Bone Room Meditations XIII: Shelf Marks (Part II – Order Carnivora, Family Felidae)

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

To the right of the sliding storage units holding the Narwhal bones, (see Bone Room Meditations XII: shelf numbers (Part I)) there are a series of very ordinary cardboard boxes. These hold the defleshed remains of a variety of cat species. Most of these specimens come from zoos, a fact which only serves to underline the contradictory nature of our relationship to these fearsomely robust yet tragically vulnerable predators; all of whom share much the same body template and most of the genetic heritage of the household tabby that purrs engagingly on your lap at home.

The first box that I opened contained the delicate bones of a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Jacqui pointed out the extraordinary, sculptural muscle attachments. The scapula had a waxy shell-like translucency. The skull was finely wrought and as light as a feather. This creature, operating as it does on the very limits of calorific economy, is a potent symbol of the dangers of over-specialisation. If the kill is not successful then what a price to pay, in calories, for the fastest animal on land … I am also reminded of the fact that  young cheetahs copy the songs of birds to disguise themselves from other cheetahs, their own cannibalistic nature offering a threat to the continued existence of this very ‘atypical’ species.

Next, the even more delicate skeleton of a juvenile snow leopard (Uncia uncia). Jacqui pointed out that the bones on the skull were not yet fused. This was a snow leopard kitten. There is something very poignant about this skeleton. The almost sacred emblem of a failure to breed this rare and beautiful creature in captivity.

Finally, the remains of a tiger (Panthera tigris).

One of the few animals that, if encountered in its own (dwindling) kingdom, we would really have to fear. This skeleton shows signs of osteoporosis; it is an old tiger that probably spent much of its life pacing within the confines of a man-made enclosure; living out its strange, unknowable, instinctive existence far from the jungles for which its powerful structure and sublimely beautiful markings (surely these markings are as beautiful to the tiger as they are to us?) have evolved.

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