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The Breathless Zoo

Taxidermy and the Culture of Longing

Rachel Poliquin

Publication Year: 2012

From sixteenth-century cabinets of wonder and Victorian bird collections to stuffed pets and contemporary animal art, Taxidermy and Longing explores the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lifelike postures. While death is what makes taxidermy possible, taxidermy is not motivated by brutality but rather by longing for connection within the natural world – a longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance. Sometimes the most unlikely things offer the most eloquent commentaries.

Published by: Penn State University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. v


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pp. vii-viii

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p. ix

This project would not have been possible without a postdoctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada. I would like to thank Harriet Ritvo and the History Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for hosting me, however briefly. A special thank you to all the librarians and archivists who helped this project along, particularly James Hatton at the Natural History Museum...

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pp. 1-10

In 2004, Nanoq: Flat Out and Bluesome opened in Spike Island, a large, whitewalled art space in Bristol, England. On display were ten taxidermied polar bears, each isolated in its own custom glass case, all transported from separate locations across Great Britain to exist briefly together yet solitary. The exhibition marked the conclusion of Bryndís...

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1. Wonder

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pp. 11-42

On October 5, 1687, after a month of delays due to contrary winds, the Assistance at last put out from Plymouth and set sail for Jamaica with Sir Hans Sloane aboard. Earlier that year, Sloane had accepted the position of personal physician to Christopher Monck, the second duke of Albemarle, who had been appointed governor of the island. As a young...

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2. Beauty

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pp. 43-76

The Victorians were quite literally and without the least exaggeration absolutely besotted with hummingbirds. Not only did the number of known species increase dramatically in the nineteenth century (from ten in 1758 to more than three hundred by the 1850s), but each new discovery seemed to shimmer ever more brightly with all the colors of the rainbow...

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3. Spectacle

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pp. 77-110

The self-taught French artist Henri Rousseau was well-known for his jungle paintings. In fact, his dreamlike jungles, completed in the last decade of his life and filled with exotic creatures, animal violence, and fantastically luscious vegetation, are considered the apotheosis of the artist’s style. Some of his jungles are peaceful, depicting monkeys...

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4. Order

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pp. 111-140

The zebras on display at the Natural History Museum at Tring (thirty miles northwest of London) seem to be resting, posed with their legs tucked under themselves (fig. 17). It is a space-saving tactic used throughout the museum: animals posed as if resting take up less room. Positioned on shelves and stacked up the walls behind glass, zebras relax...

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5. Narrative

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pp. 141-170

On the morning of October 5, 1880, the Anglo-Austrian big-game hunter William Adolph Baillie-Grohman set out alone from his camp in western Wyoming with his 500-bore rifle, the “trailstopper,” as he called it, to hunt wapiti, the enormous North American elk. He did not return until late the following evening, having spent one night and almost a second on the trail of an exceptional stag. They were a memorable few days...

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6. Allegory

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pp. 171-198

The beast fable belongs to the ancient tradition of telling stories about humans with animals. Not just any sort of stories, but stories about needs, weaknesses, and desires purified and pared down by the perfect simplicity of animal form. Fables offer a true-for-all-times-and-places sort of knowledge and point to a moral truth that is believed to hold throughout...

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7. Remembrance

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pp. 199-224

There are many species of sadness, each with its own particular weight and shadow— the gloom of homesickness, the maudlin tears of self-pity, the distress of grief or empathy with another’s loss—each shifting the weight of sadness toward a place or person that once was but is no longer, or, more abstractly, toward what might have been. But while..


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pp. 225-250


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pp. 251-258

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271053981
E-ISBN-10: 0271053984
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271053721
Print-ISBN-10: 0271053720

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 30 color/5 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023494
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Breathless Zoo

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Taxidermy -- History.
  • Taxidermy -- Social aspects.
  • Taxidermy -- Psychological aspects.
  • Human-animal relationships.
  • Desire -- Social aspects
  • Animals in art.
  • Animals in literature.
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