Stuff of life and death

art no less

Close to 1,500 taxidermy specimens are on display at the Zoology Museum, Karnatak Science College, Dharwad. There are all life forms, from protozoans to molluscs to mammals. Photos by B m Kedarnath

After an almost two-decade shutdown, the Karnatak Science College in Dharwad gave a new lease of life to the Zoology Museum considering its academic value and decline in taxidermy techniques.

From elephant skulls to extinct birds to stuffed king cobras, the museum with 2,500 specimens is now considered one of the best zoological museums in the country. Dead animals and birds have been stuffed by top-quality taxidermy standards that they seem lifelike now.

What makes this museum a national treasure is a government policy banning the hunting of animals and birds for the purpose of taxidermy. The ban restricts institutions of higher learning to commission such museums.

The journey begins 72 years ago...

The college commissioned the Zoology Department in 1934. P W Gideon and K V Khadilkar, who had mastered taxidermy techniques from Egmore National Museum, Madras, commissioned the museum in 1947. A special structure was raised to house the museum.  

Gideon, K V Khadilkar and lab assistant Daniel began taxidermy of birds and animals. “They would cut bodies, take out the flesh and then complete the taxidermy procedure,” Professor A S Bellad of the department recalls. After J C Uttangi took over the reins of the department in 1960, the museum witnessed a turning point. 

He played a role in the appointment of Mohan Morey as the taxidermist for the museum. Morey had studied taxidermy at Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, under the guidance of Robert Fernandes, a professor there and a taxidermist as well.

The museum witnessed its golden era between 1960 and 1999. Morey collected large dead animals and birds, besides conducting taxidermy of fish, reptiles and mammals, different types of molluscan shells, cobra, python, hornbill, wild boar, head-mounted deer, flying squirrel, king cobra, civet cat, golden cat, jungle cat, leopard cat, owl, peacocks, fowls, Malabar trogon, eagles, pangolin, woodpeckers, ibis, porcupine, loris, bats, Indian giant squirrel, jackal, mongoose, guinea pig, lemur, otter, mouse deer and crabs in marine and freshwater.

He classified all animals — from protozoa to mammals. Professors N B Inamdar, K R Karandilkar and R N Desai, too, contributed to the development of the museum.

“We would go out hunting thrice a month. I had set up a laboratory for taxidermy procedure at my house and would work day and night,” Morey, the oldest taxidermist of the country, recalls.

It was indeed a collective effort. If professor A M Patil collected molluscan shells, professor Motebennur’s choice was snake specimen and professor Lusi Lobo went for amphibians. Professors G M Philipose and M J Devdhar, too, collected animals and birds. Parashuram Morey, the lab assistant, articulated skeletons of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, while Gonappa Harapanahalli, a field collector, prepared to mount of the specimen. 

The department staff recall the great ornithologist Dr Salim Ali’s excitement when he visited the museum in 1972. “He was thrilled to see the rare Malabar trogon,” says Mangala Nayak, chairperson, Zoology Department. 

The specimens from diverse species from across North Karnataka have been stuffed.

Donations have arrived mainly from several parts of North Karnataka and a few other states. The museum has a lungfish from Africa.  A python was reared at the department between 1954-60 for taxidermy purpose. “We found it extremely tough to feed it considering lack of funds,” Morey says.

Large specimens

Preserved specimens include the African lungfish, cowfish, stingray fish, octopus, electric ray fish, otter, brain coral, scorpion with young ones, spider, leaf insect, euplectella, tortoise, viper, two-headed snake, flying lizard, catfish, starfish, flamingo, human babies, elephant heart and human brain. The osteology section has skulls of
elephant, deer, tiger, horse, goat, rabbit, alligator, monkey, tortoise, crocodile, skeletons of bat, monkey, cat, dog, bird, human, snake and tortoise shells.

Then there were none

After Morey’s retirement, there was nobody to maintain the museums due to non-availability of taxidermists for 19 years. 

Considering the decline in taxidermy, the department staff met the then Karnatak University Vice-Chancellor Pramod B Gai and played its role in appointing Naveen Pyatimani as a teaching assistant and taxidermist/museum curator in 2017.

The sensational stories behind each of these specimen draw interest for the exhibit. They also bring up larger moral questions about the impact of human lifestyle on the animal kingdom.

A S Bellad points out, “The museum is a precious source of knowledge as it has objects of high value — not only for their didactic and historiographical importance, but also for their inherent aesthetic qualities.” 

The collections include specimens that are priceless because of their rarity. The museums can enhance learning and engagement in science, particularly for students. The specimens inspire awe and wonder in the natural world and help students understand our place within the animal kingdom, she adds.

“It is the biggest such museum in the country. Some specimens are found nowhere else in Karnataka,” Morey points out. “The museum is reaching more people every day. Collections here represent a highly valuable resource for research because they include an important number of specimens with a range of origins,” says Pyatimani.

“During the meeting in February this year, Odisha University vice-chancellor Madhumitha Das, a NAAC member, remarked that she had never come across such a museum in the country,” recalls Nayak.

Need of the hour 

Nayak views the art of preserving knowledge of wildlife, particularly of endangered species, as most significant. “Undoubtedly, these are treasures. We can’t see the beauty of animals and birds if they are burnt after their death. Their beauty is lost permanently. Hence, the art gives rebirth to birds and animals,” she explains.

There are concerns that subsequent generations may not be able to see animals and birds that are classified as endangered once they are wiped out. Hence, preservation of rare species through taxidermy is important for academic purposes.  

Morey believes that relaxation of norms would only give a new lease of life to taxidermy. “We should obtain permission from forest department to claim bodies of dead animals. This consumes time that kills the golden hour for taxidermy,” he points out.

Pyatimani says rules permitting the department to hand over bodies of dead animals and birds would infuse fresh blood into the taxidermy sector.

These days, the museum regularly receives donations of dead animals and birds from alumni and the general public. Over 600 visitors, including students from all over India and  general public from Hubballi-Dharwad, visit the museum a month.

Please note

It’s open on all days, excepts Sundays and holidays, between 10.30 am and 5.30 pm. 

The museum will soon be moved to a multi-storey building in the same campus.


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