Coast to Mountains 1960s -
Cowan and Blue Whale reconstruction, Victoria
Back in the menagerie of academia, Cowan’s administrative and graduate supervision load had tripled. When he started at UBC in 1940, not one province in Canada had a core biological staff for wildlife management. By the mid-’50s, two-thirds of the provinces had wildlife biologists and most of them were Cowan’s graduates. Demands for his time as a popular lecturer were also exploding. Soon after returning from Scotland, he reported first to his base – the men on the ground in the wildlife profession – on his findings from Europe. His lecture outlined the limitations of privatized models that relied exclusively on the farming of game animals and eliminated natural ecosystems. He pointed out that legislators had failed to protect wild birds flying between countries. As he observed about a troubled post-war Europe, ”They cannot get together on anything else, so you would hardly expect them to get together on waterfowl.”96
In an address to the same group in 1955, he warned of the impacts of hydrocarbons, DDT amongst them. Like Spencer and Buckell’s warnings ten years earlier, Cowan told his audience that these chemicals are as “capable of profoundly altering the environment more rapidly, thoroughly and insidiously than ever before,” and that the corporations or “rival chemical concerns [are] so strong that demand can be created before sufficient time has been allowed for proper appraisal.” In a more personal plea to North American scientists, including the ‘B’, he had this to say during the winter solstice of 1955, when he was made head of the Wildlife Society:
To gain support for our cause we have emphasized the economic values it represents and have soft-pedalled the great intangible forces of recreating the human soul, because we have not known how to talk about them in words of mutual understanding. We have stood tongue-tied in the presence of the dollar.98
[Final paragraph]….In March 2010, at the invitation of Ann Schau, an old friend and former student, Margaret Fisher, took Cowan to visit the reconstruction of a Blue Whale being prepared for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC by conservator Mike DeRoos (a younger relative of Cowan’s nephew by marriage, Tom DeRoos) at a big warehouse in the Inner Harbour of Victoria. It was 73 years after he had flensed the Minke Whale in the same spot using boiling gasoline! The reconstruction was near completion and shortly to be shipped over to Vancouver for installation and the grand opening of the museum. The Blue Whale was the final skeleton needed to complete the Cowan tetrapod collection. Cowan spent most of the afternoon there, talking with the crew and meeting Joanne Thomson, the artist hired on the project and a friend of Ann’s, who photographed him under the giant skeleton. His niece Kathy Racey and Ann both commented on how excited he was to see the Blue Whale. Cowan remarked, “Even after all this time, it was endlessly fascinating.”99
He had always wanted a Blue Whale specimen for a museum collection. British Columbia boasts the smallest mammal in the world and the largest, and having the two skeletons side by side is an incomparable lesson in evolution, not to mention the biodiversity that BC offers. He had collected the smallest Pygmy Shrew in Ootsa for the collection, but there had never been an opportunity for a Blue Whale. A 1945 newspaper article, describing him as “Dr. (Bring ’em back) Cowan,” had quoted him as saying, “The smallest creature, about an inch and a half long, is a pigmy [sic] shrew, like a midget packrat. The largest, which space does not permit to display at UBC, is a sulphur-bottomed whale that runs around 110 feet long and weighs a ton per foot.”100
Viewing the Blue Whale reconstruction would be his last major outing. Ian McTaggart Cowan died of pneumonia three weeks later, on April 18, surrounded by his family, two months short of his 100th birthday. He would miss two grand celebrations: the opening of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, and his 100th birthday party at the Lieutenant Governor’s house. If Cowan were to have had a regret, it might be that he was denied these last two opportunities to don his ceremonial plumage and enthuse with an audience about how “fascinating” this world is.
96 Cowan, “Observations on Wildlife Conservation and Management in Britain and Norden,” 23.
97 Cowan, “Chemical Sprays and Their Relation to Wildlife” Proceedings of the Ninth Annual BC Game Convention: May 25-28, 1955 [first page of unpaginated article] (Victoria: Queen’s Printer, 1955).
98 Cowan, “The Challenge We Take,” 669.
99 Kathy Racey, interview, April 18, 2014.
100 Vancouver Sun, “UBC Museum Well Stuffed But Hasn’t Even One Whale,” September 29, 1945, 2.
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