Whoever designed the zoology lab hadn't had aesthetics in mind. The lab tables, big black rectangles of stone on plain wooden cabinets, are gracelessly utilitarian. The sinks between the tables are stained gray from the hard water and lab chemicals. The drains stink from the residue of all creatures, great and small and dead.
I sit down on the hard wooden stool at my table and wait for the professor to arrive. The only color in the room comes from the anatomy charts on the walls and from the plastic models in the glass cases along the walls. Mounted skeletons of small animals sit atop the cabinets.
I spot the skeleton of a small dog wired to a plank, its tail up and jaws open as if it is barking at something. I think it might have been a terrier, and I think of the little terrier/chihuahua mix my mother had when I was a child. She would take him with us when we went to the grocery store because he liked car rides. She always made me wait in the car with the dog. "Scruffy's small, and somebody might steal him and sell him to a lab," she'd say. Since then, I've found out that Scruffy, who had bad knees and worse eyes, was in little danger of dognapping. Beagles are the preferred laboratory dog because they have roughly the same lung capacity as humans and are usually easy to handle.
The professor and his graduate assistant come in lugging big white plastic buckets. I think of the huge lard buckets that warehouse groceries sell. The professor pries open one bucket with a screwdriver and reminds us that today is the dogfish dissection day.
I have never liked dissections in general, but the dogfish sounds better than some of the alternatives. The anatomy students next door are dissecting cats.
I saw the specimens out in the hall yesterday. The cats were rowed like sardines inside huge transparent plastic bags. I noticed one, a skinny mackerel tabby whose fur pattern reminded me of my cat Uno. I stood there for a moment, looking at the tabby's chemical-clouded eyes and matted, slimy fur and couldn't help but wonder where it had come from. Had it been a stray, rescued from a slow death of disease and starvation by a quick death at the hands of Carolina Biological? Or had it been a child's pet that had wandered away and been trapped by Animal Control? I stared at the pitiful corpses in the bags, remembering Uno patting my leg with his paw, green eyes bright, mewing softly as he begged for a dish of milk. I remembered him curled up in my lap, his fur smelling of dust and leaves, his purr loud and warm. I had to turn away and hurry to the ladies' room when I realized I was going to cry and embarrass myself.
The professor tells us to bring our dissecting trays up to the front table so that we can get a dogfish. I get my battered aluminum tray out of a drawer and stand in line. The tray is just like a small baking pan, except that the bottom is lined with black wax so that pins will stick.
The professor pulls a dogfish out of the bucket with a pair of barbecue tongs and lays it across my tray. The ugly little shark's snout and the tip of its tail stick out over the ends of the tray. The shark is a uniform, unnatural gray and it stinks of plastic.
The professor told us earlier that the school is no longer purchasing formalin-preserved specimens because formaldehyde is a carcinogen. I don't know what this new preservative is, but it is a welcome change. The dead
fish smell of formaldehyde always nauseated me more than the actual dissection.
I take the dogfish back to the table and get out my lab manual and dissecting kit. I stare down at the shark, briefly imagining it swimming through seaweed in a warm ocean, a cold-blooded predator, yes, but still alive and therefore beautiful. I think that this is the irony of the laboratory; I am studying to become a biologist because I love living creatures, so I end up spending most of my time with the dead and dismembered.
I pull out my scalpel and a probe. The lab manual says I'm supposed to cut open the belly and locate the spiral valve of the stomach. Sharks do not inspire the same feelings in me as cats, but still, I hesitate, feeling uncomfortable. I know that I am a sentimental, squeamish fool; millions of creatures die every day in ways that are much less pleasant than ending up as a dissection specimen. Violent death is a rule of nature.
But in the back of my mind, I know that if I ever visited a slaughterhouse to watch the men kill steers and hogs, I would never touch meat again. And since I love T-bone steaks and hamburgers, I will never go.
I roll the dogfish onto its back. It is as stiff as if it really was made of plastic, and the plastic smell makes my eyes water. Its color is so unlike a living thing that I can believe that it is not real, that it is just another plastic model made by Carolina Biological.
The shark is a doll, a plastic doll. That's what I keep telling myself as I cut into the gray flesh.