Of every surviving object, text, photograph, and machine in Northwest history, a six-foot-six taxidermied gorilla is what people most want to see with their own eyes. Since the new Museum of History & Industry opened last month, the museum has attracted 30,000 visitors—as many as the old MOHAI facility got in a whole year—but people keep asking what an online commenter wrote in response to a story in The Stranger: "But WHAT. ABOUT. BOBO!?"
"There can be no taxidermy without desire," writes Rachel Poliquin in The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, her new book (she'll read at Elliott Bay February 9). In a survey last year, thousands of visitors voted Bobo their favorite part of MOHAI. Why do we love Bobo?
The Breathless Zoo describes Bobo's context: the cultural history of taxidermy—distinguished from other forms of preservation by posing dead animals "as if they were alive"—going back to the 1600s. The story is hilarious, eccentric, tragic, and conflicted. It begins badly. A stunning photograph of two ocelots in a Berlin museum shows one that's correct alongside an insanely deformed one created by a taxidermist who'd never laid eyes on the animal—it resembles the Jesus painting the old lady "restored" in the Spanish church last year. It is the funniest, or creepiest, or saddest thing ever.
"The Victorians were quite literally and without the least exaggeration absolutely besotted with hummingbirds," Poliquin writes. But animals on ships from "exotic" locales to Europe almost always died, so Victorians never saw actual hummingbirds in flight—they relied on stories about their magical fluttering, and taxidermy. Early taxidermy was about inducing wonder: "prolonging the emotional encounter of unknowing." When I came upon Bobo during his relocation from the old MOHAI, I found myself face-to-face with him with his case open. The closer I leaned in, the more I was uncomfortably aware that getting close relied utterly on his death. I pitied and loved and feared him all at once.
Bobo is currently standing in his glass case in a warehouse in Georgetown. Last year, taxidermists—a local family named the Klineburgers, who stuffed him in the first place—vacuumed him, once again, and again combed his hair and repaired his skin with putty, redyed and repainted him. He has endured restorations before. This one is for a reintroduction later this year, when a new Bobo exhibit will open. He'll be reintroduced into the wilds of history-telling—into yet another life. The museum is still figuring out how to present him this time around.
Bobo's first life was his first two weeks, in Africa, in 1951. An American gorilla hunter hauled him to Ohio, where he was bought by an Anacortes man with two daughters. He lived as their sibling for two and a half years until he became unmanageable and went to the Woodland Park Zoo, where he was a major attraction until his death in 1968. Soon after, he was born again—dead and taxidermied—at MOHAI, where he became just as popular. "He represents an affection for a simpler Seattle," says Leonard Garfield, executive director of MOHAI. "He was part of a postwar community that could say, 'Our version of celebrity is an animal at the zoo.'"
By the 1960s, many museums were ashamed of taxidermy collections. In Essex, England, hundreds of animals were taken out and systematically burned, Poliquin writes. MOHAI dispensed with its taxidermy in the 1970s, giving it away, Garfield said. But Bobo stayed. He was part of history, not just representative of a species.
Since his death, Bobo has been posed standing, "like he's going to give you a handshake and a hug," Garfield says. Scientists were horrified when the Klineburgers made the decision to pose Bobo upright. But Woodland Park Zoo director Frank Vincenzi understood that Bobo was an individual—however incompletely understood and semifictional—when he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time that "Bobo was one of the few gorillas I ever saw that liked to walk upright. It's nice to remember him that way."
"Bobo died for our sins," Garfield says, summarizing how awkward it's become to display dead animals in a time of ecological awareness, in which taxidermy represents fashionable camp or outright backwardness.
Early on, taxidermy was associated with refinement and the moral rectitude of naturalist study. It branched out into propaganda: dioramas of savagery that validated Europe's colonial adventures or, by the 20th century, harmonious environmental scenes. Galileo once called carcass collectors "curious little men," and taxidermy has always been the kid brother to science. "By the time taxidermy achieved a level of preservation that could be serviceable for natural science"—the use of arsenic ended infestation around 1820—"science had surpassed whatever knowledge taxidermy might offer," writes Poliquin. Poor taxidermy.
It instead became the province of trophy hunters, cutesy anthropomorphizers, pet preservers. Poliquin explains the decorating craze for vintage taxidermy by pointing out that reappropriated trophies are someone else's kills. "We can indulge in irresponsible fantasies when they are not of our own era."
Artists may be taxidermy's best stewards. Seattle's Jim Rittimann sews together electrifying reanimated hybrid creatures from roadkill. Anthony Sonnenberg uses taxidermy to represent the gap between him and Texas, where he grew up. Jason Dodge once made a series of taxidermied owls with gems sewn inside them: rubies, emeralds, tourmalines. Or maybe nothing's actually in there. But something sure seems to be.