WARNING: These entries will be discussing death, taxidermy, and the use of animal parts both in spiritual practice and for research and display. If these subjects bother you, please don’t continue reading. Thanks!
I have always liked museums. This is a resounding “Duh” to anyone who knows me. However, when I was growing up, I didn’t go to “official” museums as much as I went to a particular little “Science Center” owned by one of the local school districts. The one I’m referring to specifically is the Robert A. Vines Environmental Science Center. I don’t remember how old I was when we first discovered and started going to this free museum who’s catalogue of exhibits consists mostly of donated mounted specimens in “natural habitat” dioramas.
The Science Center, as I grew up calling it, was a place I LOVED to spend time. I could spend entire afternoons wandering around the galleries, looking at the same mounted specimens over and over. But there was one mount in particular that disconcerted me almost from the first moment I laid eyes on it.
The american bison.
That’s a picture of the mount, with his accompanying three coyotes. He resides in the “Texas Wildlife Room,” a smaller exhibit hall with six open habitat displays (the bison plus five others depicting the five primary habitats in Texas – Grassland, pine forest, urban, desert, and swamp), as well as a host of smaller display cases with native fauna ranging from a roadrunner to a striped skunk to a possum, and a large behind-glass diorama at the end farthest from the door that has a fleeing full body mount of a Whitetail Deer buck, running from a pair of cougars.
At the end of this entry I’ll put a gallery with some pictures I’ve taken in this and the other halls so you can all see the museum I “grew up in.”
Anyway, this particular bison is actually where I became aware of skin spirits for the first time. Though it would be many, many years before I realized that’s what I was feeling. When I had my back to him, looking at the urban exhibit across from him with it’s raccoon and red fox with the derpy face, among others, I could feel him staring at me.
And he felt malevolent.
At the time, I hadn’t begun to explore my therianthropy – I didn’t even know for sure what I was. I just knew “not human” and “canine.” I had an attraction to wolves, and there are two mounted Red Wolves in this same room (every mount in the Science Center is from the early to mid 70s or so – hence some species that are endangered and/or extinct in the wild being present as specimens), so I’d spend a lot of time looking at them. But in order to get to the wolves, I had to pass the bison.
I didn’t like passing the bison.
I could easily turn my back on any of the other mounts in the museum, but any time I put my back to the bison, the hair on the back of my neck would stand on end and I felt hot. The saying “eyes burning a hole through you” came to mind. When I turned and faced the bison, I felt like it’s eyes followed me. I almost didn’t notice the three coyotes in the habitat with him, I spent so much time with my eyes locked to his.
I wish I could remember what my mom’s reaction was when I told her that the bison was watching me and that it made me uncomfortable. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything beyond SAYING that, and somehow getting the permission of the museum to turn on the main lights in that hall when I was in there. Normally it was a dark hall with spotlights on each of the exhibits, but that seemed to make the bison angrier. I THINK I claimed I wanted to be able to see the exhibits in more detail, but I don’t remember for sure.
It was like sensing the bison started opening my senses to sensing other beings. The next time we went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I found there was an area of the then African exhibit hall that I couldn’t seem to go into. It was where the Cheetah sat atop a rock and there was a half a head of a hippo mounted so it looked like it was surfacing out of water. I think the hyenas were in that area, too. The backdrop had a red tint to it. I never figured out what it was in that area that made me want to move through it so quickly and made me hesitate to turn my back on the display area where the cheetah was – but it was a similar feeling to the bison.
After I moved out, they redesigned the African hall – it looks nothing like it did at the time, and I haven’t had the feeling any of the times I’ve been back, so I can only assume whatever mount was giving me that feeling in that museum got put into storage or sold.
Remember, at the time I had no concept of skin spirits – I was looking at these things purely from a scientific point of view. This was a way for me to see animals up close that I would likely never see alive, and I appreciated it for that. However I couldn’t deny the feelings I got. Over time, I started picking up on feelings other than the negative. Sometimes I felt curiosity, other times sadness, sometimes intense enjoyment and pleasure at being the “center of attention,” but most of the time I felt nothing.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting a sampling of how many sacred remains are just remains – no spirit still attached. The answer is surprisingly low – I’m not sure what it is that makes spirits end up tied to their remains, or why some are tied to bones and other to skin – but for the hundreds of mounts in most museums, there are only usually three or four that have a strong enough “signature” that I pick up on them.
That’s a little off topic, though – back to Mr. Bison.
I don’t remember how old I was when I decided it was time to “conquer my fear” and get used to whatever it was about the bison that scared me. I didn’t like that I couldn’t turn my back on it for more than a few seconds. I didn’t like that I could feel it “looming” on the other side of the wall before I even entered the Texas Wildlife Hall. And I didn’t like that the way it made me feel stopped me from being able to enjoy the exhibits across the room from it.
So I decided that I was going to go in there, with the lights off, and stand right in front of it. I was going to look it in the glass eyes and figure out what actually frightened me about it – and fix it. After all, I’d done extensive research into taxidermy already – I KNEW there was nothing “real” left of the bison except it’s skin. That it was stretched over a clay, plastic, or fiberglass form with glass eyes embedded in an impression of life. I knew there were no guts inside, no muscles. I knew it couldn’t move.
And yet it terrified me – a kind of fear that I’ve only felt one other time in my life: when I rode Tower of Terror at Disney’s California Adventure for the first time. Which, at this point in my life, hadn’t happened yet. Therefore this was as frightened as I had ever been, and it annoyed me. I wanted to enjoy my little private museum.
To this day, I don’t know if the bison reacted to me so strongly because I’m dire wolf, and dire wolves and bison have a relationship going back long into the ice age. I don’t know if it reacted to me so strongly because I was the first person it had ever felt that seemed like it could sense it back. I don’t know what it hoped to communicate that it was sending such malevolence to me.
I do know that when I finally made myself go in there, gripping the railing in front of the exhibit with white-knuckled hands, staring eye-to-eye with the sacred remains of this huge beast – I finally found out part of what was bothering it.
I don’t know how long I stood there, holding it’s gaze. I know I was there a long time. There was no sound in the room except for the air conditioner cycling on and off. I took all the heat the bison threw at me, and visualized it dissipating around me. And I thought at it – over and over – just one line, “Why do you hate me?”
Yes, it was a selfish thing to think. But I can’t deny that it got results.
The longer I stared at it, the more my eyes kept being drawn away from it’s face and up to the massive hump of it’s back. There were cobwebs from the spotlights above down into it’s fur. A liberal coating of dust covered it so that it appeared a bit greyer than the browns it should have been. What I’d initially taken for aging of the pelt (natural – the mount was already around 30 years old when I “met” the mount) was actually a collection of dust and cobwebs that almost gave it a snowed-on appearance.
My eyes slid down the powerful legs to where they disappeared into the fake grass of the exhibit, and then were drawn to the (suicidal) coyotes, faces ever locked in a snarling position as they faced off with the big bison. Then as I stared, I was drawn back to the bison’s face again. I had just received my first actual communication with a skin spirit.
“I’m old,” the bison said as it guided my eyes over it’s form. “They don’t care for me like they should. I am disrespected, forced into this position against my will. Standing day after day at odds with Them. Is it no wonder I hate your kind? Humans that did this to me and do not even have the courtesy to treat my remains with respect. That is why I hate. Tell me I am wrong.”
I felt like crying. I kept looking at the dust, the cobwebs, the coyotes. I couldn’t get “Them” removed from the bison’s habitat, but maybe there was something I could do about the perceived disrespect.
I left the room and went into the office. Over my next few visits to the museum, I told multiple members of the staff (and some multiple times) about the bison’s condition. I suggested that maybe they should vacuum the mounts. After all, the bison was just the most obvious thanks to it’s color, but if it was that dusty, I was certain that the rest of the mounts were at least that dusty, if not worse.
I’d been coming to the museum for years – most of the staff recognized me and had, to a point, watched me grow up. Still, it took a while before I was taken seriously. Or before their work orders got answered – I admit that I’ll never know which. All I know is that one day I came in to the museum and a completely different feeling hit me as I started to reach into the Texas Wildlife Room to turn on the lights before entering.
Yes, I was still doing that. Because the bison still frightened me in the darkened room. However, after our communication, I could better deal with it in the lit room, and therefore I was finally getting to look at the other two exhibits across from the bison and coyotes.
“Don’t turn it on,” I felt from the darkened exhibit hall. It made my stomach flip. When I’d communicated with the bison before, it took a long time to receive the message that I did – I didn’t realize at the time that all that time wasn’t an inability to communicate – it was just time to gain the spirit’s trust enough that it would communicate. I stood in the doorway for a moment, and then entered the hall.
My eyes were immediately drawn to my left – to the bison’s exhibit. Even looking at it’s butt, as I was upon coming in, the difference was striking. The bison had been cleaned!
I moved around to stand in front of him and get a better look. There was no denying it – the cobwebs were gone, the pelt was a rich, full brown…and it seemed happy.
For the first time, not a hint of malevolence struck me as I stared at the bison. No anger, no hate – just quiet contemplation and, yes, even pleasure.
“Look at me,” I sensed. “As fresh as when I first arrived.” I couldn’t help smiling. Just a simple expression of caring – of respect – for the bison’s sacred remains, and it’s entire attitude had turned around. What’s more, it seemed to associate me, personally, with the change it had gone through.
Of course, to my knowledge, I’m the only one who ever took the time to talk to the bison, so it was likely a good guess by the spirit that I was the one directly responsible. Of course, I don’t know if anyone else complained, or what else went on behind the scenes. But I felt proud of what I’d accomplished. For the first time, I spoke to the bison aloud. I don’t remember my exact words, but the gist of what I said amounted to, “I’m so happy that I had a hand in making you feel better.”
From that visit on, the bison didn’t frighten me anymore. I looked forward to entering the Texas Wildlife Hall to see it, to see everything. And I slowly became aware of the other mounts in the room that had been overwhelmed by the bison’s hatred, and therefore hadn’t registered on my newfound “radar” before.
Years later, as I started collecting taxidermy items – mostly bones and tails from foxes and coyotes at first – usually castoffs of the taxidermy industry, picked up from friends on art sites, I started recognizing what I felt again. Holding these items in my hands, touching them, I started to learn which ones had skin spirits attached and which ones didn’t. I started to realize that I could usually tell from a picture whether or not a piece had something attached.
Admittedly, that “sixth sense” is wrong sometimes. But not nearly as often as one would expect from strict guesswork, so I have to accept that there’s something more going on there.
The next article in this series will focus on some of the skin spirits I work with personally on a regular basis. Check it out next week to meet Trevor and Veteran, among others.
And now the image gallery I promised. 😛
Tygerwolfe Designs Photography (circa 2008)