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Mack Williams column: The little girl and the fox

This week’s column is in no way a variation on that “childhood-forming” tale of “little girl, grandmother, and ravenous wolf.”

In a natural history museum containing many examples of taxidermied animals, the first question posed by visiting school children is often: “Are they real?”

I always respond by saying: “Yes, the outsides of these animals are real, but the insides are only factory-made models, the original insides long gone.”

Every once in a while, another type of question brings back the words of one long-retired museum volunteer: “They say no child’s question is stupid; but I’ve heard a good many of them down through the years!”

“Are they real” is a legitimate question, as it could also be interpreted to mean: “Were they made in a factory?”

Since I alluded to the existence of stupid questions voiced by children, the prime example is: “Are these animals alive?”

I could sort of see the logic of that question if its subjects were the bodies of whole, freeze-dried lizards and birds, “posed” in dioramas depicting their natural habitats; but this question is usually asked of me while standing across from animal heads lined up on a bare-background wall.

I’m always gentlemanly to the public; but at such times I would like to say: “Yes, these are alive, but their up-keep is minimal, since being ‘stomach-less,’ we don’t have to feed them.”

A friend told me I could also say the animals are putting their heads through the wall; and if the child were to walk around to the wall’s opposite side, the creature’s “hindquarters” could be seen there. (But I would never do such a “wise guy” thing, because the kid might then figuratively regard me as the “hindquarter” of a horse, or worse, a donkey).

I’m sure that when I was a child, I was no doubt just as likely to ask stupid questions every now and then, the memory of them (and possibly, the answer received) being repressed for over half a century now (I’m 65).

My father (Bernard Williams) loved to use the phrase “from the ridiculous, to the sublime,” so the title-subject of this week’s column affords me the opportunity to make that transition as well.

When members of the public enter the natural history museum, I like to have something on hand to peak their interest, calling it a “natural history ice-breaker.”

The object is most often a taxidermied eastern gray fox, separate from the major taxidermied collection. I invite people to touch or “pet” it, as the other animals are off limits as far as tactile experience is concerned.

The other day, I offered the taxidermied fox to a little girl for her to touch, but she reacted “in the opposite direction!” I told her if she didn’t want to touch it, she didn’t have to; but her mother pressed her to do so.

After stroking the fox several times, the sweetest smile “broke out” on the little girl’s face, and she looked as if she were petting her own dog.

In another gallery of the museum, a touch-table of various animal furs is available for the public to feel. I picked up a pretty specimen of red fox fur and asked the same little girl if she wanted to touch it, since she had conquered her fear of touching the taxidermied fox.

Her prior touching of the “complete” fox had been preceded by a look of apprehension; but this time, stark fear was in her eyes, instantly followed by sadness and tears.

Evidently, the fully taxidermied animal had enough of the “look of life” for her to deem it “alive,” while the piece of animal fur spoke only of “death.”

But a few minutes later, the little girl gleefully watched our California king snake swallow a couple of mice. (The mice were dead, but of course had the look of real, whole mice.)

Truly, the creatures which enter the museum via the taxidermist are much less complicated, much less subtle, and therefore, much less interesting than those “creatures” which enter the museum via “admissions!”

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