I have found my spirit animal.
Or perhaps a few spirit animals. Because here at the Dead Zoo, also known as the Natural History Museum, I am like a child in a toy shop. I want to take all the creatures home. We’ll begin with the cheetah, a vampire bat or two and the long-nosed bandicoot.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the glass display cabinets reverberate with voices. The basking shark, suspended from the ceiling on the first floor, shudders from feet running around upstairs. The hall is full of children remarkably unphased by the dead things: I remember being terrified of taxidermy as a child, even with the friendly example of the Gump from Return to Oz. It’s still something of a test for me to walk past the hundreds of glassy eyes and little outstretched claws in this building. For so many years I was a vegetarian...
But that’s what makes a trip to the Dead Zoo worthwhile: the tension between sinister and beautiful.
I do a full circuit of the hall before asking for directions to the creepiest exhibit of all, known as the ‘Black Swallower’. It would be marvellous if the Black Swallower was a kraken or some other minor form of cryptid, but it’s not. Its an eel that choked while trying to swallow another eel. I am told it’s not on display, but there’s the consolation prize of another ‘kamikaze eel’ which died attempting to eat a whole frog. Their dismal struggle is frozen in a jar of green formaldehyde, very much worth the time it takes to look for it.
Sea life, it appears, is where nature and science fiction overlap. For every pallid strip of salmon under plastic (some of the exhibits here wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves at Lidl) there’s some psychedelic mutant with bug eyes and fins stretched five feet across a wall. One ludicrous sturgeon would be taller than me if stood upright, and on the far wall there’s a coal-black lobster, the largest ever caught on Irish shores, raising claws that look to be twice the rest of its body’s weight. The marine creatures all have that glassy, vaguely offended look, as though wishing they could just get back to their sea-business. Their names are almost too marvellous to be real: the ‘Great Silver Smelt’, the ‘Spoon Worm’, and the ‘Poor Cod’, born deserving sympathy.
It’s easy to miss the smaller, stranger exhibits in favour of the big ones. The museum has no shortage of those polite scenes of families of foxes curled up to sleep or choirs of birds assembled on twigs, taxidermy I imagine was made for tidy Victorian dining rooms. But on one shelf I find a series of bird foetuses in jars in various stages of development, and hidden behind a case of songbirds I find another, grislier tableau: a peregrine falcon arranged in the act of murdering another bird, in front of two bloodthirsty falcon babies (apparently they are called eyasses). There are feathers all over the case, blood smeared on beaks and scenery. It’s creepy as hell, a dead simulation of dying.
And on the second floor they keep the predators: an elephant, several wolves, and a model rhinoceros. A case full of big cats and one or two hyenas, all watched over by a life-size model of a whale which gives me vertigo just looking up at it. It is only here, standing in front of a stuffed lion, that I notice one little girl is crying and refusing to look.
I’m beginning to feel on edge myself. Every column is lined with antlers on this floor and sometimes you have to duck to avoid becoming tangled in them as you pass. I keep relaxing then looking up to find I'm standing under something's severed head. Only now, in the presence of these zoo creatures, I realise that most of the Irish wildlife downstairs is just as exotic to me. I never see badgers day-to-day, or stoats, or giant lobsters, or any animals, really, apart from my dog. I’m intimidated enough by dead animals in glass boxes.
Still, there’s something very admirable about the work of the Natural History Museum. Even insects too small to see are afforded a home here, in a cabinet amusingly labeled ‘True Bugs’. Under the glass I find ‘a solitary bee’ and a variety of book louse hardly larger than the tip of the pin it is displayed on. There’s a sense of a world contained within this creaky building, a kind of dead Ark with one of every creature from the epauletted bat to the pangolin to Townsend’s Mole (disappointingly not named for the author of Adrian Mole). I even find, at the back, a human skeleton, and what looks like a human brain inside a jar.
And there is still more hidden from public view: in July 2007 the 150-year-old stairway famously collapsed, injuring eleven, and the two upper galleries remain closed off seven years later. The Irish Times reported that up there is a death’s head hawkmoth, the type Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs was so mad about, as well as a reptile collection and a dodo.
I’m particularly sad about the dodo: its London equivalent is by far my favourite thing about the UK’s Natural History Museum, all the more charmingly strange for the fact that it is actually a dodo composite (all the dodos were gone, so they had to assemble one from parts of other birds, creating a Franken-dodo). I have made the pilgrimage there on stressful days, just to stand in front of the dodo and find calm in his beady eyes. It would be lovely to be able to do the same here in Dublin, where the dodos are whole, but lonely for visitors.
Please, Irish government, dear Minister for Taxidermied Animals, whoever it is that forgot about the funding to restore the museum, please consider the dodo. And all the other creatures. The Dead Zoo deserves to be restored to its lovely morbid best.