From Lions to Dinosaurs

It seems strange that my first memory of wildlife (you know, those things you don’t see in downtown Seattle or in Walnut Creek, California) came at the California Academy of Sciences Natural History Museum in San Francisco many a year ago. For someone who has devoted much of his life to hiking and exploring the outdoors, it is very strange going back and confronting those early memories.

I had vague, but strong, memories of the San Francisco exhibits. I first saw them in the 4th or 5th grade when I lived in Walnut Creek. I’m not even sure I had ever seen a zoo before I saw them, but I know I had never seen most of the animals, and, unlike today’s kids, I hadn’t been exposed to innumerable television documentaries.

At nine or ten, I was terribly impressed, or terrified, by the magnificent grizzly standing at the front door as we entered the exhibit hall, but my most vivid memories are of the dioramas showing different mounted animals in their “natural environment.” I can still remember gazing through the glass at magnificent animals I had never seen up close before. I’m not sure if I was more impressed by the animals themselves or by the seemingly magical work that had gone into creating these dioramas. The dioramas were really a celebration of science and art working together to create a “new” reality.

So, Mary and Leslie took me back there last week, a delightful and enlightening experience. The dioramas were very much as I remembered them. Visiting the center was like seeing a favorite movie where you remember what is going to happen just before it happens. I could even remember the exact arrangement of some of the dioramas. Happily, the dioramas were as excellent as I remember them. Even now I am amazed at how curators managed to make a bird hang perfectly in mid-air, about to light on a branch that has been patiently waiting for over 70 years. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the animals aren’t “real,” though they are real, in the sense that they were once real animals.

Of course, I came to this exhibit with a perspective I lacked on my first visit. It now seems ironic, indeed, to have been introduced to endangered species by stuffed animals, whole families mown down years ago to provided American families the chance to observe them in the comfort of a museum. Even if they weren’t endangered, it is strange to imagine how someone who “loved” these animals and devoted their life to studying them could kill an entire family just to put them on exhibit in a country far away.

On the other hand, I wonder how many people have been inspired by these exhibits to spend time and money ensuring that wild places continue to exist so that these animals, too, can exist in our increasingly crowded and polluted planet?

Even more questions were raised when I saw the new exhibits of reconstructed dinosaurs. I wonder if today’s young visitors will be able to distinguish between the exhibits in future years when many more of the animals may have become as extinct as they dinosaurs they are grouped with.

Will the museum have served the function of helping to maintain species, or will it merely become a place to store historical exhibits?

One thought on “From Lions to Dinosaurs”

  1. A researchers group will report soon at a American Geological Union that they found in Antarctica fragments of a meteor that killed most life on Earth 250 million years ago. Scientists generally agree that about 90 percent of species disappeared during the extinction 250 million years ago, in a period known as the Permian-Triassic boundary.

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