SUNY-ESF taxidermy collection brings animal specimens back to life

In a SUNY-ESF classroom lies the Roosevelt Wildlife Collection, an assortment of 10,000 stuffed animal specimens that educate and inspire students to add their own finds to the collection.

Remove the skin from the body. That is what Tiffany Dellaventura, a senior conservation biology major at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, will do with the two baby raccoon carcasses she just pulled out of her backpack. She will pay careful attention when skinning their faces, because the face draws the most attention from viewers. After about a week’s worth of work, the raccoons will be fully preserved and mounted, ready to join 10,000 other specimens in the Roosevelt Wildlife Collection, an initiative of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station.

Photo: Eesha Patkar
“It’s not just an animal picked up off the road and put in a drawer. It has to have good scientific data.”

-Ron Giegerich, Curator

The station, founded at SUNY-ESF in 1919 as a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt, promotes public interest in wildlife and the environment through outdoor and laboratory study. The collection started when scientists from the Wild Life Station began bringing specimens back from their expeditions. It became an official part of the station in 1964. Faculty and students continue to add to the collection, enhancing its strong representation of species. The animals have both teaching and research purposes, making them a key educational asset for the university.

“All these organisms have such neat adaptations,” says Maureen Perrault, executive director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station. “It’s great. The specimens get people thinking about wildlife and how special the world around us is.”

ESF's Ron Giegerich has curated the collection for 35 years. He enjoys working with the animals, even though his subjects of choice are dead. He began preparing specimens as a teenager, and has since turned his hobby into a career. Giegerich teaches a course on vertebrate museum techniques, where students gain hands-on experience creating skins and mounts. He ensures that the collection represents a diverse group of vertebrates.

Room 215 Illick Hall houses the majority of the collection. There lies a treasure chest of specimens—a menagerie of the dead. A maze of cabinets fills the room, each one packed with drawers of different remains. Mounted specimens crowd the cabinet tops, guarding the room with lifeless glass eyes. A whooping crane here, a kinkajou there. Even animals now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon, are present. Every cabinet contains the taxonomic names of the animals it holds.

Giegerich opened one drawer, revealing an array of small birds. An identification tag adorned each bird, providing important information such as where and when it was collected.

“What makes a specimen worth something down the line is good data,” he said as he gently displayed a faded tag from the 1880s. “It’s not just an animal picked up off the road and put in a drawer. It has to have good scientific data.”

Dellaventura, Giegerich’s independent study student, said she treats each specimen she works with respectfully. Manipulating what was once a life can be sad at times, but she has grown accustomed to the work. She said she plans to mount her two baby raccoons as if they were playing—just as they should have been, had they not met their premature death on the side of the road.

“I’m interested in learning from animals by doing taxidermy and bringing them back to life,” she said, her fingers lightly stroking the fluffy cadavers.

In a preparation room in the back, Emilie Rigby meticulously prepares a snow goose. Rigby, a junior environmental science major, is a member of Giegerich’s invertebrate museum technique class. She has already washed the limp corpse and now dries it with a hairdryer. Once completed, the goose will hang from the ceiling, frozen in flight along with the other mounts prepared in class. It is tedious work, so the students often come in for individual instruction.

Numerous other classes in addition to Giegerich’s incorporate the collection into their curricula. Elaina Burns, an ESF graduate student and teaching assistant for a mammal diversity class, uses the specimens as teaching tools in her labs because they reinforce the learning material.

“You can talk about it or do PowerPoints, but to have it right in front of you is very cool,” she said.

The specimens educate more than just university students. The collection recently shared some of its pieces with the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology to teach 1,500 local fourth graders about plant and animal adaptations. Interacting with the animals helps the students learn about topics such as seed dispersal.

“Sometimes it’s undervalued how important a hands-on experience is,” said Emily Alexander, a science educator at the MOST. “They can see a squirrel, but if they’re touching it, it’s a different kind of experience that sticks with the students better than just hearing about it.”

Although some of the animals go out on loan, space in the main collection room poses an issue. Giegerich gestures to a row of cabinets stuffed with creatures floating in jars of formaldehyde and alcohol. He hopes to move these fluid preserves into their own room to create more space. A number of the collection’s larger inhabitants have already migrated to other areas of the building. Some even claim territory in professors’ private offices.

Caring for the collection has its challenges. It requires vigorous maintenance and treatment to ward off insect attacks. The collection just acquired a special vacuum to help get rid of any trapped pests. Preventing exposure to ultraviolet light and monitoring the room’s temperature and humidity levels are also important components of maintaining the specimens.

Perrault recently put in a grant to help develop a strategic plan for the collection. She said she hopes its recent assessment from Heritage Preservation's Conservation Assessment Program will raise its profile and ensure its safe future.

“When I first started here, people were telling me that there were professors in this building who didn’t know the collection was here,” she says. “We want to raise the profile a bit to make it clear to everyone that we have this valuable academic resource.”

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