Like most unique items, the albino muskrat at the museum has its own special story that adds to its uniqueness.
This albino muskrat first belonged to a young man named Ray Shannon of Marietta, who, even after 40 years, remembers his albino muskrat like it was yesterday. Ray Shannon recalls, “It was 1968, and I was working at Perardi Fur and Wool in Farmington, I was a senior in high school. And one day a trapper came in with three albino muskrats. I knew right away I wanted one, because I knew they were rare, and so I asked if I could buy one and I took it home.”
Shannon took his very special muskrat over to an area taxidermist by the name of Oren McGinnis, with plans to have the animal mounted. However, certain events got in the way for Shannon and his muskrat. Before he knew it, Shannon had been drafted and was on his way to Vietnam. The small white muskrat was left behind at the taxidermy shop.
Luckily, Shannon returned from Vietnam after his tour of duty. He thought his muskrat was long gone, but in 1972, he got a phone call from McGinnis, the taxidermist.
Shannon recalls, “Oren was on the phone and he says, do you still want me to stuff your albino muskrat or what?” It turns out McGinnis had carefully kept the muskrat packed away in a freezer while Shannon was in Vietnam. The taxidermist and the muskrat had been hopefully awaiting the soldier’s return from war. Of course, Shannon said yes, he wanted his muskrat stuffed, so McGinnis did what taxidermists do and the creature was forever preserved and mounted. When Shannon got his muskrat home, he put it on his mantel in a place of honor. And so it seems that would be the end of the muskrat’s story, but it is not.
About seven years later, around 1979, Shannon got a phone call from his good friend, Ed Whittier of Bushnell. Whittier owned a well-known fur and trap business in Bushnell. Whittier bought furs from trappers in the region and then sold the furs to wholesalers. Shannon worked in the fur industry and was a trapper. He was friends with Whittier and had sold furs to him. Whittier knew about Shannon’s rare albino muskrat.
Whittier phoned Shannon because he was planning to donate his extensive trapping collection to the Western Illinois Museum. Whittier asked Shannon if he would be willing to donate his muskrat to be a part of the hunting and trapping collection at the museum. Whittier realized the specialness of the creature, and thought it would be an asset to the collection as well as being preserved by the museum.
Shannon realized that a museum was the proper place to house this distinctive animal; the museum would be a place where others could see it. Shannon agreed to Whittier’s proposal and the muskrat along with Whittier trapping collection were donated to the museum. These artifacts were part of hunting and trapping display at the museum that at the time was housed at Western Illinois University.
For nearly thirty years, the albino muskrat has been part of the museum’s collection. It is strange story of a young man who spied this unique white creature that was frozen in storage, saved for a soldier sent far away, to then being donated and becoming part of a museum’s collection–this little albino muskrat has had an eventful life after death. Now, safely protected and preserved, the muskrat adds another chapter to its life story, as it lives on, to serve an educational purpose for future generations.
The albino muskrat stands approximately ten inches tall on a wooden base twelve inches long and approximately six inches wide. Mounted standing up, the muskrat rests on its rear haunches, its forepaws reaching out to a tree trunk about eight and half inches tall. This mounting shows a very typical muskrat stance. The muskrat has a habit of standing upright on shore, using its tail as a third leg, like a tripod. When they walk their long tail drags on the ground making their trail easy to follow.
Muskrats are a semi-aquatic rodent; they are great swimmers, living near rivers, lakes and ponds. They live in burrows along the water’s edge sometimes building lodges, similar to beavers.
Muskrats usually have glossy, brown fur. The fur has two layers; this denseness protects them from cold water and makes the fur warm. In the early 20th century, muskrat fur was an important part of the fur industry. Muskrat fur was trimmed, dyed, and sold under the name, “Hudson seal” fur.
Albinism is the condition that causes a creature to become an albino; caused by a recessive genes inherited from both the animal’s parents. Almost any type of animal can display albinism, from a rodent like a muskrat, to snakes, fish, and even cockroaches. The identifiable physical traits of an albino are cause by a complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, fur and eyes. This is due to the absence of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin. The eyes of an albino animal look red because the color of the red blood cells in the underlying blood vessels in the retina show through where there is no pigment to conceal it.
Researchers have determined that albinism occurs once out of every 10,000 mammal births. Albinos are uncommon, but not extremely rare. In the wild, an albino animal is often at a great disadvantage; they lack protective camouflage and cannot conceal themselves from predators. Albinos stand out from their surroundings and are easy prey. For this reason, albino animals often do not live very long. The muskrat on display met its fate at the end of the trap line, but luckily, for museum visitors, the muskrat now resides at the museum where it can be seen and appreciated.
From an essay by Heather Munro