Mammals of Connecticut

January 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

By Jacqueline Austin

Bird Skull by William Beebe, 1906 (public domain)

At college, one of the best courses I ever took was “Mammals of Connecticut.”  There are over 100 species of mammals in Connecticut (including people, cats and dogs, and a large number of voles—little furry creatures which are like tailless, delicate mice).

I would go up to the secret areas in Peabody Museum.  These contained huge file cabinets full of specimens and bones—little birds from South America in the 1800s; skulls of horses from the Wild West.  Because I liked to draw, I spent a lot of time drawing these skulls, comparing them to one another, and trying to trace the process of evolution in their contours, even though Chilean birds and cowboy broncos don’t have much to do with mammals of Connecticut.

For our midterm, we were each handed a plastic baggie full of little bones—a disarticulated cat skeleton—and instructed to put it back together again as quickly as possible.

For our final exam, we were driven up to the Yale Forest in a bus filled with various sizes of humane traps, containers of oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate and raisins, and sleeping bags.  We were told to make gorp from the food items, then fan out into the forest, carrying traps.  For the next few days, we were to catch as many as we could of the mammals of Connecticut.  We should identify them as quickly as we could, because holding a vole, even for so long as it takes to identify it, literally scares it to death.  Its little heart can’t take the stimulation and it implodes.

Deer were going to be a bummer.  And really, what would you do with one, if you caught it?  Luckily, our TA, a wolf man from Texas, had a crush on me.  Also, he was carrying rope.  We climbed up into the crown of one of the bigger trees (most of this forest was second growth), and after he set up a sling noose, we waited.  His flirting consisted of long, shy discourses on the family habits of wolves—gentle, misunderstood creatures, he said.  He was telling me about holding a wolf cub and looking into its amazing eyes when snap! the trap was sprung and a shuddering, bucking deer was leaping up at us, hitting the trunk and springing away, only to be hauled back by its neck.   I couldn’t bear to look as the wolf man scrambled down the tree.  I remember my panic as he screamed up at me.  ”What is this creature?  What’s its scientific name?”

The deer’s eyes were wild and it was silently screaming like one of the figures in Guernica. 

“I’m not letting it go until you tell me!”

Why can I remember the deer’s eyes, but not what happened next?

Or if I aced the “Mammals of Connecticut?”

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  Reposted from Things That Are Wonderful.  All rights reserved.


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§ One Response to Mammals of Connecticut

  • Chris Danes says:

    Ok- now- I am beginning to work my way through some of your work. My apologies for the delay and thanks for your patience.
    Well, you can remember the eyes- because they were so viivid. And dilated. And what you end with is, to leave us in a state of suspension that has a taste of the frozen fear that you were feeling.
    I love going from musty museum interior to up in the trees- and confronting how unprepared you all were for animal confrontation. What a great class…

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