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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Horn and Bone, Egg and Tusk

There's a room at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore that visitors typically don't get to see.  It's not that impressive in itself, more like a big walk-through closet lined with shelves.  Tucked away on those shelves, in tupperware tubs and plastic crates, swaddled with bubble wrap or sheets, neatly catalogued for easy reference, is an astonishing collection of skulls, horns, tusks, egg shells, and other remnants of the zoo's past occupants.  Some were relics of the zoo's care of animals - the cap that an elephant wore on her tusk, or a cast that was worn by a polar bear with a broken arm.  These treasures reside here until they are called into use, when a volunteer or docent may check one out and take it out to use in education programs.

There are similar collections at zoos and aquariums around the world; I mentioned Baltimore's simply because it was one of the more impressive ones I've seen.  These items are called "biofacts", as in "biological artifacts."  They are prized among zoos for their educational value, as well as for the impact they can have on visitors.  An obvious benefit is that they are touchable.  It's one thing to see a grizzly bear's claws on a computer screen, another still to see them tapping on the glass that separates the two of you at a zoo.  To really appreciate their size and power, however, nothing matches being able to hold one in your hand... without the bear being attached, of course.

One biofact that I remember well was the first rhino horn that I held.  It was the smaller of the two horns from a white rhinoceros, an animal I've since seen several times in zoos and in the wild.  Holding that horn in my hands, however, I saw and felt something new which made a major impact on me.  I'd known that rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein as our hair and fingernails, which makes the whole supposed medicinal value of it seem even sketchier.  With that horn a few inches from my eyes, however, I was able to notice something very interesting - frayed ends.  There were areas where the highly-condensed hair of the horn was coming loose, and I was able to run my fingertips over a rhino's split ends.  It was then that it dawned on me that people were slaughtering rhinos for that... a mass of hair.

A colleague at another facility told me about a less enlightened biofact moment.  He was working at an aquarium that featured sea otters, a species which had almost been driven to extinction by hunting for its pelt.  You see, sea otters have incredibly luxorious pelts of dense fur - they need it to keep warm in the waters of the North Pacific - and their fur is unbelievably soft.  This colleague was standing outside the sea otter exhibit with a pelt that he was allowing people to touch.  Most people did so, then stayed to listen to him talk about the otters.  Some, however, became fixated on it, stroking it over and over again with a look on their faces that he described as "borderline-aroused."  They began to ask him where they could get coats of this from.  He tried explaining that it took several otters to make a coat, that they were an endangered species, etc.  Didn't care - they wanted coats.

Biofacts are an amazing draw for visitors, and can help zoo educators open up conversations about the animals.  I feel like there is such potential for sensory-overload in a zoo that visitors flit from animal to animal, distracted by the next glimpse, the next sound, that it can be difficult to engage them if there isn't a way to slow them down.  Seeing a hippo skull perched on a cart, or a docent cradling a blown-out ostrich egg in her hands, can hold a person's attention long enough for education to have an opening.

A problem with biofacts is that many of them come from deceased animals, so their supply is limited.  A few companies exist which produce replica skulls and horns of museum quality, though I always prefer the real thing if possible.  People always ask if something is real; if it's not, I feel like they lose their connection with it.  That being said, if it's an object that you're going to allow huge numbers of people to touch, especially in an unsupervised atmosphere, a cast or replica can be for the best.  They tend to made a little sturdier than the real thing.  I think I'd have a heart attack if I saw a priceless skull tipping over and shattering on the floor because someone bumped into it carelessly.

Tucked away in a shoebox in my room is my own little biofact collection, assembled over the years with odds and ends picked up from around my life in zoos.  A claw from a two-toed sloth, a souvenir of a female who seemed to always be growing and breaking claws.  The fang of a black mamba, found when I was cleaning its cage after my boss had removed it.  A tuft of pungent-smelling lion's mane that was snagged on some brush.  An infertile emu egg of an astounding blue.  Clipped beaver teeth.  My own treasure chest.

There's nothing too incredible - the good stuff I leave with the zoos for use in their education programs.  Certainly I make sure I'm not bringing home anything illegal, like eagle feathers.  But these bits and pieces, along with photographs, video clips, and the odd animal painting or two, are enough to remind me of some of the great animals I've gotten to share my life with.

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