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August 5, 2020

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Taxidermists give new life to ‘old fellows’

FOR 102-year-old Lin Youyu, the longer-than-usual plum rain season this year is more worrisome than any infirmities of old age.

Lin, a retired science teacher, was concerned that animal specimens he collected more than 60 years ago will succumb to mold and insect infestation amid the heat and humidity. He calls the specimens his “old fellows.”

“Are they all right?” he asked every day.

To the rescue came experts from the Shanghai Natural History Museum. They are taking some of his specimens back to the museum today for repair and restoration. Come the autumn semester, students will once again learn from the “old fellows.”

“That would be great!” Lin said when he heard the news. “Thank you very much.”

Lin moved from neighboring Suzhou to Shanghai in 1949, where he became a science teacher at the Yimiao District Central Primary School, now the Shanghai Experimental Primary School in Huangpu District.

“Back then, I stayed in the dorm at school,” he said. “On rest days, I drew wall charts and made animal specimens. I wanted to teach my students about the natural world in a more direct way. None of my fellow teachers knew how to make specimens, so I turned to books for help.”

Though the decades have passed, Lin still remembers what he learned.

“To make a specimen of a mammal, you peel off the skin, refill the carcass with stuffing materials and sew it up,” he explained. “Fish should be kept in jars of preservative liquids, while insects are fixed on boards and put in boxes.”

He added, “My students would bring their dead pets to me, and I also bought dead animals from wet markets.”

In his life, Lin has produced more than 1,300 specimens. More than a dozen that are still preserved include a duck, goat, pheasant and monkey.

“Our school moved several times, but we didn’t throw out Lin’s specimens,” said the school’s current science teacher Zhang Yu. “We have tried our best to preserve them,”

He added, “We dehumidify the air and keep a constant temperature in the science lab. We put desiccants and insect-resist agents in glass display cabinets. After the plum rain season is over, we give the specimens a sun bath.”

But despite the school’s heroic efforts, some specimens still spilt, cracked or leaked.

“A specimen of a rabbit was damaged, which tugged at our heartstrings,” Zhang said.

After hearing news of the specimens’ plight, the museum’s experts visited the school recently to examine them.

Zhang Tangming, the museum’s taxidermist, carefully checked every part of the specimens. The results came as a complete surprise.

“They were made very well, even from a professional perspective,” he said. “To make such a good specimen would take me at least two weeks. Lin was a professional. I can imagine how much time he devoted to making these specimens.”

Zhang added, “Most of them have been well preserved. I found no mites or mold. There is just some dust but little damage. Just look at this monkey’s face. It was painted and over time, the colors faded. That duck has a broken neck, and its feathers have started to fall off.”

Zhang said they will take damaged specimens back to the museum to repair and restore them before returning them to the school.

“Once repaired, they will be able to serve as learning tools for several more decades,” Zhang said. “These specimens are precious. It’s not just about their value but also that they reflect Lin’s devotion and passion.”

School headmaster Yang Rong said, “We will keep these specimens forever. They are our treasure. They can remind today’s young teachers of why they become teachers.”

Lin was a pioneer in promoting science education, according to Qin Jizhong, a former science teacher at the Huangpu District Institute of Education.

In the early 1950s, schools gave science lessons to children in fifth or sixth grade. Lin called for the education to be extended to younger children. His proposal was accepted by education authorities, but textbooks were lacking.

To satisfy the curiosity of children about everything in the natural world, from astronomy to geography, Lin took it upon himself to compile textbooks.

Over years, he turned out more than 30 books to teach children science. He also made teaching aids and organized tours to do meteorological observations as the school’s first extracurricular class.

“Today, science teachers are still using his textbooks and teaching aids,” Qin said.


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