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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2013

Future Focus: Arctic expedition in 1963 benefits students today

The Charles R. Conner Museum of Natural History received a highly unusual gift last year: a 10-foot-long polar bearskin rug.

The story of how it came to Pullman began in 1963 when Dr. A.J. Wagner of Tucson, Arizona, went on an Arctic big game expedition. It was so unusual that the local paper carried a special story on Wagner and his two companions, detailing the pedigree of their hunting guide and the caliber of rifles carried by the trio.

Wagner returned with a handsome bearskin mounted on striking black and red felt and proudly displayed it at his home. His granddaughter, Susie Jeffery, recalls playing on the rug as a child, toying with the fake teeth and leaning back against the head to read or watch TV.

Two of the museum's bearskin rugs: Wagner's polar bear (left) and a grizzly.
Two of the museum’s bearskin rugs: Wagner’s polar bear (left) and a grizzly.

In the late 1990s, after both Wagner and his wife had passed away, the rug was hung on the wall of the family cabin outside Tucson. There it remained until the turn of the century when a cousin asked if she could display it in her home in Vail, Colorado. It was a fortuitous move for the polar bear as the family cabin and all of its contents were destroyed in 2003 by a major wildfire in the region.

Jeffery inherited the polar bearskin several years later, convinced by her then-seven-year-old son that it would look good on his bedroom wall. She brought it north when she and her family moved to Moscow in 2007, but the rug stayed in storage. With no hunting aficionados in the family, she was at a loss of what to do with such an unusual item.

According to the Endangered Species Act and an international agreement on marine mammals, polar bearskins and other items may not be sold or imported into the United States unless they were obtained before 1972. Jeffery’s bearskin rug fit that criteria, but she could not find an interested party. When she called the Palouse Discovery Center, they recommended she contact the WSU Conner Museum.

“We never expected to be able to add a polar bearskin to our collection,” said Kelly Cassidy, curator for the museum, “Due to the arid conditions for the majority of its life, the rug is in good shape and is a valuable addition to the museum.”

Jeffery also provided copies of photos, receipts, and a 16mm film from her grandfather’s trip that pinpoint the location and duration of the expedition.

The rug made its WSU debut in Daniela Monk’s mammology class last semester. During a lesson on bears and seals, the polar bearskin, a grizzly bearskin, and a brown bearskin were brought into the lab so students could see and touch the specimens as they compared the similarities and differences of these related mammals.

Jeffery, now a Pullman resident, and her extended family are pleased that the majestic white bear has found a permanent home where it can serve as a resource for education and research for years to come.