[monkeywire] Reunion With a Childhood Bully, Taxidermied

Kiki Yablon kyablon at chicagoreader.com
Fri Jun 5 13:57:57 EDT 2009


(there's video taken in the 30s at this link too)

Reunion With a Childhood Bully, Taxidermied

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

photo: Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old 
bête noire, Meshie, in a glass case at the 
American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

Published: June 5, 2009

You never forget the rival who cast a shadow over 
your childhood, monopolizing your father’s love 
and attention, clearly preferred. This is 
especially true if she has bitten your hand so 
deeply that nearly 80 years later, a scar is still there.

Hers is a face you remember, and so it is that 
Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old bête 
noire, Meshie ­ in a glass case at the American 
Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, even if 
her only identification is a sign that says 
“Chimpanzee troglodytes.” “There she is, that’s 
her,” Mr. Raven says, walking as quickly as a guy 
with an arthritic hip can toward a thoughtful 
looking, taxidermied chimp, sitting with its legs 
crossed, it’s handlike feet, large and leathery.

How does Mr. Raven know it’s her?

“How do I know you’re you?” Mr. Raven says. “I recognize the details.”

He studies Meshie, recalling a previous exhibit 
that included a picture of her playing with his 
older sister, Jane; he imitates, with a bit of an 
edge, Meshie’s demanding, grunting, Uuuh-wooo! 
uh-awooo! yelp. Mr. Raven has said that his 
father’s devotion to Meshie at the expense of his 
family caused great heartache. But standing 
beside the chimp, whom he has seen now and then 
at the museum over the years, he shows none of 
the emotion one might expect at the sight of an enemy vanquished.

“I’ve mellowed,” he says.

The news stirs up memories. When a pet chimp 
attacked a Connecticut woman early this year, 
tearing off much of her face and leaving her 
blind, Mr. Raven, who had never spoken to 
reporters of his life with a chimp so famous that 
she got an obituary, was compelled to write to a 
reporter. His wife’s poor health prevented him 
from coming in from his home in Brick, N.J., 
until this week, when he arrived at The Times 
accompanied by his son in law, Andrew Haas, and 
his 10-year-old grandson, George.

Mr. Raven’s father, Henry Cushier Raven, a 
curator at the Museum of Natural History, was a 
famous man whose life made headlines. “Expedition 
to Hunt Gorillas In Africa” read one, in this 
newspaper, when he set sail in May 1929.

Two years later, when Mr. Raven returned with an 
orphaned female chimp named Meshie and seemingly 
made it a member of his household in Baldwin on 
Long Island, that made news, too. He took 
photographs and home movies of Meshie as she 
snuggled between the Raven children in bed; 
having a tea party with them; even holding Mary, 
the youngest, when she was a few months old. A 
Christmas card showed Meshie, in boots, hauling 
Jane and Harry on a sled through the snow. 
Sometimes Henry Raven took Meshie to work at the 
museum, where she had lunch with him. Magazine 
stories of the time reported that the children considered Meshie a sibling.

All of this still drives Harry Raven, a polite, 
mild-mannered man, a little crazy. Meshie was 
never considered a sibling, he says. She was cute 
and nonthreatening when his father first brought 
her home ­ he has a memory of her dozing in an 
apple crate in the basement ­ but as soon as she 
grew up she was strong and unpredictable. She 
never slept in a bed ­ she was kept in a cage in 
the basement or backyard. The only time she 
played with him and his sister was when his 
father was shooting movies. When something went 
wrong ­ like the time Meshie bit Harry on the 
finger because he didn’t give her an orange 
quickly enough ­ the scene was cut.

His father he remembers as a harsh, domineering 
man, who punished his son with a razor strop, 
left his family for long periods to go exploring, 
and was affectionate only with the chimp.

“I can’t think of him ever giving anybody a hug, 
except Meshie,” Mr. Raven said this week during a 
visit to The New York Times with his son in law 
and grandson before visiting the Museum of 
Natural History. “I used to go down the street 
and wait for him to get off the commuter bus. I 
would run down to give him a hug, he would lean 
down and I would kiss him on the cheek, but he would never kiss me.”

As the chimp became older, she escaped more 
often, Mr. Raven recalls. When his mother was 
pregnant with her fourth child and his father 
announced he was going to leave on yet another 
expedition, his mother burst into tears and said she could no longer take it.

In 1934, Meshie was shipped to the Brookfield Zoo 
in Chicago. After she died in 1937, after giving 
birth, Henry Raven had her sent back to the 
Museum of Natural History and preserved. He died 
seven years later, at age 54. The Meshie story, 
as far as Harry Raven was concerned, was over. He 
kept no pictures of her in the house, although he 
does say that after he married and was living in 
Chicago he went to see Mike, the chimpanzee who impregnated Meshie.

Why did he do that?

“Just curious.”

It’s time to visit the museum. Meshie means 
nothing to him ­ it’s just another museum 
exhibit, Mr. Raven says. Still the museum 
entrance, with the dinosaur bones of Barosaurus 
defending her young, sets him remembering: His 
father’s office in one of the great round towers; 
a story about the way his father, facing a 
charging gorilla, told the African bearers to 
hold their spears, in order not to damage the 
hide; the way, as a father of two daughters, he tried not to be his father.

“There was cruelty my father inflicted not just 
on me, on Meshie,” Mr. Raven says. “In the movie 
it shows Meshie chained and there is a box. He’s 
motioning her to go to the box and she senses 
something’s wrong with that box ­ she doesn’t 
want to have anything to do with it. Well, he was 
kind of a strong personality; you had to do what 
he wanted. So she went to the box and put the 
cover up, and there was a snake, and he made her 
go back. She was obviously frightened and he knew 
that she was afraid, so why do that except to 
show her anxiety?” Does he think, now, that it 
was Meshie who made his childhood unhappy, or was his father responsible?

“Not so much Meshie, it was my father,” says Mr. 
Raven, who has survived all his siblings. “Meshie 
caused familial disruption. She was a presence. 
It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t really do 
anything. It was the fact that my father paid 
attention to her at the expense of his family. 
She was just a presence, but my father ­ he was 
just not a good father. He was not a good father.”

Then, with a reporter and photographer trailing, he heads upstairs to the chimp.

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