Author: Richie DeMaria
In February 1952, Occidental College opened the Moore Laboratory of Zoology. Named after famed ornithologist and Pasadena resident Dr. Robert T. Moore, who bequeathed his bird collection to the college, the new lab held the world’s largest collection of Mexican birds.
When he gave his inaugural address for the lab’s founding, Moore did not speak initially on the collection and did not specifically mention birds until midway through. Instead, he spent more than half of his speech on the subject of poetry.
“Poetry is too fragile a bird of freedom to become the captive of one cult,” he said, calling for wider popular readership.
Besides the zoological lab, he hoped the new building would function as a library for pieces that won Occidental Poetry Awards, an award which is no longer given out.
“Uninspired verse, whether hardened into fossil chicks or infertile eggs incapable of incubation, will not be accepted,” he said.
At present, the Moore Lab serves only a systematic biological purpose, but a scientific poetry is housed in its many zinc filing cabinets. Inside them, meticulously arranged, lie thousands of cotton-stuffed bird skins with plumage intact – sunset-chested orioles, iridescent trogons, regal woodpeckers. There is something poetic about this arrangement – the ordering of beauty into lines, the measured and even rhythmic display of nature’s imagination.
Take a tour of the lab with its enthused director and curator, Biology Professor Dr. John Hafner, and you will hear him wax poetic about the lab’s 64,121 bird and mammal specimens, of their beautiful feathers and precise preparation. “Occidental is extremely fortunate to have a collection of this magnitude on this campus,” he said. “It’s really a jewel.”
The lab amassed the collections of Moore and his hired hand Chester C. Lamb, who found and prepared more than 40,000 of the specimens between 1933 and 1955. The lab is the 15th largest bird collection in North America, the 32nd largest bird collection in the world, and the world’s ninth largest bird collection associated with a college or university, according to Hafner. The lab hosts 75 type specimens – the typical, representative species from which a taxon may take its name – a rarity for most collections, Hafner said.
Few, however, know about this ornithological treasure trove. The lab is used as a research collection for the documentation and systematization of the Mexican and American bird and mammal taxa. “It is a place that documents life on earth,” Hafner said.
Hafner has directed the lab since 1982. Scientists from other universities, graduate students and the occasional Oxy undergrad – a total of 74 students since Hafner assumed the helm – have used the facility for research. Researchers may take tissue samples for genetic analyses or use the lab’s exhaustive cataloging to compare species’ ancestry and geography.
At present, only one undergraduate, Curatorial Assistant Fiona Gowen (senior), assists in research, working with Hafner on a study of kangaroo rats.
The lab houses several jarred specimens, but is most remarkable for the stuffed collections prepared by Lamb. Lamb did the vast majority of the collecting, spending 20 years in Mexico and periodically mailing samples to Moore, who was a biologist at UC Berkeley at the time. There, he lived in meager conditions, receiving further funding from Moore only upon the delivery of new samples, Hafner said.
The lab’s thousands of samples, arranged phylogenetically according to evolutionary lineage, demonstrate Lamb’s skill and tenacity. Lamb prepared the birds, doing in half an hour what would take most skilled taxonomists two hours, Hafner said. To prepare the birds for storage, Lamb first skinned the birds “like a glove from a hand,” Hafner said, discarding their skeletons, organs and muscles. Then he inserted a stiff stick for stability, stuffed the skins with cotton, severed the elbows and knees for rigidity, crossed the legs and sewed the skins back up.
The result is lifeless and un-lifelike, but indisputably vibrant. The birds’ pristine plumages belie a long entombment – these birds have been dead for over half a century.
To ensure their lasting preservation, Hafner and Gowen cryofumigated the specimens last year, deep-freezing them twice to kill off insects and preserve the skins. Gowen and Hafner are currently designing and implementing a pest management system.
Now, with the lab’s two caretakers set to leave in a few months – Hafner will retire in August and Gowen will graduate in May – the lab faces an uncertain future. Hafner hopes his as-yet undetermined successor will continue his dedicated curatorial work and research, and even expand the lab’s research capabilities and reputation. “It needs another full-time professional person to bring appropriate stature and recognition to the collection,” he said.
Gowen hopes the lab may be used more frequently in undergraduate classes. “One of the things I would like to see is increased use of our teaching collection, especially for classes that focus on birds,” she said. “I think it is difficult to study organismal biology without being able to see in person what you are studying. Biology doesn’t just happen in textbooks.”
Ideally, the new staff will not only preserve Lamb’s poetic preparations, but continue to add to their reputation and usage. Though the bird and mammals are forever fixed in time, the poetry of the lab needs constant revision. With the right caretakers and more undergraduate access, Moore and Lamb’s work, and Hafner’s efforts to maintain their work, will not decay but will – like verse with generations of readers – remain preserved.
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