They are Germany’s most famous stuffed animals, at least for Americans. A snowy owl and a wildcat lurk in the taxidermy display cases of the Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany. They’re renowned because Mark Twain wrote about them in A Tramp Abroad. And every year, dozens of tourists enter the museum, book in hand, with just one goal. They want to see the owl and the wildcat.
Mark Twain in Hirschhorn
Twain visited Germany in 1878 while he was writing Huckleberry Finn. While living in Heidelberg, he took a trip along the Neckar River and stopped at Hirschhorn to spend the night of August 9, 1878. It was a night to remember.
“We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three miles, and reached ‘the Naturalist Tavern’ in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror. I can never forget that night.”
The Naturalist Tavern: An Inn Full of Animals
Carl Langbein, a hobby biologist, ran the Naturalist Tavern. It contained a menagerie of taxidermically prepared animals. After the inn closed down in the 20th century, the animals found a new home next door in the Langbein Museum, where you can still see them today.
“ ‘The Naturalist Tavern’ was not a meaningless name; for all the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural and eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.”
A Crouching Cat
But at least Twain could sleep. His travelling companion had it worse:
“But young Z. did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aims straight at him. It made Z. uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes, but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at him, — which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won, that time.”
This was Europe’s wildcat, felis silvestris, somewhat larger than a housecat. That busy tail with three bold black stripes is one of the field marks for this species.
The Warbler Nobody Noticed
I wouldn’t describe Longbein’s cat as crouching (okay, Twain was known to exaggerate at times), but maybe it gave that impression in the moonlight. But there would have been no reason for Z. to fear: the cat had already found its prey. The taxidermist had prepared it with a male blackcap warbler in its mouth. Poor Z. probably never noticed the small, gray bird in the darkness of his room, and if he had, he might have been able to sleep more easily, knowing the cat had already found its meal for the night.
Have you ever had an animal keep you up at night?
Literature on point:
All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)
Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)
Der deutsche Mississippi, Welt am Sonntag
Reichtum der Region, Echo online