Animal History Meets Natural History | Curatorial Internship with Portland State’s Museum of Natural History

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) on the 2nd Floor of the Science Research and Teaching Center (SRTC) Lobby

By Taylor Bailey ::

In the epilogue of his spectacular history of American wildlife film Reel Nature, environmental historian Gregg Mitman observes: “We no longer work with animals, we predominately watch them.” Whether the act of watching animals be on film or television, at zoos or aquariums, or on the internet, Mitman’s astute conclusion makes clear the reality of human-animal relationships in the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries, unfortunate or otherwise. Beyond their household pets, few Americans interact directly with animals.

As a burgeoning environmental historian who read Mitman’s book during my senior year of college, this quote stuck with me. I was determined, as both an historian and a human being, to expand my sphere of interaction and better understand the lives of animals past and present. In the history profession, it is altogether too easy to bury yourself in stuffy libraries and archives that are far removed from the very real experiences of the historical subjects you study. I wanted to see, smell, and feel the historical events and experiences I wrote about as best I could. I knew my writing would benefit.

My first foray into this “experience-based” history came in the form of a summer-long farm assistant position at Farm Sanctuary’s Northern California shelter in 2015. I would be entering Portland State’s M.A. program that fall, and I initially planned on studying the history of livestock breeding and industrial animal agriculture. Farm Sanctuary, which prides itself on rescuing farm animals from the abuses of factory-style farming, was the perfect place to experience working with and caring for animals firsthand. Although the backbreaking labor in 100 degree heat, the near-constant smell of manure, and the long days breathing in straw dust left me yearning to return to an air-conditioned library, I found that the position grounded me and left me pondering research questions I’d never thought of before.

As I began the M.A. program at Portland State, my research interests shifted to the marine mammal entertainment industry. I wanted to know why North American oceanarium operators began capturing and displaying dolphins and whales for entertainment in the mid-twentieth century. My research led me to the Los Angeles oceanarium Marineland of the Pacific (1954-1987), which pioneered the capture and exhibition of many cetacean species in the postwar era before the now-industry giant SeaWorld even opened. My soon-to-be-completed thesis, tentatively titled “Delphinids on Display: Methods of Cetacean Capture, Management, and Research at Marineland of the Pacific, 1954-1965,” investigates the capture techniques, veterinary care, and display of dolphins, pilot whales, and killer whales at Marineland during this highly experimental period of marine animal captivity.  

My topic led me to Dr. Deborah Duffield, Professor of Biology at Portland State, who has published research on cetacean genetics since the early 1970s. Dr. Duffield began her PhD studies at UCLA in the late 1960s, and completed much of her early research at a time when a great deal of cetacean science was conducted in at oceanariums like Marineland. In short, Prof. Duffield lived through my research period. Since I am not a trained scientist, Deb and I met often to discuss my research. She patiently answered my questions about cetacean behavior and biology, and has become an invaluable resource for my project.

At the end of last year, I reached out to Deb to see if there was any way I could be more involved in the work she does at PSU. I knew that her team of students periodically ventured out to the Oregon coast to conduct necropsies of beached whales, but I feared what the odors drifting from a rotting whale carcass might smell like. Deb also heads up the Marine Mammal division of PSU’s Museum of Natural History, so she offered to let me tag along as an intern for winter quarter. For me, the internship took experience-based history to a new level; I would be putting together marine mammal skeletons, to be sure, but nothing prepared me for the sights and smells I would encounter in the process.

It takes a number of steps to end up with the gleaming white bones visitors see on animal skeletons at natural history exhibits. The biology department acquires smaller marine mammals from the coast from time to time, most of which are frozen immediately and necropsied years later. (One of my first tasks was assisting the other interns in locating a sea lion deep in the freezer room). Once Deb decides to necropsy an animal, it’s carefully removed from its plastic bag and left on a gurney to thaw. Once the cadaver has thawed, biology students begin examining the body and looking for clues as to why the animal died. The stomach contents are examined, parasites are preserved in jars of alcohol, and occasionally bullets are found (fishermen are known to shoot sea lions to prevent the animals from devouring too many salmon).

I distinctly remember coming into the lab one afternoon while students were in the midst of conducting a necropsy on a harbor porpoise. The animal’s skin and blubber had been removed, leaving a bloody mass of flesh and bone that reminded me of a burn victim. It looked like a miniature of the whale carcasses I’d seen in old photographs of flensing operations on whaling ships, where the gore must have been multiplied times one-hundred. To say the least, I would have struggled working on a whaling ship, since I remain affected by the image of the porpoise to this day.

Once the necropsy has been completed, as much of the flesh as possible is removed from the bones, and the skeleton is cut into smaller pieces. Each piece is placed in a mesh bag and boiled to remove any remaining fat and tissue. The worst odors emanated from the boiling process—at times it was so overpowering I had to leave the room. It’s the kind of smell that lingers in your throat long after you’ve left the lab. Once the boiling is complete, the bones are rinsed with water and cleaned by soaking them in mix of Biz laundry detergent and water overnight. Then the interns and I removed the bones from the detergent solution and set them under lamps to dry out over a few days.
If Deb plans to display an animal, the bones, once dry, are painted with lacquer of Elmer’s glue and water to protect them. Most of the bones I processed were going to be stored in the basement, so they were labeled, packed, and shelved with the rest of the collections. But others, like the sea lion and porpoise skulls I put back together (the teeth often come loose during the boiling process), would likely be put together by a graduate student learning skeleton articulation and used by Deb in her marine mammal biology class.

Throughout this process, I imagined that the veterinarians at the Los Angeles County Livestock Department—who often necropsied whales and dolphins that died at Marineland of the Pacific—underwent nearly the same processes I did with Deb in her lab. They probably used a similar process of boiling and cleaning the bones, although I’m sure they became far more accustomed to the smells of bone-boiling than I did. In fact, the skull of Wanda, the first live killer whale captured by Marineland in 1961—whose story I investigate in the third chapter of my thesis—is still in storage at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Although I could be wrong, I suppose few historians have gone this far to experience the intricacies of their research topic. To return to Mitman’s observation that “we no longer work with animals,” I’ve found that this experiential method of researching human-animal relationships to be extremely rewarding. I didn’t want to simply watch these experiences, I wanted to feel them. Although this time I was interacting with dead animals instead of live ones, the result was the same. I left the internship more informed, more affected, and more curious than I was before. And my writing is all the better for it.

Taylor Bailey is a second-year M.A. in History student at Portland State University. He currently serves as the 2016-17 Caroline P. Stoel Editorial Fellow for the Pacific Historical Review.