by Sarah Hart
Ben gently smooths the nighthawk’s feathers with his thumb, and then pushes the large, curved needle through the skin near its eye socket. “It’s so sad,” he says, “to think of how this animal died. But now at least its story will go on.”
The bird he holds, like so many of the animals sophomore Ben Wrazen gives his attention to every week, was killed by a car before it made its way into a freezer in one of the labs in Freer. Ben transforms these donated and collected carcasses into specimens which are used for instruction in various science classes. He prepares the animals by skinning them, cleaning the skin thoroughly, and then sewing it back together around a stuffing of cotton. Although not high-end taxidermy, the animals do reclaim a recognizable shape. Other animals, especially if their skin is very damaged, get placed in with a colony of flesh-eating beetles who dispense with all soft bits, leaving clean, save-able, bones. Once prepared, the specimens can remain intact in PSC’s collection for many decades.
What these specimens allow is a close encounter. They allow students to see and feel the animal in a way that would almost certainly never happen if the animal was alive and in the wild. It’s an experience that I, for one, found unexpectedly moving. To examine closely the massive curve and sharp edge of a great horned owl’s talons is to imagine, with a new vividness, their power. To touch the tough but pliable rope of a muskrat’s tail, or the dense softness of snowshoe hare fur, is to be awed by the elaborate adaptations that make these species successful. Holding a raven’s skull, seeing for the first time the little feathers that frame its huge beak, and the roughened edge of that beak, unique to that bird, forged by that bird’s life, was an experience of intimacy. Face-to-face with this individual, I felt reverence for its remains.
What Ben hopes is that encounters such as these will inspire respect and greater consideration for animals. “Being close lets you know them in a way you just can’t from books or pictures,” he said. “It really lets you appreciate them.” He sees his work as taking the tragedy of what’s often an accidental or violent death, and putting it to a positive purpose. It is from specimens, he explains, that we have learned the vast majority of what we know about animals. And knowledge, he believes, leads to respect. “I hate to think of how these animals died – but I guess this is my way of making something good from it. It’s my way of honoring the animal.”
Concern for the value of life and the ethics of death – as well as a keen curiosity about the natural world – were both instilled in Ben at a young age. Ben grew up in western NY, outside of Buffalo. His parents are not farmers or hunters, but he grew up in community where much of the land is still small-scale family farms, many of them in the same family for generations. Ben’s only sibling, a brother, is nine years older and didn’t share his interests, so Ben grew up exploring the land on his own, and also spending much time on neighbors’ farms, helping out. “A lot of my friends at home are 70 plus,” he said, smiling. “I learn a lot of wisdom from them – I feel lucky for that.”
Farming has had a major influence on Ben’s value system, because of how it highlights cycles of life and death, and the close relationship between the two. “When you plow, you’re killing so many things – even while at the same time planting new life,” he said. And on any given day on a farm, one cow “may get taken away – his life over – and same day, a calf is born.”
For Ben, tracking animals, and really trying to observe them in the wild, has also been a key part of shaping him into a naturalist and environmentalist. Here at Paul Smith’s, Ben likes to go out at night with a Coleman lamp – a very different experience than a flashlight – to watch and listen. He’s also spent many hours following deer. “You can learn so much about an ecosystem, if you follow deer,” he said. Ben credits tracking and observation with the development of “unconscious knowledge”: the sort of understanding of land and an ecosystem that is as much instinct as it is conscious.
Ben’s passionate respect for wild animals, in their wild habitat, leaves him ambivalent about captivity – even in case of animal rehabilitation. “Although it’s good that people can learn from them, you have to think about the animal, too.” It may be, Ben believes, that sometimes death is preferable to a compromised life.
Ben also has mixed feelings about hunting. Hunting can lead to closeness and connection to the natural world, and hunters are some of the strongest advocates for conservation. Ben hunts occasionally, because although he hates killing animals, he feels it is an important experience to procure his own meat. But, when hunting reduces animals to products to be acquired, or raises a demand for their death… Ben shakes his head. “I don’t like to see animals suffering – that’s what really gets me,” he said.
Ben rescues animals when he finds them in need. He told me about one of his more recent rescues: two years ago he found a pure white cat who is also completely deaf, and had been abandoned in the woods. “I just don’t understand it,” he said. “How could someone could do that? Just leave him like that. That person couldn’t find the courage to do the right thing.”
Ben has been collecting treasures from the natural world since an early age. As a child he collected rocks, feathers, and cicada husks. Around the age of 15, he started to accumulate what amounts to his own natural history museum, currently housed in his parents’ basement. It is an eclectic collection of hundreds of antlers, furs, and found-taxidermy, originating from all over the world. He’s already brought some of the pieces into local high schools, as teaching aids. Where did his pieces come from? “Some of them people gave to me,” he said, “or I find them after they’ve been thrown away.” Sometimes, also, he buys them. One acquisition he told me about, a buffalo skin rug, he bought because it was otherwise just going to be left in a storage unit. “ And it deserves better than that,” Ben said.
Ben’s primary fascination is ecology and the natural world. But he is a student of human history, too. Learning about the holocaust and the historic roots of various prejudices has taught him, he said, about suffering, and how people respond to suffering.
At the close of our interview, Ben showed me the cabinet where many of Paul Smith’s specimens are kept. The wing of a great blue heron took an entire drawer. He held it while I took a picture. “Forgive me for not smiling,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right, not when you’re holding these.” Then somberly, with reverence, he placed it back down.
Last year, Ben started the Natural History Club. Slogan: “Because you’re already a part of it.”
A muskrat, killed by a dog, that Ben hopes to prepare, after it thaws.