Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 5: Vancouver 1927

You couldn’t just go out with a pair of field glasses and see the things. You had to really get at it and study them.

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

In 1927 Cowan joined the “serious” students and collectors of birds, mammals and insects who had broken off from the Vancouver Natural History Society and formed the Burrard Field-Naturalists. They met at the provincial museum in the old Carnegie Building at Main and Hastings. Probably it was Munro who tipped off the boy about the brand new group and that there was going to be a man called Kenneth Racey (another member of the ‘B’) giving a talk on the small mammals of British Columbia. The lecture that night covered the landscapes Racey had been trekking through and the wide variety of small mammals he had been trapping, preparing and identifying for the national and provincial museums. Racey was presenting findings on his mammal work from around the coast, into the dry interior around Kamloops and up Howe Sound, a region which he and Cowan would write up in a paper seven years later.

Ian McTaggart Cowan and Kenneth Racey (1931)

Entranced by the lecture, Cowan went up to Racey and received an invitation to the Racey household at 1st Avenue and Point Grey in Vancouver. Racey took him up to his attic in which there were three rooms full of “beautifully prepared specimens.” There was no looking back for Cowan. Amongst Racey’s artifacts was also an extensive bird collection on which he had published scientific articles, providing the ornithological authority for Cowan. Kenneth Racey immediately took the young Cowan under his ornithological wing. The Racey family had similar interests and background to the Cowans. Although a businessman, Racey came from an old Montreal medical family with connections to Edinburgh and naturalist roots. His great-grandfather John Racey had studied at Edinburgh University in 1829 taking courses in botany and what was then called natural philosophy, besides attending lectures on medical subjects. Cowan’s ancestor John Hutton Balfour was doing botany and medicine at Edinburgh at exactly the same time, between 1824 and 1832.

Cowan was adopted into the family; the Raceys’ house on 1st Avenue and their Alta Lake cabin became second homes. Racey taught the young Cowan all the finer arts of taxonomy and museum collecting, including the preparation of specimens to the highest standards. Specimen collecting perforce involved killing the animal, but rarely if ever was it described as such. Instead, euphemisms such as “taken” or “secured” were used. The relationship a collector had with his specimens was complex and scientific, but also intimate, as it didn’t end with the killing or the eating. What ensued was the laborious and detailed work of preparing the specimens. This had to be attended to quickly after the kill to prevent decay and ensure the specimen stayed in top condition.

The relationship a collector had with his specimens was complex and scientific, but also intimate, as it didn’t end with the killing or the eating. What ensued was the laborious and detailed work of preparing the specimens.

– Briony Penn

The collector’s specimen kit looks like the outfit of an early medic crossed with that of a fly-fisher: lots of scissors, both straight and curved, forceps, scalpels, paintbrush, callipers, scales, dissecting probes, hooks, bottles of powdered borax and alum, bone-crunching tools, string, air pumps, hypodermics, needles and thread, tape measures, pen and ink, wooden sticks and pins for mounting, dust shot, charcoal, canvas bags full of shot, cotton and sawdust, and labels preprinted with the names of the institutions for whom the collector was working.

Snowshoe hare

At the same time as preparing the specimens, the biologists would typically inspect the animal for infestations, toxicological damage, irregular features and disease. They would look through the intestines, inspect what it had been eating and whether it had intestinal worms. They would also explore the reproductive organs and determine the stage of reproduction, and look at the teeth and horns for signs of illness. At the end of all this work, Cowan rarely wasted an opportunity to eat the flesh if the animal was on his list of edible species. He admitted to having eaten most. After that, what remained from the field preparation could be left for the other meat eaters of the natural world. The entire experience of stalking, trapping, preparing and eating provided the field biologist with a visceral sense of the animal and its life. Working on specimens imprints the animal irrevocably with the preparer. Cowan could recall specimens that he had prepared 75 years earlier, remembering the species, the sex, even measurements like one particular pack rat’s record long tail.

Over the years, Cowan was the first to identify and draw attention to the pressures that collectors put on already threatened populations. He was part of the new generation of scientists that challenged the old collectors. Conversely, there was no argument amongst any of them that the impacts of habitat destruction vastly outweighed pressures from collectors. Cowan staunchly advocated the continuing role of field biologist– taxonomists monitoring what was happening on the ground, even with the passing of the need for collecting. “That is one of my biggest worries, that we don’t have people out there.” Cowan was highly supportive of a new hybrid type of science where the researcher still went out in the field to observe but collected scat and hair for DNA instead of specimens.

< Chapter 4: Vancouver 1925-1927 Chapter 6: Alta Lake 1928 >