Wednesday 14 November 2012

A letter to share

I was surprised to get this lovely email tonight from John Darby who was responsible for getting the Lawrence Lions for the Otago Museum. Luckily the book has already been printed as some of his comments conjure up some interesting pictures!
Hi Clare,
Firstly, congratulations on your little book, I managed to buy a copy when I recently went through Lawrence. I do like it, especially the illustrations. Not sure if the following is of any interest, but I was the person that negotiated the Lawrence Lions for the museum. There are one or two quite interesting stories behind the acquisition that I doubt that have been recorded and these may be of interest to you.
Firstly, was the problem with the Department of Agriculture who ordered their destruction by incineration, initially believing that the animals had been brought into NZ. Not withstanding that the animals had been touring NZ for the last year or so; I had to work my way up the hierarchy ladder until I found someone who would agree that they could go to OM. My last contact was the Ministry of Ag Head office in Wellington. A good day passed before I could get agreement for OM to have them, being very much aware that the animals would be slowly decomposing and that the longer they were out of a freezer, the less likely we would be able to have them taxidermied. It took almost a full day of negotiations.
 I made my way to Lawrence early Friday morning. Though I left Dunedin early, I found that the circus wanted to have a sort of "funeral service" for the lions and this was to be conducted by the local minister after the afternoon performance, which from memory was at 4pm, a time frame not anticipated. By the way, I think they called themselves Circus Carlos, not Carlos Circus. There was a certain pathos about that afternoons performance, particularly as two of the performers were the children of the circus owner, two boys, one about 9, the other about 11. Their performance was one of juggling on a foot high rope which really did not work as they frequently fell off or dropped balls, but more usually both. In later years the boys became known as the notorious Harris Gang of Christchurch
.The service was a very emotional thing for the family, much wailing and tears and finally, the lions were loaded into my Ford Transit Van. I might say that at this stage the smell from them was extraordinary, (carnivores start to decompose very quickly, they had been covered in a tarpaulin all day in the sun). With all windows open, I drove out of Lawrence and about 20 minutes out of Lawrence as I was following a Newman's bus, it went off the road and ran into a ditch (blown front tyre). I pulled over and approached the driver to offer help. The driver had quite a bad cut on his leg, insisted that he was fine, but could a couple of the ladies sit in my car (one was quite hysterical).
I then said that was OK, but I had a couple of lions in the back! All the chatter and talk on the bus stopped immediately, and I then qualified my comment by saying that they were dead. The bus was full of what appeared to be American Tourists and it emptied in a flash-much to the relief of the
driver. Somewhere in the States there will be hundreds of mostly Polaroid images of the passengers as they posed for countless photographs of two dead lions in the back of my van. I do recall how delighted the bus driver was as this kept the passengers occupied until a relief bus arrived and he sort of hinted that this was all part of the tour experience and that they would not be charged extra.
It was late dusk almost dark by the time I got to the Museum, much later than I had hoped. I had arranged with Polarcold on Portsmouth Drive to hold the animals in their freezer, but they and the museum staff had all finished for the day. I slid the animals out of the van in what was then the courtyard at the back of the museum and left them on the ground overnight. Problem was how to get them to the freezer. At that time I was a qualified kayak instructor and we used to invade Moana Pool every Saturday morning and we had the pool to ourselves until about 7.30. I then arranged for a number of our club members to come to the museum after our session was finished and lift the lions onto a trailer so that I could get them to the freezer. The point of this story was that I asked them to be very careful and not to grab the lions by their fur, for it was already releasing. If you look carefully on the right shoulder of Sultan, you may notice a significant gap, somewhat taxidermied over where Dr David Pilditch, an intensive care specialist at Dunedin Hospital promptly grabbed Sultan by the mane. Among other things, this gap in his mane dictated the orientation of Sultan when we did the diorama of the lions when they were first displayed. Finally, if you wish to complete this story, you will notice that a piece of the bottom part of the case door that housed Sonia and Sultan in the Animal Attic has a piece chiselled out of it. It was only by chiselling that piece out that we were able to fit Sonia in to the limited display area. I rather suspect that that missing piece will puzzle display staff to come.
Finally, the lions were responsible for a minor accident in Christchurch when I went to pick them up after being taxidermied. The only way they could fit in the van was to have Sultans head projecting part way over the front passengers seat. I am fairly sure that the nose to tail, (quite minor) at the Riccarton traffic lights was due to the lady drivers look of horror as she pulled up alongside me. The message I got from the top was that If I wanted to display the lions at the museum, then it was my responsibility to raise the money to have them taxidermied. There was of course keen competition between a number of service clubs to raise the money to get them stuffed, the Lions club among them, who missed out to another service club. At the time this happened I was the Assistant Director of the Otago Museum and in the absence of the Director made an executive decision to acquire the lions for the Museum. When the Director returned to the museum a week or so later his only comment was "Thank God they were not bloody elephants"!.


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