By Stephanie Rollizo, Faculty Secretary, Biological Sciences
Megerle Laboratory 405 has housed some special guests for more than 40 years.
The heads of a Cape buffalo from southern Africa, a North American caribou (a.k.a. reindeer), and a Central African topi (a subspecies of antelope) have long surprised students and visitors on the fourth floor of Megerle Science.
“They were in the lab when I was a freshman in 1973,” states Kathy Bobbitt ’76 M’78, a Wagner bacteriology (now known as microbiology) major who went on to earn her Ph.D. at St. John’s University. She’s now an associate professor of biological sciences at Wagner.
In 1973, Wagner President Arthur O. Davidson received an African hunting trophy collection from the estate of Lauritz Melchior H’50 (1890–1973), a famous opera singer and friend of the College. The collection comprised 41 trophies, including a reedbuck from Kenya and “a world-record (14 and 4/8”) bushbuck from Mozambique,” according to a 1973 article in the Wagner archives. Over the years, unfortunately, most of collection has been lost.
According to a small plaque that has survived all these years, the topi was a trophy of the Chapin Ruwenzori Expedition, Kenya, 1926. Today, this area is called the Rwenzori Mountains, which cross the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; but in 1926, all of that land was part of the British Colony of Kenya. James Paul Chapin (1889–1964) was an interesting man who worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and it is quite possible Lauritz Melchior was with this hunter/taxidermist on this expedition.
About a year ago, the biology department decided to refurbish the three animals, which were showing their age at almost a century old. This summer, Professor Linda Raths and I led this new adventure that took us and our animals to Queens, where taxidermist John Youngaitis — the last tradesman of his kind in New York City — operates his business.
It wasn’t easy; the largest trophy, the Cape buffalo, is more than two feet wide and weighs around 50 pounds. Fortunately Jonathan Blaize, assistant professor of biological sciences, came to our aide in transporting the trophies via Wagner College van.
During their four-week rehabilitation process, the animals were thoroughly cleaned, their fur was conditioned, and frayed areas were patched. The taxidermist expertly repaired the topi’s cracked nose and enhanced all three with hand painting to refresh the noses and eyes. With Public Safety setting us up for the return trip, Facilities helping with the move, and freshly painted walls courtesy of Campus Operations, our endeavor culminated with our animal family proudly displayed back in the lab.