Tag Archives: taxidermy

Roadside Distraction

Every year for the last ten-ish years, I have driven through Florida on vacation, and have noted garish billboards for a chain of gas station/tourist traps, which promise such inviting sights as jams, shell sculptures, and “gator heads”.  Previously I’ve successfully avoided stopping at one, but this year the car got thirsty and I ended up gazing at…probably not the most garish collection of tourist tchotchkes I’ve ever witnessed, but definitely one of the top five.

Amongst a mind-boggling array of products based on the loosely local products of rum, sea shells, and oranges, I found these sad little creatures.

dog sharks in jars

They appear to be juvenile dogfish sharks (a formerly reasonably common species which is becoming, for some reason, a tad overfished) and the word “SHARK” under them is the extent of their labeling, except for the price ($19.95) on a sticker underneath.  The jars are just jammed into those circles of styrofoam.  Educational?  Decorative?  Surely they are not meant to be gifts?

In trying to find the origin of the “shark in a jar” concept (what motivates this kind of behavior?), I note that this has been going on for a while, and is not an isolated phenomenon (although I am glad to note it seems confined to “tropical” locales).  In fact, if you for some reason need a jarred shark, you can get one online right now, in large quantities if need be.

Where are all these baby sharks coming from?  They are almost certainly a byproduct of another business, probably fishing the adult sharks for meat or research.  Should we be happy that we’re at least using all the parts of the sharks, even for a purpose this frivolous?  Or should we be terrified that we are processing so many of these sharks that we have this many — specifically juvenile, specifically this size — left over?  What is happening to the other non-meat bits of the sharks?  To the babies which happen to be smaller or larger than these jars?

Either way, I won’t be buying one for my friends back home.  If these are meant to be decorative, surely there is something else which can replace them on a shelf; if they are supposed to be educational, surely there is something more detailed and useful which can be used for reference; and, if they are meant as gifts, surely there is some other way to show affection.

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In What Way Is This Educational?

Every time I research Horrifying Thing A, I discover Horrifying Things B and C.

This afternoon I visited Horrifying Thing A: “Bodies Revealed“, which succeeds even less at convincing me that it is an entirely education-driven venture than did Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds“, the original exhibition, which I saw years ago in Chicago.  Alas, I am not at this moment equipped to compare them (beyond saying that “Bodies Revealed” is but a sad, faint reflection of “Body Worlds”) or to comment on whether they are “educational” or “exploitative” (probably both, although “Body Worlds” has an edge on being, at some level, actual education).  I am an artist as well as a former worker with large carnivores; I am no stranger to dead things.  The anatomy, as well as the relation to art, fascinates me.  The topic which requires further consideration for me is a more moral angle: what is this exhibition for?  Why should I be giving it money (or not)?  How does it relate to other uses of dead things I have previously encountered, either thought-provoking, ridiculous or theoretically useful?  Why do human carcasses demand a more reverential attitude than do animal carcasses?

While looking around on the “Body Worlds” site for more information about the plastinates, trying to figure out what I did think about it all, I discovered Horrifying Thing B: von Hagens has an online store, in which “qualified users” can purchase actual plastinated human parts (as well as “formalin fixed specimens“).  Little wonder there is no photo available for the “wet whole body specimen, male, covered with skin”.  Okay, I can see how university anatomy departments might be really excited about the opportunity to get one of these, and I certainly support their use in education, but maybe they don’t need a publicly accessible web store.  More stuff for my brain to process (“Is it art?  Is it wholesale exploitationHow can he sell themWhere does he get all these people?  Is education worth the inevitable collateral of people buying these as coffee table decoration?  Is it okay if the bodies are all willing donors?”) later.

The site also notes that “Body Worlds” has some animal plastinates sprinkled in among the humans (my personal favorite is “Horse and Rider“, which in person embodies the word “awe-inspiring”).  In 2010 the animals got their own exhibition, “Body Worlds of Animals“.  This is, on the whole, all right.  We use dead animals, for better or worse, as educational tools all the time, and I’d rather see a dead animal made useful in some way than tossed in the trash.  However, Horrifying Thing C, today, was the discovery that the “Body Worlds” store is selling jewelry made of delicate, individual slices of plastinated fruit and, er, animal parts:

Those charming red circles are plastinated sagittal sections through a bull penis.  There are, of course, a matching bracelet and earrings.  They seem to have a lot of extra bull penises around the place, don’t they?

While part of me is desperate to get one of these for my mother-in-law, most of me is firmly in the “that ain’t right” camp.  There’s no way this is “educational”, and it’s sort of skirting the edge of being “art”.  I don’t mind animals (and, in many cases, consenting humans) being used for actual education, but I have problems with the gratuitous use of animal parts in art, especially if the animals are slaughtered especially so the art can occur.  I don’t think I need to be buying any of these, even if they are (as is likely) just using slaughter remnants of animals which are being butchered for meat and thoroughly used anyway.  My strongest feeling here, though, is that in no other context would anyone willingly wear goat testicles as fashion accessories.