it again. This has shocked people so when I try to explain it that I rarely speak of it. But I wonder how common it is? this realization of the power we have over other living things, the finality of death, the ease with which it is accomplished.
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 10:51 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Thank you. Very interesting article.

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