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26 June 2017updated 27 Jun 2017 10:58am

The tale of a stuffed echidna: what we see when we look at animals

Picasso, missing nipples and how we relate to other species. 

By Yo Zushi

Sometime in the 1940s, Pablo Picasso emerged from a cave in south-western France in a rare mood of humility. The Lascaux cave was occupied by humans in the Upper Palaeolithic Age; it was discovered more or less untouched as war raged across much of Europe. Scrawled on to its stone walls more than 17,000 years earlier were images of bulls, 12 feet long; a spindly-horned deer of the extinct Megaloceros genus; stags, aurochs, cantering dun horses; a dude with a bird head having an altercation with a bison. The animals seemed in endless motion. They flowed. They were crudely rendered but each composition was alive with the hidden harmony of things.

“We have invented nothing,” said Picasso, reflecting on what he had seen inside. By “we”, the painter meant the artistic and cultural vanguard of the early 20th century that had challenged the long-held assumptions of Western art, jettisoning (or, at least, reconfiguring) traditions that had calcified into a sort of rulebook since the Renaissance painters showed us all how it was done. For Picasso, Matisse and others, immediacy trumped “good sense” or mere technique. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael,” Picasso later declared, “but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

But painting like a child – freely, expressively, unconstrained by convention – was something human beings had been working at since the very beginning. It was nothing new. And, as all children do, the earliest of our species chose animals as their subject. This was a natural choice, since, as John Berger wrote in About Looking, animals were “with man at the centre of his world” until as recently as the 19th century: we depended on them for “food, work, transport, clothing”, and saw in them magic and kinship. Today, for most of us, they are a marginal presence, locked up in zoos; or they have been transfigured into toys and cartoons and logos and mascots; or they crop up sliced in our sandwich, or boiled into jelly in our Haribo. We can coo over cats and think of dogs as our best friend, while thinking nothing of killing 56 billion other animals for food each year. It’s a case of us versus them. 

Yet they remain a part of us, as we are a part of them. At the Grant Museum of Zoology in Bloomsbury, London, I looked up at a balcony display of five skeletons, arranged as if in a police line-up. Beneath them were their identities: orang-utan, chimpanzee, human, gorilla and gibbon. I asked the museum’s manager, Jack Ashby, whether he was trying to bridge the gap between animal and human by arranging the bones in such a way. He told me, “There is no gap. Up there are five different kinds of ape. Humans are displayed as a part of the animal kingdom . . . It’s interesting and important that, if you look at those five apes, it’s quite hard to tell the difference between them.” 

It was true. Stripped of all flesh, the chimpanzee and the human next to it looked like closely related cousins. The English surrealist painter and zoologist Desmond Morris once said that he viewed his fellow man “not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape”. But how far had we really risen?

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I was at the Grant Museum to ask Ashby about its taxidermy conservation project “Fluff It Up”, in which several stuffed animal skins from its collection – some over a century old – are currently being restored to their former splendour. The specimens being repaired have been replaced in their glass cabinets, for the time being, by cuddly toys. And so it was that I stood with Ashby, a 35-year-old Cambridge graduate with an infectious enthusiasm for dusty, dead beasts, gazing at a fairground-prize-style doll representing an Australian echidna.

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He told me the story of the absent echidna, whose feet had been positioned the wrong way by the original taxidermist back in the 19th century. Such errors were frequent. “Taxidermists often wouldn’t have seen the whole animal, let alone the live animal,” he explained, so they had to rely on guesswork. The settlement of Australia, which began in earnest in 1788, resulted in “a huge interest in marsupials and other [newly discovered] mammals – six-foot-tall, hopping kangaroos, these really strange, weird animals”, he continued. Echidnas and particularly platypuses – egg-layers – had “a huge amount of controversy around them, because there were no other mammals known to lay eggs. And these were obviously mammals, because they had fur and a few other mammalian characteristics: the way the jaw was arranged, the way the ankles looked. But echidnas didn’t have nipples.” 

I asked Ashby why this was so disturbing for natural historians in Europe. “Well, a defining characteristic of mammals is that they produce milk – ‘mammal’ comes from ‘mammary’,” he said. “Echidnas do produce milk, but it kind of oozes out of their skin, like sweat, and the young lap it up.” They were freaky.

Meanwhile, it took almost a century to demonstrate that the creatures did, in fact, lay eggs. Resistance to the theory was fierce. “I think that the people arguing against all this were uncomfortable with the idea of mammals doing something so reptilian as laying eggs, as it pulled the mammalian class down into the mud with the reptiles and the amphibians,” Ashby said. The way echidnas reproduced upset “the idea of the hierarchy of animal kind – that mammals are better than everything else, with man at the top of the tree”. So the natural historians of the 19th century were engaged in a debate about animals that was, in reality, a debate about themselves: one about humanity, and where we fit in the order of things.

Since July 2012, when an international group of scientists gathered at Cambridge University to refute the notion that consciousness was exclusive to mankind, there has been a growing consensus that many non-human species have an awareness of themselves not dissimilar to our own. We eat animals, we wear their skin, we forcibly domesticate them and exploit them in almost every conceivable way, but they are more like us than we are sometimes willing to admit.

Despite this likeness, they remain an other. It’s difficult to think of echidnas and cows as our fellows, especially since they can’t talk and tell us how they feel, or what they’re thinking. Yet throughout human history, we have talked through them – they have been symbols of our own inner lives. Picasso once said that an artist “paints not what he sees, but what he feels”. If he was right, those cave paintings in France were representative of how early man experienced the world, rather than what those animals were truly like. I suppose that’s what gives the images such power, millennia after they were scrawled on to those cold, stone walls. Human beings are Earth’s great narcissists. When we look at animals, we’re looking for our own reflection.