Friday, 25 November 2016

I’m sorry, Phoebe! A cautionary tale about skinning a mouse

Four of the mice that were caught, skinned and stuffed during
Biota NB 2016.
I learned an important lesson while participating in Biota NB 2016: Do not name the mouse you are about to skin. And then stuff. And then pin to a board. Do not.

This was certainly not a lesson I ever expected to learn, but on my second day of participating in Biota NB’s 2016 field season, I found myself learning just that. And as lessons are so often revealed, I learned it the hard way.

I had spent the better part of the day in the lab, photographing the activities going on therein and pestering researchers with questions. As most of the action was occurring at the small mammal table, under the leadership of Biota’s small mammal researcher Karen Vanderwolf, I spent a good chunk of my time there, happily taking photographs and observing from a distance (emphasis on distance).
Front to back: Karen Vanderwolf, Val Calvin and Ron Pine hard at
work with some mice at the small mammal table.
I thought I’d gotten away safe. It was nearing dinnertime and I was wrapping up my notes for the day when, “How about you? Do you want to skin a mouse?”

No no no no no no no no no.

“Yes, you do. Here, I’ll show you.”

Rats. Or mice or whatever.

Now this was definitely not the way I wanted to end the afternoon, but I also didn’t want to look like a wimp by saying no. So I went over to the skinning table and sat down.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a pretty soft-hearted person. I feel bad if I see a loaf of bread lying desolately all by itself after being knocked off a shelf at the grocery store. I apologize to trees if I run into them when I walk by. The possibility of skinning a mouse was so far off my bucket list that you would have needed the Hubble Telescope to see it. But here I was, joining the Biota “sewing club.”

I was handed a thawed deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) in a clear plastic bag. It was so little with its fur all spiky and cute. However, it was also cold and clammy.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. The mouse definitely seems dead, I thought. But these thoughts didn’t last for long when Karen explained to me that the mice we were skinning and stuffing had been caught that morning. Somehow the thoughts of the little mouse on the table in front of me blissfully running about just hours before did little to relieve my already great misgivings about the entire situation.

Skinning a mouse is a very delicate procedure. First you have to find the skin under its fur and make a small cut. If you cut too deeply you’ll just get a lot of blood. I let a little part of me die and made the first cut. It took a few tries.
Making the first cut.
This is where things took a turn for the worse. Karen took a look at my mouse and informed me that it was a lactating female. She handed the mouse back to me and I looked down at it and … You look like a Phoebe. Hi Phoebe.

Uh-oh.

An impossible task was just made infinitely more impossible.

The skin of a mouse is separated from its flesh by turning the skin inside out as it is pulled off the body, gently separating the connecting tissues as you go along. Pull too hard and the delicate skin will rip. Don’t pull hard enough and you won’t make any progress at all. I was left foundering in the latter category.

Come on Phoebe, that’s a girl. I was having difficulty pushing Phoebe’s leg out of the skin. For some reason I was scared of hurting her. (How was I supposed to skin something that I kept saying sorry to?) The other difficulty was how sticky the flesh was. Although there was no blood as long as you were careful (thank goodness), we had to use corn flour to absorb the fat and any blood that might be encountered accidentally.
To remove the skin from the rest of the mouse’s body, 
the skin must be pulled inside out.
Phoebe’s limbs and face required extra attention. With a mouse’s limbs, you have to push the limb out of the skin and then cut it at the ankle/wrist bone. For the face, there are a lot more connecting tissues. Special care must be taken around the jaw, ears, eyes and snout. I gave Phoebe up to Karen’s expertise for this part. With a few careful snips, Phoebe’s skin went over and off her snout and the task of skinning was complete.

Although Phoebe had started out cold and damp, as I worked at her skin, it became warm and dry. If her skin had not been clearly separated from her flesh, it would have been easy to mistake her warm skin as belonging to a living, breathing creature. This is something I tried vainly not to think about.

Phoebe’s carcass was another story. There it was lying on the table in front of me. Her little beady black eyes, from which the skin had been so carefully snipped away, stared up at me. I had to prepare the cotton stuffing with this pitiful site at the fringes of my vision.
A skinned mouse. Samples of its flesh and organs 
will be taken for further research.

Step two of my ordeal – let’s be honest, Phoebe’s ordeal – was to stuff Phoebe with cotton. To do this you have to take a thin piece of cotton stuffing and wrap it around a wire, trying to mimic the shape of the mouse’s body. This part wasn’t so bad but I don’t think I did Phoebe much justice as she was left looking a little emaciated.
Karen prepares the cotton stuffing in the shape of her mouse.
Once stuffed, the mouse is stitched up with cotton thread.
The final stages of stuffing a mouse involve putting wires in the limbs and tail. Once this is done, the mouse is stitched with cotton thread. I carefully brushed off Phoebe’s skin until it shone again, but to add insult to injury, I had to pin Phoebe to a board for the last step.
The finished product. Phoebe is in the middle, now immortalized
for further research at the museum.
Although skinning and stuffing Phoebe was definitely way out of my comfort zone, looking back on the experience has left me with a positive final impression (I’m sure being away from Phoebe’s remains helps). First of all, Phoebe wasn’t trapped and stuffed for nothing. She, along with her body and tissue and organ samples, will now be stored in the museum’s collection. Ultimately she will contribute to our understanding of her own species as well as the greater picture about the diversity of all species in the province. I also now have a greater respect for the people who have to do things like this often.


The final note I took away from the experience is a personal one. I will likely never skin another living thing for the rest of my life, but now I can say that I can do something that I would never have done otherwise – and I got a pretty cool tale (or should I say tail?) to tell out of it too.

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