Heart of a Wolverine
On a dark day in January, I took a ferry to Seattle to participate in the necropsy of a wolverine, whose body was being held at the Burke Museum. A necropsy is an autopsy for a nonhuman animal; even in probing death, we set ourselves apart. Here is how Cornell’s Wildlife Health Lab distinguishes the two terms:
The word “autopsy” comes from the roots autos (“self”) and opsis (a sight, or seeing with one’s own eyes)—so an autopsy is the examination of a body after death by someone of like species—another human.
So what do you call the post-mortem examination of an animal? The appropriate term is “necropsy,” derived from necro (“death”) and the aforementioned opsis.
Given my motivations for attending the wolverine’s necropsy, I will argue for using the above words interchangeably. That January morning, I crossed Puget Sound because I wanted to see this fellow being with my own animal eyes. I wanted to bear witness to his traumatic death in a chicken coop. Beneath all that, I wanted to learn more about myself by dissecting him.
The necropsy was carried out by the museum’s Mammalogy Collections Manager, Jeff Bradley. In this case, his job—to which he dedicates his own body, mind, and soul—was to confirm exactly why the wolverine died, while also preserving a study skin. Jeff said he has handled thousands of lifeless animals over the course of his career. This was his first time conducting a necropsy on a wolverine.
I’m still working through the unforgettable hours I spent by Jeff’s side as he disassembled a young male wolverine whose wandering instinct led him to the lethal end of a farmer’s gun.
The hard-won chicken feathers stuck to the wolverine’s fur.
The enormous leg muscles, which made it very difficult to separate tissue from bone.
The tiny testes that likely never had a chance to contribute to Washington’s recovering wolverine population.
The huge anal scent gland that burst open from pressure and sprayed a nearby wall.
The impossibly strong tail that almost did Jeff in—the tugging, pulling, tearing necessary to finally release it from its skin.
The curious looks on the children’s faces as they watched from the viewing window, their screeches of delight when Jeff displayed a tick he’d removed from the remains.
The Goth teenage girl whose t-shirt read, “Summon the Demons.”
The ghastly purple-red hematoma caused by the gunshot wound.
The sound of metal against metal when a fragment of bullet hit the exam table.
The chicken bones in the stomach, the partially digested meat.
The forever-stilled heart, about the size of a child’s fist, and Jeff’s glint of emotion as he held the heart in his hand. “You don’t feel like this when you pull out a kidney. Like this is where the magic happens.”
As you can imagine, we talked about many things that day, from the politics of wolves to Damar Hamlin’s heart attack during Monday Night Football. But as much as anything else, I recall Jeff’s statement when he cut the skin from the wolverine’s back and revealed the godawful hematoma. We were discussing the pronouns we tend to use in reference to other animals.
“I could never call this an ‘it’” Jeff said, pointing to what was once a beautiful, breathing wolverine. “Not after what we’ve been through.”
It happened that I’d been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s extraordinary book, Braiding Sweetgrass. When I got home that night, I was prompted to revisit one of her many passages that struck me as true. In her musings about animacy, Kimmerer shared the following insights:
“The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction—not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make the maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”
He was an incredible being, that wolverine. I wish the farmer had thought twice.
Paula MacKay is a conservationist and writer who has studied wolverines and other wild carnivores for the past two decades. Paula served as managing editor for Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (Island Press, 2008) and earned an MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University in 2015. She has written for numerous conservation groups, books, and magazines. Visit Paula’s website at paulamackay.com.