“We get a lot of things that people might not think we’d get a lot of,” says Kelly Cassidy. She opens a drawer to reveal one cedar waxwing and five Bohemian waxwings that were brought in by a Pullman resident on a single day. They’d flown into her window after being spooked by something. Students and faculty regularly bring in songbirds that have dashed their brains out on the glassed-in walkway between Abelson Hall and the Science Library. “It’s a terrible bird killer because it’s clear all the way through,” Cassidy says. Other animals make their way into the collection as road kill. Barn owls, for example, often fly low over the ground at dusk, when they are hard to see by passing motorists.
Other specimens in the Conner were “actively collected,” meaning they were shot for the purpose of becoming a museum specimen. “I think some people in the public are horrified by that thought,” says Mike Webster, who understands that reaction. He says collectors are careful not to gather enough individuals from a given population to put the population at risk, and species that are threatened or endangered are rarely collected, except for cases of accidental death.
"The important thing to keep in mind is that the number of individuals we’re taking for these kinds of collections is dwarfed by the number of animals that die just by flying into buildings,” says Webster. “My attitude is, if we can use these animals for some sort of positive, beneficial, scientific purpose, and we know that we’re collecting them in a way that’s not going to have a negative impact on the population, then I think it’s an important thing to do.”
Growing by adoption
Collections are especially vulnerable when space is at a premium or when a long-time curator retires, leaving the collection “orphaned.”
“If the department hires someone totally different, who has no interest in the collection, the university or the department, if they have some foresight, may at least try to find a good home [for the collection] someplace,” says Rich Zack. “If they don’t, they may just throw it all in the nearest dumpster.”
The Herbarium and Conner Museum have both absorbed “orphaned” collections from facilities that were closed down by other institutions. A few years ago, the University of Idaho eliminated its zoology museum. Its fish and reptiles went to Idaho State. WSU got its birds and mammals, including one of the world’s best collections of mouse bacula. A baculum is a bone in the penis of some mammals (dogs perhaps being the most familiar). Preparing mouse bacula is a delicate task, and one that few museums attempt. Why even save the tiny bones? The baculum of each species has a distinctive shape. In some cases, the easiest way to tell what species of mouse you have is to look at its baculum. Little things do mean a lot.
An ideal place for a museum
As Kelly Cassidy opens a drawer of red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, the scent of naphthalene pours out. Cassidy adds fresh mothballs to the cabinets once a year, to stave off insects that could damage the skins. Insects are the only natural threat that’s a big concern here, and it’s easily dealt with. Pullman’s dry climate makes it an ideal place for natural history collections, she says. Many European collections have specimens dating from the 1700s, despite high humidity that encourages the growth of destructive fungi. Given Pullman’s much more friendly environmental conditions, Cassidy says, with proper care our specimens could still be in good shape hundreds of years from now.