It is hard to describe the array of confiscated animals and animal parts that fills the shelves of the National Wildlife Property Repository, a federal warehouse on the fringes of Denver, Colorado. With multiple representatives of every species imaginable, it seems at first a bit like an ark, but a perverse one: perhaps fittingly so for our precarious ecological situation.
These animals did not walk up the gangplank as in familiar representations of the biblical scene. They arrived lifeless, inanimate: not really animals so much as things. They are arrayed not two-by-two or seven-by-seven, but scores upon scores, even by the hundreds. A fur coat may look like just one leopard, but in fact a dozen were skinned to make it; if you look closely, you can see where one dead creature ends and another begins. Tortoises, snakes, birds, deer (and pieces thereof) line industrial storage shelves from floor to ceiling; even when I climbed up the rolling step ladders, I couldn’t see over the top.
I visited this repository with my friend and colleague Britta Jaschinski, an acclaimed wildlife photojournalist who invited me to accompany her on a photo shoot. She uses her art to try to make sense of the often nonsensical ways in which people imagine animals. Her photographic sessions brought an appropriate absurdism to the scene: She placed a zebra head in a shopping cart; she turned mounted animals awkwardly upside down. She skewed the images of these animals, but they were already profoundly skewed before she got to them. She is just showing, even more starkly, what people do when we get these animals in our grips. When a human comes in contact with another animal, the other animal ends up somehow the worse for the encounter.
“Earth is experiencing a mass extinction,” Jaschinski says, explaining what she has come here to document in this repository. “Humans are wiping out entire species due to sheer greed. Trophies, trinkets and the demand for worthless cures have resulted in highly structured, armed and well-organized crimes across the globe.”
“For me, the scale of this is incomprehensible,” she continues, “but looking at the amount of confiscated wildlife products arriving at repositories across the UK and the USA, I know that this is dead serious.”
The animals Jaschinski photographs have been transformed into strange commodities: a baseball cap with a lion-fur visor; an ashtray made out of a rhinoceros foot; zebra-hide sofas; rugs (tigers, bears); rack after rack of coats and handbags. If Noah’s story embodied a single, simple mission — protecting endangered animals until the danger was past — this gruesome warehouse located in a vast, quiet field of the Great Plains testifies instead to a global and interminable enterprise of taking, rendering, killing, abusing, using, using up. Today’s ark, or anti-ark, is a tableau of extinction, not preservation.
Snakes, kangaroos and armadillos have become wallets, belts and boots. “Elixirs” and “tonics” are made from deer musk, powdered tusks and horns, seal penises, pangolin scales. This venue could be an exotic stage set for a gothic fantasy. Macbeth resonated oddly in my mind — the witches from the opening scene could have come here to collect the ingredients for their brew: “Fillet of a fenny snake, in the caldron boil and bake; eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing.” Nor would I have been surprised to bump into Hogwarts’ potions master Severus Snape.
Exploring this compound is, at first, disturbing. But after a while, as I became dulled to the grotesque spectacle, my response vacillated between sadness and absurdism.
The animals here, as a sign outside indicates, are federal “property,” and the repository, a surreal bureaucratic storehouse, is an ironic contrast to where these creatures should be “reposing” in their own world.
These animals have lost more than just their lives. They have had their integrity confiscated, along with their essence. They have become raw materials for thousands of lucrative products concocted and supplied by voracious market forces: ivory jewelry and figurines; souvenirs carved out of bones and horn; taxidermied tigers; dried geckos; birds of all feathers and feathers without birds. Everywhere you look, in bags and boxes, there are innumerable parts (about which Jaschinski remarks: “Surely these body parts are of no use to anyone but the animals themselves”). Leather and fur pelts, teeth, bones, scales, beaks, fangs, pouches, talons, hooves; lots of claws and skulls; turtles in their shells and shells removed from turtles; porcupine quills; eggs; antlers; mounted elk heads; and leathery dried frogs — an army of frogs.
As an English professor who writes about animals, I am familiar with the obscurely bizarre terminology (“nouns of assembly” or “terms of venery”) used to describe collective groups of other species: a convocation of eagles, a band of gorillas, a kettle of hawks, a parliament of owls, an army of frogs. “Venery” is a very old word that describes the “sport” — not a characterization I would endorse, since none of this seems very sporting — of chasing and hunting other animals. The cleverly idiosyncratic vocabulary is meant to reflect the cleverly idiosyncratic practices people have invented of chasing, killing and desecrating all creatures great and small. This Colorado repository, a memorial site for caught-trapped-killed-mutilated dead animals, spurred me to reflect on the taxonomies and the discourse of ownership that people devise to describe the vast multiplicity of animal life that we hunt and harvest: herds and pods, litters and plumps, bevies, covies, prides, bouquets (as in “bouquet” of pheasants).
I wonder how these so-called “bouquets,” “armies” and “plumps” themselves think about their groups, their society, their collective presence in the world.
The frogs formed a tawdry “army.” If their “troops” had been in a war, a defensive resistance against the incursions of marauding human beings on their habitats … well, they appear to have lost ignominiously. They were tied together, a few dozen of them, in a wild mess of, I imagine, froggy souvenirs that could be hung from a stall. Though not really wild: unwilded, more accurately. Stripped of their wildness, their nature, their freedom to be frogs. Unfrogged, defrogged. If I could coin my own noun of assembly, I would call this group an absence of frogs.
Why does this happen? Who would want to make, or sell, or buy, or smuggle, or wear or eat this stuff? These were my initial thoughts as I wandered through the repository, but after a while I gave up wondering, and I just felt dirty, embarrassed to be human. There is so much exploitation and commodification, so much harvesting, so much taking, that the scale becomes overwhelming. I just wished that people could leave all these other animals alone. The animals were (to my mind) so valuable in their original state, and so debased, now that they had become — in a human economy — “valuable.”
The numbers of artifacts here — about 1.5 million, the administrators told me — is both huge and trivial; trivial compared to the number of animals who are actually poached for their parts, their perceived beauty and power, which people “celebrate” by taking it away from them and trying to cloak themselves in it. This warehouse’s contents are not by any means all the inventory that has been confiscated; rather, it is a representative sampling, an archive, of endangered and illegally imported “products” that the US Fish and Wildlife Service keeps for the purposes of conservation education. Their lesson is a simple negative exemplum: Don’t do this.
It is upsetting to see these pieces and pelts just on their own terms. The shelves display tatty, gaudy testimony of all the weird ways people use animals. It is even more disquieting to extrapolate what these artifacts suggest about how we envision the world around us. We don’t do a very good job of custodianship; we distinguish ourselves among the world’s animal species by the voracity and fanaticism with which we attack and destroy every other creature we can get our hands on. This repository betrays our ecological and ethical failure, our ignorance. We need to do a better job of understanding our relationship, our proper relationship, to the world around us, our habitats, our cohabitants.